Thomas wasn’t sure what to think when George Washington, perhaps the most reticent member of Virginia's House of Burgesses, cornered him after a session.
“Mr. Jefferson, sir,” he said gravely. “I have, hmm. A personal matter of some importance to discuss with you, if you will oblige me.”
Thomas suspected a trap. He was still new to the House, to politics, and did not wish to be drawn into any factions that could compromise his goals. And Washington was not the kind of man who sought out idle chit-chat. Nor was Thomas, really. Therefore, Washington must want something.
But what could he want from Thomas? Thomas wasn’t anyone to him, not yet. Washington and his wife were among the richest landowners in Virginia. They had any number of other connections upon whom they could call for personal favors.
He didn’t know Washington very well, but what he did know was that the man didn’t speak where there was no need, nor make decisions rashly. So Thomas bowed. “Of course, sir.”
When they removed to somewhere private, Washington cleared his throat, looking more ill at ease than Thomas had yet seen him. “You see, sir, I would seek your advice on a legal matter, which I believe may be relevant to your expertise.”
Thomas felt at once on solid ground. Washington needed a lawyer, and Thomas needed clients. A much more straightforward exchange than he’d anticipated. “Well, I’d be glad to hear the details of your case, and see what I can do for you.”
“I would be much obliged to you, sir, thank you for your time…”
But before Thomas could suggest they both sit down, a little boy—Christ, where had he come from?—darted out in front of Washington. “Mr. Jefferson,” he said, thrusting out his hand for Thomas to shake. “Alexander Hamilton.”
“As I was about to say,” Washington said dryly, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder in restraint, “I would like you to meet my son, Alexander, who needs to be reminded of his manners. Alex, this is…”
“Thomas Jefferson of Monticello. I know who you are. You do land cases, you’re really good. He’s really good, Colonel, I told you…I’ve read his arguments, they have style, you know? So many lawyers don’t even bother.”
Thomas, charmed, shook the boy’s hand. “Thank you, I’m glad you think so,” he said with a smile, filing that use of Colonel away to consider later. That was interesting.
“Which is why you’re the perfect person to tell Colonel Washington that what he seeks is a fool’s errand,” the boy said.
Thomas blinked. His eyes moved from the man to the boy—Washington composed, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening, and Hamilton shifting from one foot to the other, unable to keep still.
Washington frowned, but his hand remained gentle on the boy’s shoulder, certainly more gentle than Thomas’s father’s grip would have been had he spoken out of turn in such a manner. “Alexander, I told you you could come with me if you behaved respectfully. Are you doing that?”
“I’m being perfectly respectful, it’s just that you’re wrong,” said the boy earnestly. “Mr. Jefferson, tell him he’s wrong.”
Thomas had a feeling they would be here all day if he didn’t move this along, but he couldn’t help being amused. “I’d be glad to, Master Hamilton. What’s he wrong about?”
“I keep telling him, sir, the law is based on precedent, upon what came before, and you can’t just…”
Washington had evidently had enough of this. “I want to make my son legitimate, sir. I want him to be my heir-at-law, not just by my preference, and I want him to carry my name. How do I do that?”
Oh. Oh, this had just gotten much more interesting. Everyone knew about the scandal of this boy, of course. Thomas had read the pamphlet a few months back, and had been surprised that the man who wrote it seemed so measured and thoughtful, and that he had managed to weather the storm it inflicted upon his reputation mostly intact. Thomas had thought, if Washington was quiet about it, he might pass through unscathed.
Evidently the good colonel had no intention of being quiet. “Your son is correct, sir, that there is no provision in Virginia law for the formal adoption of an illegitimate child,” said Thomas. But Washington knew that already. He had to. So what did he really want?
“See, I told you,” Alexander said. “Why wouldn’t you just listen to me when I said so, sir?”
“Alexander Washington, you will sit quietly and behave yourself for the remainder of this meeting, or you will wait for me with the carriage, and whatever you choose, when we get home we will be having a long discussion about the courtesy and restraint expected of a gentleman. Am I understood?”
