Thomas Jefferson and His Women

A fall from a pedestal can be healthy.

By + More

Who doesn't love Thomas Jefferson? I asked myself that walking over to the Woman's National Democratic Club, founded in 1922--one of Washington's most graceful institutions, housed in a mansion even more beautiful inside than Monticello, Jefferson's own breathtaking abode and masterpiece atop a mountain in Albemarle County, Virginia. "Mr. Jefferson" used a spyglass to look down into the distance to check on how building the University of Virginia was coming along--the university for Cavalier young men was also his creation.

I went to the Club to listen to Virginia Scharff, historian and author of a ground-breaking new book, The Women Jefferson Loved (HarperCollins, $28). But first a kind lady took me up the staircase to see the Eleanor Roosevelt room, much the way it was when Mrs. Roosevelt did her radio broadcasts. Pictures of the greatest first lady and generations of her family were all around and I felt like breaking into tears, so palpable was her presence and spirit in a setting where she had spoken directly to a nation listening in distressed times. Adlai Stevenson and Mrs. Roosevelt are captured, lost in thought, in a portrait of their friendship.

Downstairs awaited another treat and window into the real life of our democracy: the most outstanding presentation of Jefferson the man I've ever heard or read. Humanized at last, the tall redhead who flawlessly played the violin, rode horses, and wrote the words that define us loved women--even if he did not consider it clear that we were created equal. The contradictions between the liberty-lover and slave-owning master will never be resolved, but they are clarified by Scharff. She calls her volume an analysis of Jefferson's head and heart, and frankly, "a hard story to tell." The haunted Monticello, with its secrets, silences and denials, had to have its human family history excavated, restored and retold. The raw tragedy of America's early race relations all seem to have played out under its domed roof.

Jefferson loved his cheerful, resilient and striking wife Martha deeply and promised her on her deathbed that he would never marry again. They had two daughters who lived to maturity. The widower Jefferson later took on a young slave mistress, Sally Hemings, when she was in her teens and he was the 44-year-old American minister in Paris as it rumbled with revolution. Yes, that is the bare bones of it. About a dozen years ago, DNA testing established that the long-lasting relationship--until Jefferson's death did them part--resulted in the birth of six children. The six Hemings sons and daughters were all free or freed after Jefferson's death (the rest of his scores of slaves were sold) which was the pact their parents made, according to Hemings family records. Some lived in the white world, while others lived as African-Americans.

What most people don't know--and what Jefferson biographers denied and white relatives sought to suppress--is that his dead wife Martha and his slave mistress Sally were actually half-sisters and resembled each other. They had the same father, John Wayles, because Sally's mother Elizabeth Hemings was Wayles' slave concubine. There it is, the skeleton in our Founding Father closet, central to a shared understanding of the flesh-and-blood Jefferson. Like many men, he depended emotionally on the women in his life, though his letters suggest a rather controlling father to his daughters Patsy and Polly.

Not for nothing did Southern planters call their slaves their family, or their people. It was also a way of softening a reality that could turn ugly any second any day, since slaves were always at their master's mercy in a brutal system of chattel. Don't get me wrong; I don't respect Jefferson less for understanding him better. Scharff shows us how much his mother Jane Jefferson, wife Martha, the two daughters known as Patsy and Polly, and Sally Hemings, his slave mistress, meant and mattered to him. He also fell madly in love a time or two outside of these frames.

Scharff illuminates female life, work and childbirth on a plantation in a way that takes almost all the romance out of it. These are the important social givens on the other side of the wall, between public and private, which Jefferson painstakingly constructed in his own history. He was a great builder and the truth took a very long time, about two centuries, to come out. His slave children knew they were his, but he never explicitly acknowledged them as such. One was named after his closest friend, James Madison. 

At the end of her talk, Scharff was asked what one question she would ask Jefferson. Smiling, she said, "How's the family?"

Walking on my way, I reflected Jefferson's fall from the pedestal was a healthy thing all around and should be noted for readers of our blog. In my book, it just goes to show nobody's as perfect as Eleanor Roosevelt.

  • See the women of the Senate.
  • See a slide show of the worst presidents.
  • See who's visiting the Obama White House.