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Mr. Jefferson's Women

Mr. Jefferson's Women

3.3 3
by Jon Kukla

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From the acclaimed author of A Wilderness So Immense comes a pioneering study of Thomas Jefferson's relationships with women, both personal and political.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote the words “all men are created equal,” was surprisingly uncomfortable with woman. In eight chapters, Kukla examines the evidence for


From the acclaimed author of A Wilderness So Immense comes a pioneering study of Thomas Jefferson's relationships with women, both personal and political.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote the words “all men are created equal,” was surprisingly uncomfortable with woman. In eight chapters, Kukla examines the evidence for the founding father's youthful misogyny, beginning with his awkward courtship of Rebecca Burwell, who declined Jefferson's marriage proposal, and his unwelcome advances toward the wife of a boyhood friend. Subsequent chapters describe his decade-long marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton, his flirtation with Maria Cosway, and the still controversial relationship with Sally Hemings. A riveting study of a complex man, Mr. Jefferson's Women is sure to spark debate.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Fascinating. . . . Serious, meticulous, and well-written.”
The Boston Globe

“A fine, critical and needed study of one aspect of Jefferson's complicated and extraordinary life.”
The Times-Picayune

“Kukla knows his period. . . . As the last few years have made abundantly clear, Thomas Jefferson was rather less sterling than his prose.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Will make people with open minds think again about what they believe.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Persuasive and entertaining.”
American Heritage

Publishers Weekly

This highly insightful study by Kukla (A Wilderness So Immense), director of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, investigates Thomas Jefferson's relationships with women, from Elizabeth Moore Walker, the married neighbor with whom Jefferson may have had an affair, to Sally Hemings, the slave whose children he purportedly fathered. One of the most fascinating chapters examines the young Jefferson's failed attempts to woo a classmate's sister, Rebecca Burwell, whose rejection of his marriage proposal may have incited the misogyny found throughout his writings. Perhaps the least satisfying section studies Jefferson's relationship with his wife, Martha: since Jefferson destroyed their private correspondence after she died, Kukla's re-creation of their relationship is necessarily sketchy. The conclusion moves to a larger argument concerning Jefferson's thinking about women as citizens. Kukla shows that Jefferson was much less open to women's political participation and education than were contemporary Enlightenment thinkers, and his "definition of America as a white male polity" was "rooted in his personal discomfort with women." This is one of the most discerning and provocative studies of Jefferson in years. B&w illus., map. (Oct. 12)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

It is hard to dislike a book that, like this one, starts off with a discussion of how J. Peterman Company shirts are related to Thomas Jefferson. Kukla (director, Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation; A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America) not only knows his subject well but writes in a fluid and sparkling style. His basic thesis is that Thomas Jefferson grew increasingly uncomfortable with women as he aged, becoming misogynistic and predatory. Three of the four women to whom he made early romantic advances turned him down, and the fourth (his wife) hurt him by dying. Thereafter Jefferson was on his guard, not wanting to be wounded again. When he formed a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings he was in a position of power, as he owned her and could not be rejected. Kukla's research is impeccable, and his voluminous notes are a treasure trove. Nonetheless, this reviewer fails to be persuaded by his overly negative interpretation. He reaches too many conclusions based on supposition rather than solid evidence. Sure to spark heated debate, this book is recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Thomas J. Schaeper

Kirkus Reviews
Enticing, relentlessly driving expose of a Founding Father's private and public misogyny. After a stormy scholarly conference about Thomas Jefferson's long affair with his slave Sally Hemings, Virginia historian Kukla (A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America, 2003, etc) looked for a book about Jefferson's relations with women in general, assuming that it already existed. Instead, he ended up writing it, and his conclusions are dismaying. Kukla asserts that after belle Rebecca Burwell rejected his proposal when he was 20, Jefferson demonstrated throughout his adult life predatory urges toward women, a fear of disruptive female influences (exacerbated by the alarming conduct of women during the French Revolution) and a distasteful endorsement of the master-slave model for male-female relations. Despite his friendship with Abigail ("Remember the Ladies") Adams, Jefferson remained adamant about excluding women from the liberties of the new American republic. He needed to control the women in his life, Kukla argues. Before his happy 11-year marriage to the widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, the young lawyer repeatedly attempted to seduce Elizabeth Walker, the wife of his best friend. Marriage to Martha, the perfect domestic partner, solidified Jefferson's patriarchal ideal of gender roles. Marooned at her death, he later futilely flirted with a married Englishwoman in Paris and back home in Monticello took up for the rest of his life with the much younger, attractive and light-skinned Hemings, who was actually the half-sister of his dead wife. Their six children were emancipated in his will, although he never mentions Hemings by name. Closing with a grimlitany of his subject's consistent opposition to "any departure from an exclusively domestic role as republican wives and mothers," Kukla concludes that "Jefferson's personal aversion to and fear of women in public life shaped American laws and traditions in ways that echo into the twenty-first century."Necessary reading-but an awful revelation of a great man's failings. First printing of 40,000

