Was Thomas Jefferson a Misogynist?
|Jon Kukla explores the Founding Father’s relations with the various women in his life.|
Thomas Jefferson, third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, is, as the historian Joseph J. Ellis put it, the American Sphinx. He may be most puzzling of all in his relationships with women. Those women—from mother to wife and also to putative slave mistress—have remained over the centuries comfortably invisible in the public record, their presence flashing feebly only when their master allowed their contributions to be known and remembered. It is a daunting task for a Jefferson biographer not only to illumine the lives and inner desires of these invisible women but also to attempt to reveal through them the deeply enigmatic man. But that is what Jon Kukla, who earlier produced a highly regarded account of the Louisiana Purchase, promises in his new biography, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (Knopf, 279 pages, $26.95).
Biographies of Jefferson are published almost constantly, each new addition boasting to cover uncharted territory on the man. The Library of Congress holds tens of thousands of letters and papers that have been consulted and consulted anew. Yet the man’s inner life remains a paradoxical sketch; the vast paper trail is the frustrating work of a genius self-editing his life and political career. The last truly successful biography may be Jack McLaughlin’s 1988 volume Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. McLaughlin wisely surmised that to understand Jefferson he should stick to the architect and his prime obsession, his hilltop plantation outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson unwittingly left, in extensive farm and family records, ample evidence of the man behind the President—his failures as an engineer, his spendthrift nature, his brutal handling of slaves, and his indifference to the comforts of his own family, who lived in a house that was repeatedly rebuilt and never completed during his lifetime. Because of his obsession, Jefferson saddled his family with staggering debts, a burden borne by a grandson into old age.
Little remains in the record to recall two of the most important women in his life. There’s next to nothing on his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, and little more on his only wife, the pretty widow Martha Wayles Skelton. He almost never referred to the former, and he destroyed all his correspondence with the latter. Trying to understand him through the women in his life is like viewing Monticello’s architectural details through Virginia’s early morning fog. But it’s worth the effort.
As a young man, attending the College of William and Mary, in booming Williamsburg, Jefferson struck out with women. He developed the kind of scorn and condescension toward the “weaker sex” that can come after rejection, especially in a humorless man. In Mr. Jefferson’s Women Kukla describes, in unadorned prose that plays well off Jefferson’s ornate English, a young man we might today call a geek—insecure, self-absorbed, and obsessed with the teenaged sister of a college friend.
He carried the torch for two years, writing the girl’s name backward in Greek in coded notes to friends, futilely hoping to protect his secret from prying eyes. Then he bungled two quintessentially Jeffersonian obfuscations meant to be marriage proposals. The girl, Rebecca Burwell, turned him down. After that, Kukla writes, “her betrothal to a rival triggered the onset of Jefferson’s recurrent and debilitating headaches. It fueled the misogyny of Jefferson’s twenties and aroused a more predatory attitude toward women that ended in a series of unwelcome advances toward a married neighbor.”
Jefferson’s early infatuation with Rebecca Burwell is often advanced by admirers and biographers as proof of his romantic nature. Investigating how and why she drove Jefferson so utterly to distraction, Kukla delves into her background, giving us a tale of her bewitching great-aunt Lucy, a folkloric figure among Colonial Virginians for spurning a governor in favor of marrying for love. Rebecca Burwell, like her aunt before her, never felt any compulsion to write about or discuss the man she rejected, even after he became famous. Her silence speaks volumes.
There is the pathetic and unsavory tale of Betsy Walker, the wife of a friend and neighbor, who received Jefferson’s attentions while her husband was away negotiating treaties with Indians in upstate New York. Walker had assigned his wife expressly to Jefferson’s care, trusting him to appreciate that she was vulnerable, left alone for months at her rural Virginia home with a toddler daughter. Mrs. Walker apparently suffered a full decade of repeated and unwanted sexual overtures from Jefferson. The Walkers and others left behind enough crumbs about this to allow the resourceful author to follow the truth wherever it might lead, including the grim possibility that Jefferson was still groping the hapless Betsy Walker after he married his wife, Martha, with whom he passed ten years of, as he wrote, “unchequered happiness.” Not that he wasn’t happy in his marriage; all the scant evidence indicates that he was, and he spent his later years devastated by the loss of his wife.
In 1784, two years after Martha’s death, Jefferson was named American minister to France, following Benjamin Franklin’s triumphant stay, and he remained there for five years, returning to America just as the French Revolution entered its first act. In France he enjoyed friendships with ladies, but his sensibilities were offended by the emancipated European women who had charmed his predecessor. He called them the “Amazons” to his American “angels.”
Biographers portray the married English painter Maria Cosway, whom he met in France, as his last great love, who salvaged his widowerhood. It was for Cosway that he penned his “Head v. Heart” essay, which has been held up as one of the great love letters in the English language, an intellectual exercise in seeking to overcome emotion with rational thinking. To female minds it is one of the least romantic epistles ever written, but Jefferson was proud of it. As Kukla recounts, “Before Jefferson dispatched his artfully composed dialogue to Maria, he also made a letterpress copy for his files—an act quite in contrast to the destruction of every shred of paper he had written to his late wife.”
