An historian writing a couple of decades ago on an early 1800s event in the US was told by his mainstream publisher that his book was excellent history, but the publisher asked him as well, “Can you fit more of Thomas Jefferson into it?”
The historian replied that while Jefferson did have a general role in the happening, he was not central; but, yes, he would try to include more of him in the book somehow.
Thrilled, the publisher exclaimed, “Great! People love reading about Jefferson!”
And I never forgot reading that anecdote.
Where fiction writers get ideas.
In my home office here in England, as you may know, Jefferson keeps an eye on me:
He was born this month, 275 years ago, in the British colony of Virginia. (April 13, 1743, to be exact.) Decidedly more recently, but still many years ago, my (now late) mother bought me that print of that famous 1805 portrait of him. She even had it framed – in that very frame.
Why the British flags? I placed them over his portrait late last year as a bit of a laugher. As the primary author of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, unsurprisingly subsequently he had an “uncomfortable” relationship with Great Britain.
That was not helped by British troops occupying his Monticello home briefly in 1781. His wife Martha and their young children had already been evacuated; he rode off into the woods at the last moment, descending his mountain on a back track as British cavalry were almost literally trotting up to the front door thinking they were about to capture one of the rebellion’s bigger troublemakers. Ironically, house slaves – having already “hidden the family silver” – spoke with British officers and probably saved the house from being ransacked and destroyed, and one of them was likely the mother of a then eight year old enslaved girl named Sarah, also called Sally, who may have been looking on at the time.
During his time in Europe a few years later, Jefferson would finally visit England – not as a prisoner of the British, but as a U.S. diplomat. He also developed many English personal friendships. However, his distrust, and even dislike, of the country’s government continued for the rest of his life:
In the 1790s, as President George Washington’s Secretary of State, he threw his considerable political weight behind the French revolutionaries:
But he would quietly eventually back away from them as the Revolution spiraled downwards into a killing frenzy:
His later US presidency would coincide with Napoleon’s rise and imperial rule. Although in 1803 Napoleon sold him the massive Louisiana territory for a relative pittance, he despised Napoleon, believing the emperor had finished off hopes for French republicanism.
He died in 1826. Jefferson’s staying power in the American founders’ “pantheon” is likely due mostly to the fact that almost anyone, of any political persuasion, can find things in his writings to admire. For example, during the Civil War (1861-65), both sides claimed his writings justified their cause. (Abraham Lincoln, for instance, cited him regularly.)
In the early 1800s, a correspondent directly wrote him asking about several charges repeatedly leveled at him in unfriendly newspapers, including him having an “affair” with a slave. Jefferson wrote that all of their accusations were untrue but one: he admitted only to having made, in his mid-20s, years before his own marriage (by the standards of the 1760s and 1770s in Virginia, he married “late,” at nearly age 29), a sexual advance (they had been sleeping under the same roof) to a friend’s wife while her husband had been away, and he had already many years previously apologized to – in the formal social language of the day – the lady.
Thus he had denied an “affair” with any enslaved woman. After it became public, that denial, along with an 1850 statement by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, to an historian (published in the 1870s) that her children had been fathered not by his grandfather (possibly an honest error, but more likely an attempt to mislead to “protect” his grandfather’s memory), but by an uncle (who had died in 1815), helped set off over a century of debate about the “legend” among historians and “ordinary” Americans. Jefferson had written that he had NOT done it, and the grandson had even named the father; most historians were sure those had to be a degree of solid evidence.
Yet unlike most historians, large numbers of “ordinary” Americans had by the 1970s come to believe the “legend” was fact, and seemed even to admire him all the more for it: he wasn’t just some statesman’s statue; he was an imperfect person with “secrets” just as they knew they were too. It made him more “human.” One historian who met President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s later recalled that when Clinton had asked if he thought “the Jefferson affair” occurred, he replied to the president that he didn’t know… and noted that Clinton appeared visibly let down by that answer. (We may understand better now why Clinton had wanted “the Jefferson affair” to have been true.)