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Mr. Peterman’s Shirt

Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things: Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.

Of the thousand castles, mansions, chateaux you can walk through today, only Monticello, only Jefferson’s own mansion, makes you feel so comfortable you want to live in it.
—J. Peterman Company

Thomas Jefferson did wear simple and comfortable shirts like the one that inspired a clever advertising copywriter for the J. Peterman Company’s retail catalogue. The claim that the style is “99% Thomas Jefferson, 1% Peterman”[1] may stretch the truth. Simple muslin work shirts were as common among Jefferson’s Virginia contemporaries as they were inside the great house at Monticello. Still, the rest of the copywriter’s pitch rings true.

Jefferson was an inventor.

He liked comfort.

And he did change a few things.

In 1776 Jefferson’s words declared American independence and encouraged a candid world to hope that all men were created equal. Ten years later his Statute for Religious Freedom summoned Virginians to insist that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Jefferson calculated the most efficient shape for the blade, or moldboard, of a plow. He modeled a new capitol for the commonwealth of Virginia, based on an ancient Roman temple, that established the classical revival as the standard for American public architecture. At Monticello he devised a mechanism, hidden beneath the floor between the entrance hall and parlor, to open both French doors simultaneously when either door was pushed. In the valley below Monticello he established Virginia’s first secular university. Farther to the west, Jefferson’s acquisition of the vast territory of Louisiana secured the navigation of the Mississippi River and changed the political geography of the nation and the world.

Jefferson did change a few things, but there were others that he left alone. He lived comfortably on a southern plantation as the master of about one hundred slaves, yet he contended that slavery was both a moral wrong and a political liability. He was content to hope that future generations might set things right for people of color. Comfort—whether in his mansion or in the muslin shirts that inspired J. Peterman—mattered to Thomas Jefferson. In his personal life, Jefferson was never entirely comfortable with strong and independent women. In politics, except for a brief moment in dialogue with Abigail Adams, his attitude toward women was immovable. Jefferson did nothing whatsoever to improve the legal or social condition of women in American society, and he was always wary of female influence in government.

Almost a decade ago I heard a distinguished panel of scholars discuss “Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA Evidence” at a historical conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The program committee had wisely placed the session in the large ballroom of the headquarters hotel. The place was full. DNA tests had recently confirmed a genetic relationship between Thomas Jefferson’s family and one of Sally Hemings’s children. That scientific evidence persuaded many previously skeptical historians (myself included) that the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—a connection first alleged by James Callender in 1802, reasserted by Fawn Brodie in 1974, and finally rehabilitated by Annette Gordon-Reed’s persuasive book in 1997—was almost certainly true.[2]

The panel discussion in Fort Worth was informative, but I found the comments from historians in the audience more interesting. Someone in a tweed jacket was confident that “surely it was a loving relationship.” Two or three questions later someone else prefaced her question with the rejoinder that “surely it was rape.” In a conference at Charlottesville that same year, the late Winthrop Jordan witnessed a similar and, as he described it, “occasionally heated discussion, which centered on such terms as rape, concubinage, and marriage.” Professor Jordan doubted “that anyone today will ever know enough about the emotional contents of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship to understand it thoroughly,” and he suggested that “such labels do little to help our understanding.”[3] Nevertheless, people do ask the question.

