Martha Jefferson, the president’s brilliant oldest daughter, married a troubled third cousin, raised and educated a passel of children, and settled with her father at Monticello.
Her congenial but less scholarly younger sister, Maria, made a love match with another cousin but died a few years later, leaving only a single son to carry on her line.
Then there was Harriet, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter — historians now mostly agree — with the enslaved Sally Hemings, half sister to Jefferson’s dead wife. With Jefferson’s permission and a cash gift, Harriet left Monticello as a young woman, passed as white, and disappeared from history.
The story of all three women is ably told — to the extent possible, given the gaps in the historical record — in Catherine Kerrison’s Jefferson’s Daughters. An associate professor of history at Villanova University, Kerrison has produced a feminist biography that draws on the revisionist consensus that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children.
Her book is, naturally, indebted to the scholarship of Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer Prize−winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). Earlier, in Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed had marshaled the arguments in favor of a decades-long Jefferson-Hemings relationship. DNA testing in 1998 all but confirmed the liaison, linking Jefferson’s paternal line — and not that of his Carr nephews, as some had surmised — to Sally’s son Eston Hemings.
Historians now could no longer dismiss the 1873 account of Eston’s brother Madison, who claimed Jefferson as his father and described his mother as Jefferson’s “concubine.” Madison said he, along with Eston, their brother Beverley, and their sister Harriet, owed their adult manumission to a promise the future president had made to their mother in Paris. Their freedom, Madison told an Ohio newspaper, was a precondition of Sally Hemings’s agreement to leave France, where she would have been free, and return to Virginia with Jefferson.
Gordon-Reed, in her Hemings biography, relies on educated guesswork and imagination to tease out the contours of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship, as well as Jefferson’s feelings toward their children and the attitudes of Jefferson’s white family toward his unconventional (if not entirely uncommon) ménage. Kerrison faces similar difficulties. Relying on extant letters and the inventive use of other sources, her mostly chronological narrative reinterprets these women’s lives through a feminist lens and tries to distinguish between the factual and the speculative.
Of the three sisters, Martha, a prodigious correspondent who was both her father’s “emotional caretaker” and a woman “universally admired for her lively wit, high intelligence, graceful manners, and animated storytelling,” led the best-documented life. The recently widowed Jefferson took Martha — called Patsy in the family — with him in 1784 to a diplomatic posting in Paris and enrolled her, at eleven, in an elite convent school. There she quickly learned French, made friends, and (to Jefferson’s displeasure) embraced Catholicism. Kerrison devotes considerable attention to her education, not the most bracing of topics. More interesting is the author’s take on Martha’s abortive courtships and the manner in which Martha’s discussions with friends may have prepared her for the “serious business” of marriage.
At five, Maria — whose childhood name was Polly — stayed behind in Virginia with her baby sister Lucy (who died at three of whooping cough) and her maternal aunt, Elizabeth Eppes. So happy was Maria with her aunt that she resisted rejoining her family in Paris. She lost that battle and then developed a second attachment, in London, to Abigail Adams, another surrogate mother. Maria eventually sailed to France, attended by the teenage Sally Hemings.
Kerrison emphasizes that the job of middle- and upper-class women in the eighteenth century was to marry well and bear children. Both were fraught enterprises. (Jefferson’s wife had died in childbirth.) Martha’s marriage to Thomas Jefferson Randolph at first seemed promising, producing eleven children who survived to adulthood. But the relationship was undermined by Randolph’s “volatile temper” and financial reverses.
By contrast, Maria, educated in Paris and, later, Philadelphia, enjoyed “a happy union” with her cousin and childhood friend Jack Eppes. Kerrison insists that historians have slighted her “emotional maturity” and “emotional and financial independence.” But Maria inherited her mother’s frail constitution, and childbirth was difficult for her. She died at twenty-five, leaving a daughter, Maria, who survived only to age two, and a son, Francis, who became a cotton planter in Florida. Martha meanwhile lived to sixty-four.
Their illustrious parentage notwithstanding, their lives were not unusual for women of their era. Their half sister Harriet’s was a different story.
In 1994, Barbara Chase-Riboud, author of the bestselling fiction Sally Hemings, imagined Harriet’s post-Monticello life in a historical novel titled The President’s Daughter. In the novel, the fictional Harriet turns her back on her family, marries twice, and survives the Civil War. Her brother Eston describes her as a “believer in romantic love and race oblivion.” Kerrison sets out to uncover what really happened to Harriet after Monticello. The task is not a simple one: “[S]he obliterated her historical tracks so well, there has not yet been a single credible claim of descent from her,” Kerrison writes, setting up her own pursuit.
Relying on Madison Hemings and other oral histories, Kerrison posits that Harriet either followed or accompanied her brother Beverley to Washington. As per Madison, she assumes that Harriet married within a few years of her arrival, raised a family, and kept mum about her connection to Monticello and her black ancestry. (As seven-eighths white, Harriet not only looked white but, Kerrison says, would have been considered legally white under Virginia law.)
Using the limited available records, Kerrison tracks a series of Harriets, with various surnames, through the years. It’s a prodigious undertaking, and the reader is likely to share the excitement of the chase. Among other clues, Kerrison looks for children’s names that echo Monticello and Hemings family traditions. One lead in particular tantalizes her, but the evidence is contradictory, and the conscientious Kerrison doesn’t press the case. “I concede defeat,” she writes. “Harriet Hemings will keep her secret” — at least for now. What might have been a headline-making discovery turns out to be yet another lesson in the stubborn mysteries of history, and the contingent fragility of our knowledge of the past.