The Women Jef­fer­son Loved

HarperCollins, 464 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Vir­ginia Scharff,

I can still see my­self sit­ting in a cir­cle on a rug with my fel­low sec­ond graders, learn­ing about the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. We learned about Ge­orge Washington, with his fa­bled cherry tree and in­abil­ity to lie, and we learned about Thomas Jef­fer­son, the author of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, who was an es­pe­cially good man be­cause he had been “against slav­ery” long be­fore the war that fi­nally freed them. One boy in my class, who was par­tic­u­larly ad­vanced in his stud­ies — he kept the col­lected works of Shake­speare in his cubby — raised his hand and of­fered a coun­ter­point so shock­ing that our kind teacher’s face crum­pled into un­char­ac­ter­is­tic hos­til­ity and be­wil­der­ment.

“But Thomas Jef­fer­son owned slaves,” the boy said. “They built his big house.”

The class gasped, and the teacher hissed, “Don’t say that!”

One of the strug­gles in­her­ent in study­ing the Found­ing Fa­thers is strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween can­on­iz­ing them and de­mo­niz­ing them. The pub­lic per­sona, deeds, and ac­tions of any his­tor­i­cal fig­ure or per­son of note need to be in­tre­grated with the re­al­i­ties of a pri­vate life — the bonds of fam­ily, the se­cret thoughts and pas­sions — that round peo­ple out and make them com­plete hu­man be­ings. In

The Women Jef­fer­son Loved, Vir­ginia Scharff ex­am­ines the pro­lific let­ter-writer and re­luc­tant politician’s life by look­ing at the women to whom he was clos­est: his mother, Jane; his wife, Martha; his daugh­ters, Patsy and Polly (and, by ex­ten­sion, his grand­daugh­ters); and Sally Hem­ings, the en­slaved woman with whom Jef­fer­son had a long-term af­fair and fa­thered sev­eral chil­dren. Jef­fer­son came to own Hem­ings through his mar­riage to Martha, who was not only Sally’s owner but also her half-sis­ter, as her fa­ther, John Wayles, had had a sim­i­lar re­la­tion­ship with Sally’s mother, El­iz­a­beth.

Jef­fer­son is shown to be a lov­ing but in­tensely flawed part­ner and fa­ther, and Scharff’s de­pic­tion of him as de­mand­ing, emo­tion­ally needy, sex­ist, a dis­as­ter with money, and prone to fa­voritism as well as hav­ing a kind of tun­nel vi­sion around hearth and home is bound to rile some read­ers and Jef­fer­son afi­ciona­dos. Scharff also pulls no punches around Jef­fer­son’s own­er­ship of slaves, fo­cus­ing on the in­tense psy­cho­log­i­cal gym­nas­tics it must have taken for Jef­fer­son and his fam­ily to own slaves while be­ing ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed to the en­trenched prac­tice, and hav­ing mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of two fam­i­lies — Jef­fer­son’s “real” fam­ily and his “shadow” fam­ily — live to­gether in the same house in ab­ject de­nial, at least on the Jef­fer­son side, of their kin­ship.

“For their en­tire adult lives, of­ten thrust to­gether at Mon­ti­cello,” Scharff writes, “Patsy Ran­dolph and Sally Hem­ings lived with a lie that split them into dual, un­equal fam­i­lies, dou­bled the rhythms of daily life, etched in words and ges­tures and rote rou­tines, over and over and over again. In the course of her sixty-four years of life, Patsy Jef­fer­son Ran­dolph kept silent about the mat­ter. Only late in life, at the urg­ing of her son, did she break her si­lence and of­fer her chil­dren a de­nial of the con­nec­tion be­tween her fa­ther and her en­slaved half-aunt.”

Scharff is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the South­west at The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico, as well as the author of four mys­tery sus­pense nov­els pub­lished un­der the pseu­do­nym Vir­ginia Swift. Her co­pi­ous re­search is com­ple­mented by her abil­ity to im­bue her his­tor­i­cal writ­ing with dra­matic ten­sion and draw char­ac­ters that are com­pelling re­gard­less of their stature. Though it would ben­e­fit from the in­clu­sion of a time­line of Jef­fer­son’s po­lit­i­cal ac­com­plish­ments, the book can be en­joyed by read­ers with only a gram­mar-school grasp of the events of the pe­riod. Scharff sticks to the home sphere, of­ten quot­ing at length from cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Jef­fer­son and his daugh­ters. Their mu­tual ex­pres­sions of long­ing for each other’s com­pany border on ro­man­tic, and when he per­ceived that he wasn’t be­ing longed for enough, he wasn’t above a guilt trip.

“He … fre­quently re­minded his daugh­ters they were his only rea­sons for liv­ing. ‘On my part, my love to your sis­ter and your­self knows no bounds,’ he told Polly, ‘and as I scarcely see any other ob­ject in life, so would I quit it with de­sire when­ever my con­tin­u­ance in it shall be­come use­less to you.’”

The of­fi­cial White House bi­og­ra­phy of Thomas Jef­fer­son (www.white­house.gov/about/pres­i­dents/ thomas-jef­fer­son) makes no men­tion of slav­ery or en­slaved peo­ple. Per­haps in an ef­fort to avoid con­tro­versy, the bi­og­ra­phy doesn’t credit him with the famed ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tion he did lit­tle to make come true dur­ing his life­time, decades of which were spent hav­ing a DNA-proven sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with one of his slaves. But Scharff knows that Jef­fer­son is more than a time­line of ac­com­plish­ments, more than feel-good his­tory im­parted to sec­ond graders, and she has given him to us not as a be­wigged Amer­i­can an­gel but as a pow­er­ful, in­tel­li­gent man con­sumed first and fore­most with the peo­ple he loved.

— Jen­nifer Levin Vir­ginia Scharff reads and signs “The Women Jef­fer­son Loved” at Gar­cia Street Books (376 Gar­cia St., 986-0151) at 3:30 p.m. on Satur­day, Nov. 13.

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