As I listened to those earnest scholars venturing their opinions about the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, my reaction was somewhat different from Professor Jordan’s. With the evidence so meager, it was obvious that despite our training, many of us in the audience were unthinkingly projecting contemporary values back into an earlier and perhaps different age. It also struck me that we historians would never get a handle on what Jordan called the “emotional contents of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship” without knowing more about how Jefferson interacted with other women. At the time I was busy writing about the Louisiana Purchase, but I made a mental note to consult Frank Shuffelton’s comprehensive bibliography of nearly everything written about Jefferson since 1826, where I expected to find a reliable book about Jefferson and women to assuage my curiosity. Many months later, however, when at last there was time to rummage through Shuffelton’s bibliography, I discovered that the book on Jefferson and women I had hoped to find was not there. This book, Mr. Jefferson’s Women, is basically one I wanted to read.

Many of my conclusions surprised me. To the fullest degree that the extant sources permit, I have sought to understand the significant women in Jefferson’s life not only through his eyes but also from historical evidence that is completely independent of his perceptions. Relationships between people, then or now, never entirely match the perspective of only one participant. The result, I think, is not a book that could be written by a young scholar. It is certainly not one I could have researched and written thirty-odd years ago when I began my first explorations of Virginia’s history. A few decades of work in the primary sources (and the accumulated joys and bruises of life) make a difference.

Thomas Jefferson’s personality was complex to the point of paradox. A sphynx according to one able biographer, he was a grieving optimist to another. For a man with so many talents and interests, the list of descriptive phrases could go on and on. In respect to his relationships with women, Jefferson was always self-absorbed and often a bit frightened. Both in private life and in public policy, Jefferson was less uncomfortable with married women than with their undomesticated sisters. Winthrop Jordan got it right almost four decades ago when he observed that for Jefferson “intimate emotional engagement with women seemed to represent . . . a gateway into a dangerous, potentially explosive world” and “female passion must and could only be controlled by marriage.”[4] After the wife of his neighbor and friend spurned his repeated advances, Jefferson married a widow. After her death, it was the talented and flirtatious wife of a fashionable artist who reawakened the widower’s heart in Paris. Finally, the light-skinned half sister of his late wife proved the exception to Winthrop Jordan’s formulation: marriage was not the only available means of control for the women in Jefferson’s life or polity. Enslavement also sufficed.

In the age of the American Revolution, gentlemen like Jefferson were acutely conscious of their personal as well as their political independence. Personal independence began with self-control. The most sublime compliment that one gentleman could offer to another, Virginians believed, was “that he was a master of himself!” In his relationships with women, Jefferson struggled for self-control throughout his early adulthood and once again in Paris. In Virginia during the Revolution, he was largely indifferent to women’s aspirations for educational opportunity, a voice in public life, or relief from the patriarchal strictures of English property law. During his years as minister to the court of Louis XVI, however, he became alarmed by the conduct of French women at court, in their salons, and eventually in the streets. When Jefferson returned from Europe, he was convinced that women posed a serious menace to republican government and American liberty.[5]

Jefferson may have been comfortable in simple cotton shirts, but his lifelong uneasiness around women is evident in his earliest surviving correspondence with friends from college. These letters, complained Jefferson’s sympathetic biographer Dumas Malone, “disclose a great deal which the mature man would not have relished.” “Worst of all,” he added, “they are full of references to girls.” Then or now, no sensible adult relishes all memories of adolescence. Comfortable or not, however, adolescence is where we must begin. There is scarcely any evidence from which to speculate about Jefferson’s youthful relationships with his mother and sisters. Our inquiry about Thomas Jefferson and the women in his life must begin in the circle of his college friends and the young women they sought to impress, to woo, and to marry. It begins not with a philosophic statesman relaxing in Mr. Peterman’s shirt but with an awkward youth imagining himself in “a suit of Mecklenburgh Silk” as he prepared for “the ball.” With an introverted youth asking his fraternity brother about a party he had missed—and wondering, with a self-consciousness that he never outgrew, “how I should have behaved?”[6] Our inquiry about Thomas Jefferson and women in the age of the American Revolution begins with his friends and classmates in Williamsburg and with the young women they admired, dated, and wed.


Williamsburg, the home of the College of William and Mary since 1693 and capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, was the metropolis of Thomas Jefferson’s youth. The town stands midway between the James and the York Rivers, some thirty miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay and six miles northeast of Jamestown, the colony’s initial settlement and first capital. In 1698, after fire had consumed the statehouse in Jamestown for the third time, Virginians had given up on the swampy island and moved their capital to higher ground at Middle Plantation, where their college had recently been chartered. The new town was named for England’s Protestant hero and king, William III, whose late queen, Mary Stuart, had shared with him the namesake honors of the college.