It is a clever exercise of a Socratic nature, and there are 12 pages of it: “Head. Well, friend you seem to be in a pretty trim. Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear.” He should have kept such thoughts to himself. But he actually sent the dialogue to the woman he professed to love, advertising the victory of his head over his gelid and reserved heart and thus displaying a continued ineptitude when it came to the art of seduction.
Kukla points out that here again, as in the anguished earlier letters to college friends about Rebecca Burwell, he revealed a depth of self-absorption that makes it hard if not impossible to credit him as a lover (which may also explain why it has been so easy for historians to dismiss the Sally Hemings rumors and other sex scandals attached to him). But perhaps he was not in love at all, but just lonely, and devised a brilliant—if passive—scheme to beg off from courtship when it came time to act on verbal promises made in loneliness. Perhaps four years after losing Martha he still wasn’t ready to try at love again. Maria Cosway was understandably confused by the “Head v. Heart” letter, and the short affair went downhill from there. After Jefferson returned home, he and Cosway exchanged infrequent, formal letters, and they never saw each other again.
And now we come to Sally Hemings. Jefferson’s long-term relationship with his slave, who was also his wife’s half-sister, is still hotly contested, because even after the recent DNA study linking a descendant of hers to his family by a rare male gene haplotype, the historical record on her is so flimsy it necessitates reliance on speculation. Kukla uses Jefferson’s deeply racist attitudes (as expressed, for instance, in his Notes on the State of Virginia) to build the case that he had a long-term relationship with his slave, an arrangement DNA and circumstantial evidence say may have produced six children. Following the common practice of miscegenation and Jefferson’s own personal aesthetics, a darker-hued bondswoman would not have aroused his interest, but the young, white-looking half-sister of his beloved late wife—a woman whose body he owned for life, who lived in complete submission to him, who spoke French and spent time in France with him as maid to his youngest daughter, Maria, who would have provided him with salutary companionship in his bachelor middle-aged years, and who evidently would give him sons—would attract him. Sally Hemings fit his domestic “Angel” ideal and provided a natural remedy to his limitations as a romantic partner; she fits the bill neatly for his particular needs and wants in a mate at the time.
Of all the slaves he held—he owned around 200 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence—only members of the light-skinned house-servant Hemings family were ever freed by him, and all of Sally’s children were freed. It isn’t difficult to imagine the amateur scientist indulging in the heady experience of creating a superior labor force in his own image and supposing he was improving their lot by bestowing unto the “yellow” children of Monticello his superior genetics. By his own math, Sally Hemings’s children were “legally white.” “Our Canon,” he told a Boston scientist in 1815, “considers two crosses with [a] pure white [parent], and a third with [a parent of] any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of the negro blood.”
The Sally Hemings chapter in Mr. Jefferson’s Women presents the rockiest terrain in an otherwise smooth volume and contains factual errors. For example, John Hemings was not Sally’s younger brother, and it’s not completely certain that the “Sally,” no last name, freed by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Randolph, in 1834 was Sally Hemings, who in any case was already living as a free woman in Charlottesville with two of her sons. But Kukla’s observations about Jefferson and Hemings, steeped in healthy skepticism, knowledge of human nature and history, and common sense, are persuasive and well worth absorbing all the same.
In Mr. Jefferson’s Women, Jon Kukla paints some vivid portraits, especially of Jefferson’s epistolary friend Abigail Adams, whose considerable wit, intelligence, and largely egalitarian partnership with her husband, John Adams, temporarily silenced Jefferson’s paternalism. But discussed only lightly in the book are Jefferson’s two daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Maria Jefferson Eppes. The many extant letters between him and them reveal far more about his attitudes toward women than do the dim lights of his love affairs. With his daughters he was dictatorial, arranging their lives to suit his needs. He was affectionate but utterly controlling and demanding of their first loyalties, and Martha’s marriage to a Virginia governor and state representative suffered as a result. The more independent Maria settled the problem of her father by moving away from Monticello with her cousin-husband, John Wayles Eppes. Curiously, after Maria’s premature death, at 25, Eppes remarried but then also took up with Maria’s maid, Sally Hemings’s niece, and the two are today buried side-by-side.
The author’s creative use of indirect evidence and his journalistic style, anecdotal asides, and easy maneuvering through a deep well of historical fact, period gossip, and even impossibly convoluted Virginia genealogies—all that combines to serve up a persuasive and entertaining read that ends with an examination of how Jefferson’s politics were directly influenced by his negative personal views of women. It is fitting to consider that a man with such an iron grip on his public persona would spend the last years of his life hidden away from the public at Monticello, in the bosom of his extended family—including his enslaved mistress and their children. He would have known even then that such a relationship would never leave a paper trail on which to judge him in the future.
Kukla’s Mr. Jefferson’s Women is a fine and original addition to the growing number of chronicles of that hidden domestic life of Thomas Jefferson.
—Jillian Sim lives and writes in the desert Southwest.