The past is always with us, but it’s really always with politicians. Once you put yourself up for office, and particularly national office, everybody and his brother is going to start digging into your past to see what kind of “dirt” they can find. It’s true now, and it was true when Thomas Jefferson was running for president in the late eighteenth century. Jefferson had had an eventful, largely public life, so there was a lot of “material” to be mined by his foes. Most of the accusations “didn’t stick,” but one that did was that he was a coward. Jefferson was the governor of Virginia during a good portion of the Revolutionary War and, as such, charged with defending the place (and the Revolution) against the British. As Michael Kranish shows in his terrific book Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War (Oxford UP, 2010), he had a rough time of it. Jefferson had no military experience, didn’t like “standing” armies, and received only tepid support from his continental allies. The British invaded, invaded, and invaded again. Jefferson fled, fled, and fled again. What was he supposed to do? His political opponents didn’t care if he had no choice but to run or not—the fact that he didn’t stand and fight was enough to prove he was a “coward.” This charge wounded Jefferson deeply and he fought it for much of his life.
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