“By going to the College,” sixteen-year-old Jefferson assured his guardians on New Year’s Day in 1760, “I shall get a more universal Acquaintance which may hereafter be serviceable to me.” He supposed that he could pursue “studies in Greek and Latin as well there as here.” Here was Shadwell, his mother’s plantation on the Rivanna River below the mountain on which he would one day build his architectural masterpiece, Monticello. Jefferson’s father had died three years earlier. A skilled surveyor and explorer, famous for the Map of Virginia published with his partner, Joshua Fry, Peter Jefferson may have passed along some of his technical skills to his eldest son. Nevertheless, that son now looked to the College of William and Mary as the place where he could “learn something of the Mathematics.”[7]

Jefferson owed his presence in Williamsburg to the encouragement of his uncle and guardian, Peter Randolph of Chatsworth, a former clerk of the House of Burgesses and then a member of the prestigious Governor’s Council. Jefferson had visited his uncle in eastern Henrico County during the New Year’s holiday. Two weeks later, in the earliest of Jefferson’s surviving letters, he advised John Harvie, another of his legal guardians, that his uncle “said he thought it would be to my Advantage to go to the College.”[8] Later in life, as one of his own descendants prepared for college, Jefferson recalled that “at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me.” Reflecting upon “the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time,” Jefferson expressed (with perhaps some grandfatherly exaggeration) astonishment “that I did not . . . become as worthless to society as they were.”[9] Late in March 1760, Williamsburg supplanted Albemarle County as the geographic center of the adolescent Jefferson’s circle of friends.

With perhaps two thousand permanent residents and another hundred at the college, Williamsburg in 1760 was a small provincial town. As the capital of Great Britain’s oldest and largest American colony (with its population of about 340,000 souls), the village nevertheless had pretensions to greatness. Williamsburg was the seat of Virginia’s royal governor and his council. It regularly played host to the colonial legislature and General Court. Its college was the third oldest in the colonies, younger only than Harvard and Yale. More significant, it was from Williamsburg that the imperial governors of the self-declared monarchs of four dominions—England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—claimed sway south to the Carolina line, west across the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River, and north to the Great Lakes. For six years Virginia’s western forests had been one of the front lines in a raging imperial war between Great Britain and France and their respective colonies and Native American allies. Quebec in 1759 had fallen to the heroic forces under General James Wolfe. The British were on their way to a victorious conclusion of the Great War for Empire. George II was nearing the end of his thirty-three-year reign. His heir would be crowned king in the autumn of 1760. All around town, Britain’s oldest colony declared its pride with heraldic crests blazoned on the walls of its public buildings, wrought in iron and gilt over the gate of the Royal Governor’s palace, painted on the doors of his carriage, published in the masthead of the weekly newspaper, and engraved on the bookplates of the council library. Beneath the quartered emblems of the Crown’s other dominions, the motto read En Dat Virginia Quintam—Behold Virginia, the Fifth Dominion. Arriving in Williamsburg in the spring of 1760, the teenage Thomas Jefferson had reason to regard the small capital town as a metropolis peopled with universal and serviceable acquaintances—and a beckoning gateway to the wider world.

Thomas Jefferson was nearly seventeen on March 25, 1760, when he moved into his lodgings at the College of William and Mary. With reddish-blond hair and a fair complexion, Jefferson was a lanky student well on the way to his adult height of six feet two inches. The eldest son of Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson, he had been born 120 miles to the west in 1743, a year before the colonial legislature had created the county of Albemarle for the benefit of frontier citizens who were settling the Piedmont, the rolling plateau between the falls of Virginia’s great tidal rivers—the James, Rappahannock, and Potomac—and the Blue Ridge Mountains.[10] Jefferson grew up far from the Georgian brick mansions of Tidewater Virginia. His father’s family had been middling planters in Virginia since the early days of the colony,[11] but Peter Jefferson had married well. Through his mother, the future president was kin to the powerful Randolph family, with its connections throughout the sprawling tobacco plantations and riverfront mansions. He had two elder sisters, four younger sisters, and a younger brother (two other boys having died in infancy), but several of Jefferson’s boyhood schoolmates were virtually siblings to him.[12]

