The Women Jefferson Loved
HarperCollins, 464 pages
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.