In 1998, DNA technology that Jefferson had probably never imagined would demonstrate that in all probability that relationship was not a “legend”: he had done it. There is no hint (of which I’m aware) that he was ever unfaithful to his wife Martha during their 1772-1782 marriage. But after her death there began some years later a long “affair” between himself and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was also probably Martha’s unacknowledged, much younger (by 25 years), half-sister – the child of Martha’s father and a slave he owned. (Even if she may have “suspected” Sally was a half-sister, in all likelihood Martha never knew for sure. Such master-slave “relationships” were not discussed openly in most plantation households, and especially not with the white women. But given Sally’s mother’s, Sally’s, and Sally’s five siblings’ – the latter were probably all also Martha’s half-siblings – subsequently “privileged” treatment at his Monticello after his father-in-law’s death in 1773 and Martha had “inherited” them, Thomas, as a son-in-law legally responsible for them on his wife’s behalf, clearly must have known.)
After an independent investigation of the study’s conclusions, in 2000 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation – a private charity which maintains the Monticello estate as an historical and educational site – accepted the DNA results. Sally and her children by Jefferson were “integrated” into the story of “the Jefferson family.” (So were her mother and her siblings.) Yet little is actually known about Sally as a person; as one historian has written, Sally Hemings is “little more than a name.”
She left behind no writings. Insofar as I am aware, she is unmentioned in Jefferson’s existing personal correspondence aside from by Abigail Adams, writing him in 1787 from London. Mrs. John Adams (who had become friends with Jefferson while she and her husband had lived in Paris in 1784-85) informs Jefferson in Paris of the safe arrival in London of Jefferson’s younger daughter, accompanied by an only slightly older “Girl about 15 or 16” (a teen who Abigail quickly appraised as immature and useless, but “good naturd”), after the two had crossed the Atlantic together.
Among what we do know about Sally is that at Monticello after returning to Virginia with Jefferson and his daughters in 1789, that she worked only in the house (as a maid or a seamstress), and – like her mother and siblings – never in the fields. She was also described posthumously by a grandson (interviewed many years after he had been a slave at Monticello and freed, too), who recalled her being “mighty near white” in her facial appearance. Jefferson’s grandson, T. J. Randolph, had also recalled Sally being “good-looking.”
In short, Jefferson had lied to that correspondent in that early 1800s letter. That he might have lied, thus “tampering” with the historical record, was something historians had never really considered or allowed for. Most had taken Jefferson at his word, discounting other evidence, such as that of the formerly enslaved Sally.
After Jefferson’s death, and after she had been freed, she told a son the president was his father. In the early 1960s, one historian wrote that such a statement of hers might have been “attributed to vanity.” Meaning it sounded better to be Jefferson’s son than some less important man’s.
However, pre-DNA that same historian had inadvertently also provided tantalizing circumstantial evidence for “the affair.” While researching a massive, multi-volume biography of Jefferson, for years he had meticulously combed Jefferson’s papers. His detective work confirmed that not only had every child Sally had ever had (she had six recorded births between 1795-1808) not had a father named, but that she had had those children only while Jefferson was present at Monticello for at least nine months before she gave birth. Moreover she had never had any children while Jefferson was away – and he was away often. Her recorded child-bearing was unlike that of any other enslaved woman at Monticello.
Jefferson lost a bid for the presidency in 1796 to then Vice President John Adams. In 1800, Vice President Jefferson won the presidency by defeating a President Adams who had sought re-election. If you think Trump vs. Clinton in 2016 was a “dirty” and “ugly” presidential election, read about the presidential election of 1800.
Jefferson’s eventual public image – his wildly successful PR, as we might say today – drove his Declaration of Independence fellow signatory and diplomatic colleague in Europe in the 1780s, Adams, frankly, bananas. Adams held after their friendship ended (unsurprisingly Abigail’s friendship with Thomas ended as well) due to their becoming political rivals, that Jefferson lived on a grand estate up in the clouds with slaves while gazing down on the little people below and probably never did a day’s real manual work in his life, but he was pushed forward as “the true friend of the common man.” In contrast, Adams fumed, he himself actually used a plow himself on his own small farm and rebuilt his own stone walls with his own bare hands, and yet he – Adams? – was assailed relentlessly by Jefferson’s supporters as being “a friend of aristocracy and monarchy!”
