The Women Jefferson Loved

by Virginia Scharff; Harper

Thomas Jefferson’s decades-long affair with the slave Sally Hemings is a controversial story full of sex, power, race and intrigue. But Hemings wasn’t the only woman who shaped Jefferson’s life.

This fascinating and highly readable account deepens our understanding of how Jefferson’s emotional life with women, including his mother, wife, concubine, daughters and slaves, influenced his thinking and greatest public acts. It also reveals Jefferson as an extraordinarily complex figure: a brilliant philosopher who spent far more than he earned and left his grown daughter homeless because of his debts; a romantic who professed to hate public life, only to let friends nominate him to be president of the United States; a visionary who created our nation’s highest ideals about liberty, but applied them solely to white men and gave slaves as wedding presents.

Jefferson could live with, or didn’t see, contradictions that disturb us today. Following the death of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, at age 33, he honored his promise never to remarry by taking Martha’s half-sister Sally Hemings as his lover. Virginia Scharff suggests that Jefferson’s decision fit neatly into the pattern established by Martha’s father when he sired Hemings and her siblings; it had enormous ramifications on the day-to-day realities of life at Monticello. Between the two women, Jefferson produced more than a dozen offspring. Those who managed to survive grew up alongside each other, with the white family either unable or unwilling to acknowledge their blood ties.

Scharff makes clear just how intertwined these families were. Sally Hemings was at Martha’s deathbed. When political opponents attacked Jefferson for his relationship with Hemings, he did not sell her or her children, or even send them to a friend or family member. For her part, Hemings showed extraordinary trust by returning to the United States with Jefferson following the years they lived in Paris, based upon a promise that he would free their children. One can argue that, like the laces of a shoe, one side of this family couldn’t function without the other.

Women in Jefferson’s world were expected to obey their husbands and stay out of the public realm, but they demonstrated plenty of toughness, surviving war, disease, dangers in childbirth and the deaths of their children. As Scharff says of Jefferson, “On any given day, he could sit and write thrilling words about liberty and democracy while his wife and enslaved workers slaughtered a sheep and rendered the fat.”

Women in slavery faced obvious perils, but slavery also left the white women vulnerable. Martha may have “liked beer and cards and hunting parties,” but she also likely lived with the threat of a slave uprising. While Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, his slaves could have taken advantage of a proclamation from the colony’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, offering to free any slaves who turned against their masters to fight with the British.

Could, might and if can be tricky words in historical nonfiction. There are a few passages where Scharff uses supposition liberally. While acknowledging that Jefferson’s daughter Patsy left no written account of his death, for instance, Scharff imagines that Patsy might have sent her youngest children out to play, Jefferson might have felt some joy hearing their voices, and “rustlings marked the hushed path of Sally Hemings, sweeping, dusting, tidying, smoothing his covers.” Well, maybe.

Even given this tendency, Scharff has created an entertaining and insightful portrait of Jefferson, the women in his life and what women endured in the pursuit of happiness.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here