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FRAMING A LEGEND
Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
By M. ANDREW HOLOWCHAK
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2013M. Andrew Holowchak
All rights reserved.
Excerpt CHAPTER 1
MINING JEFFERSON'S ORE
Jefferson's Forbidden Females
A passion for politics stems usually from an insatiable need, either for power, or for friendship and adulation, or a combination of both. Any man who leaves a legacy of 18,000 letters in his own hand, most of them written with a wrist that was crippled and stiffened in an accident, has a desperate need of friendship.
—Fawn Brodie, Thomas Jefferson
Fawn Brodie writes metaphorically in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, "Despite hundreds of volumes about Thomas Jefferson, there remain unexpected reserves of unmined ore, particularly in relation to the connections between his public life and his inner life, as well as his intimate life." The quote suggests that Brodie aims to disclose the "inner" as well as the "intimate" Jefferson in her book. The two, she says without amplification, are not the same. "To illuminate this relationship, however, requires certain biographical techniques that make some historians uncomfortable. One must look for feeling as well as fact, for nuance and metaphor as well as idea and action."
What is unique to Brodie's approach is "what in these library collections has been passed over, or ignored because it did not fit into the traditional notions and preconceptions of Jefferson's character" as coolheaded, rational, and dispassionate. In addition, she includes two overlooked published reports by the Monticello slaves Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson. The implication is that the historical and biographical scholarship heretofore is contaminated because it has been selective.
Brodie aims to expose the real Jefferson, the intimate Jefferson, as a man whose intellect was keen but whose passions were also strong. Her reconstruction of the intimate Jefferson aims to show that he was involved in fulfilling a thirty-eight-year sexual relationship with a household slave that resulted in the birth of several mulatto children. The evidence of those two hitherto-overlooked reports is key to her reconstruction.
This chapter is a critical analysis of Brodie's book as it relates to the presumed Jefferson-Hemings relationship. I begin with a brief summary of her book, turn to a critique of her biography, and end with an examination of Brodie's "investigative" tactics and their rhetorical force.
FEELING, NUANCE, AND METAPHOR
Jefferson's Early Years
Brodie does much to tease out an account of Jefferson's early life, and the attempt is not without merit and substance. Overpassing any errors of fact on which numerous scholars have commented over the years, I rehash some of what she has written.
The son of Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph, Jefferson was born in 1743 and was the oldest male of seven siblings. After the death of brother-in-law William Randolph, Peter Jefferson moved his family to Randolph's estate at Tuckahoe in 1745. Jefferson was two at the time. The Randolph children—a boy of four and two girls of seven and nine—were added to his siblings, who were then only three in number. Jefferson was doubtless bullied by the older boy but mollycoddled by his older sister Jane, who favored him. Brodie adds of the years at Tuckahoe, "All we know for certain ... is that regret at separation from home, and hunger to return home, are two of the most ubiquitous and passionately expressed themes in all of Jefferson's intimate letters."
Thus, she concludes, the years at Tuckahoe could not have been happy. Brodie takes it for granted that black children were among Jefferson's early friends, as she asserts blacks on plantations outnumbered whites by ten to one. It is likely he was confounded and disturbed by the separate treatment of blacks and whites. Only the latter had to go to school, which Jefferson hated. These early experiences shaped his lifelong ambivalence concerning blacks and unquestionably drove his thinking that blacks, when freed, should be schooled but expatriated—both at public expense.
Brodie reveals something about Jefferson's religiosity in a short anecdote. In a story Jefferson related to his grandchildren, he tells of slipping out of the English school, reciting the Lord's Prayer, and requesting the cessation of school. Brodie generalizes, "Every child is sooner or later disillusioned by the impotence of his own prayers," and Jefferson learned "not to expect too much of Heaven."
Peter Jefferson removed his family to Shadwell when Jefferson was nine. Thomas stayed behind to attend school at Dover Church near Tuckahoe to learn Greek, Latin, and French. He boarded with the family of Rev. William Douglas. Since nothing is known of that time—Jefferson's letters were lost in the fire at Shadwell—Brodie examines Jefferson's later letters to his children to give evidence of the sort of advice he, when young, must have received from his mother and father. She notes that Jefferson advises his daughters to be good and obedient. He uses loss of love as leverage. He cautions them against anger and idleness. His admonitions are "tangled with a subtle parental seduction," because daughter Martha is told that no one in the world can bring him happiness or misery as much as she can. "What happens to a child who finds that love is made conditional upon good behavior?" Brodie says. "Any child so subtly tormented is likely to develop a continuing hunger for love that is never quite fulfilled, and also to confuse affection with esteem." That proved to be Jefferson's fate. "Few presidents have been so thin-skinned, few made so wretched by expressions of political and personal antipathy."
Jefferson's sense of closeness to family as well as his notion of "family" as extendable were conditioned by his father, who had seven children and was responsible, with the death of William Randolph, for Randolph's four children. Thomas encouraged marriage within the extended family and always hungered, when away from Monticello, for his "Elysian fields"—that is, to return to his "family." In effect, "[He] was [forever] trapped in his family and by his family."
Upon the death of Peter Jefferson in 1757, Thomas was granted some 2,500 acres of land on the Rivanna River and some thirty slaves. He was responsible for the education of the younger children and the distribution of his sisters' portions of land, and he was in charge of all expenses related to Shadwell. He was, Brodie emphasizes, given prodigious responsibility, though he was too young to have power. The responsibility-without-power theme is one to which she returns often and puts to use often.
Jefferson went to school in Fredericksville and was taught by Anglican clergyman James Maury, with whom he boarded during the week. Jefferson wrote nothing about Maury other than he was a "correct classical scholar"—a "clear indication of dislike," when contrasted with his abundant praise of certain teachers at William and Mary College. Maury, Brodie adds, was a self-righteous Anglican bigot. He hated the Virginian Scots and members of rival religious sects that threatened the Anglican domination of Virginia. As Jefferson lived with Maury when fourteen and fifteen years of age, he doubtless fashioned considerable detestation of the minister and everything for which he stood: conservatism, aristocracy, immaterialism, Anglicanism, bigotry, and self-righteousness. Nonetheless, he was thankful at least for learning aright both Greek and Latin.
It was under George Wythe's tutelage, Brodie says, that Jefferson began to flourish as a scholar. Wythe, sixteen years Jefferson's senior, took the young man under his wing and apprenticed him in law for five years. Jefferson studied with Wythe not only law but also political philoso
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