Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

A Blow at Virginia

The session of Congress in the fall was filled with affairs of the greatest importance. The people of Philadelphia, as, indeed, of every town and hamlet in the colonies, were aflame with excitement and expectation of the coming of—something—they knew not what.

Gunpowder had to be manufactured; salt was now so scarce as to be a luxury. In Virginia Lord Dunmore was trying to induce the slaves to run away from their masters and join his forces, promising them freedom if they did so; he was even trying to blockade Hampton Roads; worst of all, the army about Boston became smaller and smaller every day and those who were left were neither properly fed nor clothed.

Thinking over these things, Thomas Jefferson turned once again from Philadelphia toward Virginia. The air was cold and bracing and the ground hard with frost. Wrapped in a heavy great-coat, he sat and watched the drift of cloud in the east, wondering, now and then, whether he was to be caught in another snowstorm like the memorable one that had made his bride's first white winter welcome to Monticello.

At thought of her, his face grew anxious. She was not well; had not been well since baby Jane, named for the dearly-loved Jane Jefferson who had not lived to see her, had died. Tiny Martha must, of course, have grown since he saw her last in the autumn time. That was a comfort to think of. But his mother's health was also failing, and the long journey home again this time was filled with misgivings and anxious care.

"What's that ahead there?" he asked suddenly, narrowing his eyes. The negro drew rein.

"Hit looks lak a ca'iage, suh," he said. "Hm! Some traveler in trouble. Hurry on and we'll see what we can do."

When they reached the spot they found that the driver of the carriage, another negro, had cut the traces and was holding two handsome black horses by the bridles. Beside the road lay an overturned chaise. A stout gentleman dressed in dark, heavy clothing, and with a red shawl wrapped about his neck, stood looking helplessly at the wreck.

Jefferson stopped his own carriage and got out.

"Can I be of any help, sir?" he asked politely. "I see you have had an accident."

The stout man struck his hands together.

"Accident!" he exclaimed angrily, glancing at the driver. "Accident, sir! If I'd had a driver that—but there, sir, there! I forget myself when I think of it! Thank you, I don't know just what can be done—unless you care to offer me a seat."

Jefferson motioned toward his phaeton. "I was about to ask you to drive on with me, sir. Your servant can see to the horses and chaise, of course."

The stranger turned toward the negro.

"Jasper, ride on to the inn. Leave the horses there and get somebody to come back to see to the chaise. I shall drive that far with this gentleman."

The two travelers got into the carriage, driver cracked his whip, and Jefferson and the stout stranger in the woolen shawl were once more on their way along the road.

"Terrible times, sir, terrible times, these!" said the stout man, who had introduced himself as John Robinson. "The blood of the people of Norfolk cries from the very earth, sir, against the tyranny of our masters!"

"Of Norfolk!" Thomas Jefferson leaned forward suddenly. "The people of Norfolk! What awful news is this?"

John Robinson twisted in his seat to look at his companion.

"Sir!" he cried, solemnly, "I am come from a heap of ruins that, but a few days ago, was the richest and largest city of Virginia."

"Was the richest! What has happened!" Thomas Jefferson's face was pale with anxiety. "What new trouble has come upon Virginia?"

The stout passenger's lips were drawn into a grim line.

"The bombarding and burning of Norfolk, Mr. Jefferson, on New Year's Day. Nine-tenths of that beautiful city burned to the ground, and five thousand innocent persons left without shelter in the midst of the winter, sir! I saw it all, and I say to you that the day will come when savage Dunmore, who has done all man can do to ruin the colony, as well as the British who have helped him in his work, will learn that the people of these colonies can strike back!"

Thomas Jefferson, speechless, put his head down into his hands. Norfolk burned to the ground! Five thousand of his countrymen shelterless in the middle of the winter! What were George the Third and his ministers thinking of? He shrank from the thoughts that raced through his brain. He had loved old England and union with her, but how had she treated this land of his birth? He had hoped—had continued to hope—that the sane and right-minded among the English people would prevail to bring to reason those bent on the rule of ruin. But now! That King—un-English though he was—had succeeded in turning the tools of his government upon Virginia, unprotected and helpless, and had done this thing!

But little else was said between the two. Details of the destruction of Norfolk were few and, when the short story had been told, both men became grimly, bitterly silent.

When they reached the inn, the stout man got out, the two shook hands sorrowfully, and the phaeton drove onward.