Jefferson’s earliest formal education was at an “English school” on the grounds of Tuckahoe plantation, high above the James River fifteen miles west of Richmond, the seat of his father’s intimate friend and his mother’s cousin William Randolph of Tuckahoe. Jefferson was two when William Randolph died and his parents moved their family to Tuckahoe, where, as promised, they raised Randolph’s children as their own. Cousin, classmate, and virtual older brother, Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe remained among Jefferson’s circle of friends in Williamsburg.[13]

[1] J. Peterman Company, Owner's Manual (n.p., 1988- ); quoted by permission.
[2] David Brion David, Annette Gordon-Reed, James Horton, and Peter Onuf were the panelists in a session entitled "Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA Evidence" at the 1999 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Fort Worth, Texas. The DNA test results were announced in "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child," Nature 396 (5 Nov. 1998): 27-28, and Eric S. Lander and Joseph J. Ellis, "Founding Father," Nature, 396 (5 Nov. 1998); 13-14. Callender's charges first appeared in the Richmond Recorder (1 Sept. 1802). See Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York, 1974); and Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, 1997).
[3] Winthrop D. Jordan, "Hemings and Jefferson: Redux," in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture eds. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville, 1999), 51 n. 12.
[4] Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 462. Kenneth L. Lockridge misquoted Jordan by silently deleting three sentences from Jordan's text, including the words "that female passion must and can only be controlled by marriage." See On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1992), 71.
[5] Jack P. Green, Landon Carter: An Inquiry into the Personal Values and Social Imperatives of the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Gentry (Charlottesville, 1967), 20; Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Respublic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, 1969) 69; Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York, 1977), 247-56; Joyce Appleby, "Thomas Jefferson and the Psychology of Democracy," in James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf, ed. The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, (Charlottesville, 2002), 155-72; Andrew Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello (New York, 2005), 89-91.
[6] Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, 81; Jefferson to William Fleming, 20 mar. 1764, Jefferson to John Page, 9 Apr. 1764, Jefferson Papers 1:16, 17.
[7] Jefferson to John Harvie, 14 Jan. 1760, Jefferson Papers 1:3.
[8] Ibid. Years later Jefferson described his arrival at the college somewhat differently in his correspondence with Patrick Henry's biographer William Wirt. "In the winter of 1759-1760," Jefferson wrote, "on my way to the college I passed the Christmas holydays at Col. [Nathaniel West] Dandridge's in Hanover, to whom Mr. [Patrick] Henry was a near neighbor. During the festivity of the season, I met him in society every day, and we became well acquainted, altho' I was much his junior, being then but in my seventeenth year, and he a married man." "Mr. Henry," Jefferson continued in a second letter to Wirt, "had a little before broken up his store, or rather it had broken him up, but his misfortunes were not to be traced either in his countenance or conduct." The evidence suggests that Jefferson (who came to William and Mary in March 1760) actually met Henry in the winter of 1760-61, when he was seventeen and after Henry had closed his store in the autumn of 1760. Perhaps they met around Christmas 1760 in Hanover County when Jefferson was en route back to the college. Jefferson to Wirt, 12 Apr. 1812 and 5 Aug. 1815, TJP; William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (New York, 1891), 1:18-19; and Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making (Philadelphia and New York, 1957), 90-91, 368 n.
[9] Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 24 Nov. 1808, TJP.
[10] The Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers flow below the fall line before they merge at West Point to form the York, Virginia's fourth great tidal river.
[11] Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, 426-27.
[12] Jefferson Randolph Anderson, "Tuckahoe and the Tuckahoe Randolphs," VMHB 45 (1937): 55-86.

Meet the Author

Jon Kukla received his BA from Carthage College and his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. From 1973 through 1990 he directed historical research and publishing at the Library of Virginia. From 1992 to 1998 he was curator and then director of the Historic New Orleans Collection. From 2000 to 2007 he was director of Red Hill, The Patrick Henry National Memorial in Charlotte County, Virginia. He now lives and writes in Richmond, Virginia.


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Mr. Jefferson's Women 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not like the book. I thought it was poorly written. Too many footnotes. Very awkward with jumbled time periods and lots of impertinent information regarding boyhood friends, etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago