What I’ve been reading: America’s First Daughter

 

Mr. (J.Q.) Adams, I’m afraid I’m old enough to remember a time when there weren’t any Federalists or Republicans. A time when we were all simply Americans.” (p. 388).

 “How is it that you manage to sniff out malice before the troublemakers say a word?”

“I listen to what they do not say.”

Page 387, Dolley Madison questioning Patsy Jefferson Randolph.

AmFirstDaughter

It’s easy to understand how this richly-spun tale achieved nearly instant bestseller status. It’s superbly told. And well researched. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was born during the Kennedy administration, therefore reading of a nearly sainted Founding Father–the author of liberty, America’s Renaissance man, living in domestic harmony with his slave-wife is still a shock. It should not be, of course, for the system that Jefferson and the other Southern Founding Fathers lived with was so at odds with modern rights that a bonds-woman (that’s a polite term for slave) could feel herself loved and needed by her owner-lover. That her half-sister was his late wife…well, that can’t be helped.

800px-Reproduction-of-the-1805-Rembrandt-Peale-painting-of-Thomas-Jefferson-New-York-Historical-Society_1
By Rembrandt Peale – New York Historical Society, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=145187

Most American’s became fully aware of the Sally Hemmings story in the 1990’s when a dna test was done members of the descendant pools of both the Jefferson and Hemmings families. The probability of a Jefferson–Hemmings genetic relationship was deemed reliable. In this story, it is taken as truth, and I read it the book accepting the findings as valid.

In spite of coming to grips with what we today know is the truth of Jefferson’s life, as opposed to the whites-only history of my youth, I ended up finding this a much more interesting Thomas Jefferson than the man who built Monticello apparently single-highhandedly or the man who kept France on our side in the Revolution.

Great men often live by their own set of rules–Abraham Lincoln had his Confederate sister-in-law at the White House during the war, the Sovereigns of Germany, Russia and England in WWI  were first cousins and, what’s more, a German Prince was head of the British Navy in the early years of the war. Imagine today having Saddam Hussein’s brother as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs? That’s about the size of it. That sort of thing goes on all the time in history though. Members of an elite rule and members of an elite write the history so it’s often given a good spin--sexed up as British political types say. In this case “sexed up” would be close to the truth.  I suppose the author of liberty living with a woman he could sell at a moment’s notice falls into a really bad portion of that history of great men no matter how you spin or “sex” it though.

180px-Martha_Jefferson_Randolph_portrait

But the book is truly about Patsy–Jefferson’s elder daughter. How she coped throughout the years of the Revolution and after, first in Virginia, then in France, then back in Virginia. Her father-in-law’s treachery, her never-quite ended, but never acted upon love for another man, her husband’s struggles, the loss of children and, yes, her relationship to her “step-mother,” Sally Hemmings, the slave mistress of her father. [Patsy Jefferson Photo: Wikipedia]

That Sally’s children with Jefferson were being born at the same time as Jefferson’s white grandchildren did not make Patsy’s life easier. The two women, who had been friends as young girls–they were after all blood relatives–worked out a way to live together and to work together when necessary. I imagine plural wives do similarly. It was Patsy who over saw her father’s formal life, and Sally his intimate life. She and her children made themselves scarce when formal visitors were at Monticello. Sally must have been pragmatic–must have known that Jefferson could change his mind at any moment.

1280px-Monitcello_47MP_crop

By Sbuckley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9519987

This was an engrossing story. I felt I was there. Having visited Monticello and seen the house and the estate I can only imagine what it was like when the two families were both at Monticello–it is not Windsor Castle. In fact, in size it is more of McMansion–and an odd one at that. Throughout her father’s life, Patsy had more grace than I could ever muster. But then, so too, did Sally.  To say more than that would spoil this amazing story.

America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

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