Their friendship began to recover when Abigail wrote Jefferson a condolence letter shortly after the 1804 untimely death of the daughter she had looked after in London as a child in 1787. It did fully thanks to the scheming of a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, who worked hard to get the men back together in their retirements, basically sneakily telling each man separately: “He misses you and wants to hear from you, but would never say it.” They started writing to each other once more, Adams noting at one point that before they died he believed they should come to “understand” each other.
Adams also believed no one would ever build him, Adams, a grand monument; but he sensed someone else would get one mostly due to his having drafted the Declaration. And he was right. It is easy to believe that if the volcanic-tempered Adams could come back and see the 20th century built Jefferson Memorial, he would stand in front of it, point at it and shout, “Of course! Thomas! Sonafabitch, I knew this would happen!”😂
Primary author of the American Declaration of Independence, legislator, governor, traveler, scientist, Secretary of State, passionate defender of “separation of church and state,” architect, musician, classicist, inventor, Vice President, President, founder of the University of Virginia…
He lived on a mountaintop, yet championed “ordinary” men as capable of making their own rational political decisions. He worked to legislate great inherited family estates into oblivion, yet inherited (including from his father-in-law) one of the largest estates in Virginia. He owned people, and yet eloquently spoke for freedom and decried slavery.
Probably in large part due to his mass of personal contradictions and inconsistencies, he will long continue to be fascinating. He makes us think. And, yes, I once did a self-created “Jefferson trail” in Paris:
Initially he came to extra-interest me way back in university above and beyond mere politics due to my reading about Martha’s death at only age 33. While early death was not uncommon in the pre-modern world, the circumstances of hers were particularly poignant (to me, anyway) and almost Shakespearean. Afterwards I found myself drawn into reading about his private life and travels…
His opinions of “a woman’s place” are to us patronizing and even chauvinist
to the point that he would certainly get assailed en masse on, say, Twitter. (Once he wrote that women holding government office was “an innovation” he was not prepared to accept.) Yet they were commonplace among men of the pre-modern era. Politics was “man’s burden,” while “a lady” required protection and her primary life role was to bear the children and create “domestic felicity.”
It is said that as she lay dying Martha had asked him not to marry again because she did not want their children raised by a stepmother. (Stepmothers did not have a great reputation.) Widowers in the pre-modern world – particularly well-to-do ones – tended to remarry quickly, and often to much younger women; but he never remarried. We know now probably another reason why he never did even once the children had grown up: he had become “involved” with Martha’s much younger, enslaved, half-sister, and given the racist laws of the era they could never have married even had she been a free woman.
The strength of Jefferson’s pen in the 1776 Declaration of Independence gave the American rebellion a unique aura and philosophical rationale; the 1789 French Revolution openly borrowed from it; so did revolts against Spain in Mexico and South America in the early 1800s; and since then that American Declaration has been reworked and borrowed in other uprisings and efforts at independence again and again. Above all, it committed the country politically to the ideal that “all men are created equal”; attempting to adhere to that would ultimately be slavery’s undoing and as well as pave the way for racial equality, women’s equality, and more.
That is why Jefferson has a memorial. He is synonymous with the birth of the United States. The country would not have come into existence with the sense of an underlying moral purpose that it possesses, an imperative to correct its faults, and an aim always to do better than in the past, were it not for him.
And as you can also see, I think he works pretty well in romantic historical fiction, too.
I will always fondly remember as well, as we built the house – which is on quite a hill – in the Catskills in 2008-09, my mother pulling me aside and joking, “Oh, you want a house on a mountain too, I see.”
A long post. A new week. Have a good day, wherever you are in the world.😊