Profile - Colonel Thomas Jefferson
Generally regarded as the smartest man ever to become president, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) came from a wealthy Virginia family. His grandfather, also Thomas Jefferson, was a captain in the Virginia militia. His father Peter Jefferson served as commander of the Goochland County Regiment from 1745 until his death in 1757.
As a young man Thomas Jefferson practiced law and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. On June 9, 1770, the Royal Governor General of Virginia, the Baron de Botetourt, commissioned Jefferson “Lieutenant . . . and Chief Commander of all his Majesty’s Militia, Horse and Foot,” for Albemarle County, a post which his father had earlier held. This was a largely ceremonial post, though Jefferson was required to submit annual reports to the governor on the state of the county militia, copies of which still exist. It is unclear the extent to which Jefferson took part in militia activities, or if he ever even wore a uniform. Virtually no references his service can be found among his published papers.
With the outbreak of the American Revolution in the Spring of 1775, the Royal Governor General of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, decided to forestall a Patriot uprising in the colony by dissolving the militia. Undaunted, the Patriots promptly formed their own militia, Jefferson enlisting as a private. On September 26, 1775, the Virginia Committee of Safety commissioned Jefferson as lieutenant colonel and commander of the Albemarle County Militia. He held this post until 1779, when he was elected governor of the state. Once again, the extent to which Jefferson took an active role in the militia is debatable – these were the same years that was serving in the Continental Congress, writing the Declaration of Independence and doing other important work. Nevertheless, there does survive one report which he submitted to the Committee of Safety in 1776 certifying that the Albemarle County Militia consisted of approximately 225 men organized into 16 small companies, one of them commanded by Capt. Benjamin Harrison, the grandfather and great-great-grandfather of presidents.
The lack of documentary evidence strongly suggests that Jefferson seems to have played very little active role in the militia. Certainly his actions both in the Continental Congress and later as president do not suggest that he had any serious understanding of how military forces work. As historian Ira Gruber once observed, “If Jefferson served, he didn’t learn anything from his service.”
Of course, his lack of military service is hardly noticeable, given Jefferson’s contributions to the nation in other regards. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he was the wartime governor of Virginia, served in various diplomatic posts after the war, was involved in the debate over the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, served as Secretary of State during Washington’s Administration, was vice-president during the Adams Administration, and in 1800 was elected to the first of two terms as president, serving from 1801 to 1809.
Jefferson’s administration was one of considerable muddle in military matters. The army, having temporarily been raised to some 50,000 on paper in the latter part of the Adams’ administration, for the Quasi-War with France, was virtually disbanded. The Navy managed somewhat better, due to the Barbary War (1801-1805); in fact, for part of these years the naval service actually had more men than the army, the only time in American history that has ever occurred. Almost as soon as the war ended, however, Jefferson opted for a “gunboat navy,” and pretty much laid up the fleet, despite tensions with Britain that included occasional clashes on the high seas. He did, however, avail himself of the army to organize and dispatch the Lewis and Clarke expedition.
Upon completion of his second term, in 1809, Jefferson returned to his estate at Monticello, in Virginia, and lived in relative retirement until his death. By an odd coincidence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who had both been present at the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, died on the same day, exactly 50 years later, July 4, 1826.
The president’s younger brother, Randolph, served as a private in the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War, and in 1794 was commissioned a lieutenant.
Jefferson had two legitimate daughters, through whom he has left an enormous number of descendants. Presidential grandson George Wythe Randolph was appointed a midshipman in the navy 1831, at the age of 13. He served with the fleet until he resigned in 1839, to take up law. In 1860 Randolph organized the Richmond Howitzers, a militia battery. When the Civil War broke out he adhered to the Confederacy, serving as Secretary of War for about eight months. He later commanded his battery during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, and eventually rose to became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. The president’s great-great-grandson Randolph Kean served as surgeon in the U.S. Army 1884-1924, while another rose to colonel in the Virginia National Guard. At least two of the president’s great-great-great-great grandsons served in World War I, while a great-great-great-great-granddaughter married Lucien K. Truscott, who commanded the Fifth Army in Italy in the latter part of World War II, and had a son and a grandson who also served.
Some of Jefferson’s descendants by his slave half-sister-in-law Sally Hemmings saw military service. His son Eston Hemmings, had two sons, who adopted the name Jefferson and passed for white. Bother served in the Civil War. Beverly Jefferson served three months’ in the Wisconsin militia in 1861. John Wayles Jefferson (named after his grandmother’s slave-owner father, the President’s father-in-law), served in the Western theater, and was wounded twice, at Corinth and Vicksburg, and rose to command the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers. This was the regiment that had “Old Abe,” an American bald eagle, for a mascot.