The boy hadn’t introduced himself by his father’s name, but he seemed to have no trouble answering to it. “Yes, sir.”
“What’s it to be, then, young man?”
“I’ll stay here and be quiet, sir,” said the boy.
“Good,” said Washington mildly. “I’m glad. Take your seat then, please.”
Thomas didn’t know what to make of that exchange, but best not to probe just now. It might be worth it to see what he could find out about that family later, though. “Won’t you sit down as well, sir?”
Washington did. “I am aware of what provisions are, and are not, made for inheritance, Mr. Jefferson. What I would like to know is, how do we change them?”
That was presumptuous on so many levels Thomas couldn’t help but admire the man for it. “You may not need to, sir…if I may ask, is your estate entailed? If not, you can just leave it where you will, assuming your wife blesses you with no male heirs.”
Was it Thomas’s imagination, or did the boy stiffen at that? Out of the corner of his eye he saw Washington reach under the table to touch his son’s hand. “Wills are often contested, as you well know,” Washington said. “I would leave naught to chance.”
“Then I will beg your pardon for my impertinence, and inquire…do you trust your kin, sir?”
“With my life,” said Washington, without hesitation. “But with his? I would choose a more stalwart shield.”
“I have heard of it being done,” Thomas admitted. “It would take an act in the House, which would apply to him alone and set no precedent. Do you have the friends to introduce such legislation for you, and the votes to get it passed if they did?”
Washington didn’t answer at first. Thomas could almost see him running the calculations in his head, trading a favor here, pulling a lever there, watching the future game play out.
“No,” he said. “Not yet.”
Thomas had to respect that answer too. “If you are willing to pay what it would cost, sir, in influence…there would be no need to involve the courts. Your son is right; they’d likely not look upon your case with favor.”
“Mr. Jefferson, your time is valuable, so I will get right to my point. What you are about to say is that Virginia law is based on English common law, and because there is no such provision in England, there can be none here. Is that correct?”
“Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” said the boy indignantly.
“Shush, Alex. The question I would pose to you, then, sir, is this: what right do a bunch of dead Englishmen from centuries ago have to say what we Virginians can and cannot do with our land?”
Thomas had the sense he had been caught out at something. Perhaps the boy wasn’t the only one here who had read his legal writings, after all. “I would say your question was an intriguing one, sir.”
Washington’s face showed no expression. “I thought you might, Mr. Jefferson.”
“Intriguing as a hypothetical only,” Thomas said. “No one here would wish to be accused of disloyalty to the king.”
“Of course not,” said Washington. “I pay the same taxes you do. That being said, Mr. Jefferson…do I own my estate, or do I not? If so, I should be able to name whoever I please as my heir, don’t you think?”
And if not, the bargain we colonials have struck is exposed as a fraud. He hadn’t thought Washington had the stones for this. Was he really ruthless enough to use his own son as a test case for…Thomas would not allow himself to think the word revolution . Not yet.
Then he saw the fond half-smile the man gave the boy, and realized what was really going on here. Washington wasn’t using his son for revolution. He was starting a revolution for his son. “You make a compelling point,” Thomas said. “I will think on it.”
“That is all I ask, Mr. Jefferson.”
“And in turn I ask you to think on this,” Thomas said. “When it comes time for your boy to study the law, send him to me. That kind of mind deserves careful cultivation.”
“Really?” said Alexander. “Oh, no, sir, I couldn’t possibly…”
“Welcome to Virginia, kiddo,” Thomas said. “A bit of advice for free…when a friend offers to do you a favor, you take it. And I do hope we shall be friends.”
“I’ve never had a friend before,” the boy said, ducking his head. He’d just revealed entirely too much about himself. Someone would need to train him out of that.
It wasn’t until that night that Thomas realized it had taken George Washington less than an hour to maneuver Thomas into offering his illegitimate son an apprenticeship while making Thomas believe it was his own idea. He wondered if that hadn’t been his real purpose in coming, after all.
Ah, well. It was intriguing to play with someone who understood the value of a long game. Who knew what fruit this branch might bear, after all?