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‘Jefferson’s Daughters’ review: Historian Catherine Kerrison reconstructs three women’s lives

Catherine Kerrison, author of

Catherine Kerrison, author of "Jefferson's Daughters." Photo Credit: Paul Sirochman Photography

JEFFERSON’S DAUGHTERS: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, by Catherine Kerrison. Ballantine Books, 425 pp., $28.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had three daughters who survived to adulthood. Two were white — Martha and Maria, his daughters by wife Martha Wayles Jefferson. One was black — Harriet Hemings, daughter of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave and lifelong consort. In “Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America,” Catherine Kerrison aims to tell the stories of all three women using books, historical records, diaries and letters to re-create their lives, all extraordinary by any measure.

While the life of eldest daughter Martha was extensively documented, neither Maria nor Harriet left much trace in the historical record. Maria, said to be strikingly beautiful, never had her portrait painted and died young at age 25. Of Harriet, only the faintest trail remains, including entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he recorded allotments of food, blankets and clothing to slaves, including his children by Sally Hemings. She is briefly mentioned in the recollections of Madison Hemings, Sally’s son and Harriet’s brother, who in 1873 revealed the story of Thomas Jefferson’s secret family in an Ohio newspaper. Kerrison, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, tries to re-create the substance of their days with her historical expertise.

Martha Jefferson Randolph inherited her father’s lively intellect and thirst for knowledge. An avid reader, writer and teacher, she spent her early years accompanying Jefferson from Virginia to Paris to Philadelphia and back to Virginia, encountering the brightest minds on both sides of the Atlantic. Once she achieved adulthood, Martha largely set aside intellectual pursuits to help Jefferson run his complicated life — after marrying she moved to Monticello, where her husband managed the estate. Martha oversaw Jefferson’s extensive household while raising and homeschooling her children (she had 12) and served as first lady during visits to Jefferson in the White House.

After her mother died at age 33, Maria Jefferson Eppes accompanied her father as he traveled colonial America: “Eighteenth-century children had no control over their lives, but the lack of stability in young Maria’s was staggering,” Kerrison writes. Eventually she landed in the care of a loving aunt, but once Jefferson settled in Paris, he sent for her. Maria stubbornly resisted joining him. Determined to stay in Virginia, she had to be tricked into boarding the boat that would take her across the ocean. She was 9, and her sole companion was Sally Hemings — at 14 practically a child herself.

Little is known about Harriet Hemings. Described as “very beautiful” by Jefferson’s overseer, she labored in Jefferson’s cloth-making workshop at Monticello. In Paris, Jefferson had promised Sally Hemings that he would eventually free their children if she remained with him as a slave. (French law didn’t recognize slavery, and Sally was free to leave.) Jefferson fulfilled his promise and eventually released Harriet. But to avoid inflaming the scandal of his covert family, he never filed papers that formally freed her, ensuring that Harriet would be classified as a runaway slave for the rest of her life, risking “forcible return to Virginia and slavery if her identity was discovered and reported,” writes Kerrison. Harriet disappeared into the city of Washington, D.C. Seven-eighths white, she “passed” successfully and left no trace of herself behind.

“Jefferson’s Daughters” is as much about the father as the daughters, and it’s not a flattering portrait. Jefferson was a master compartmentalizer. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” he argued for eventual abolition while owning hundreds of slaves and keeping a shadow slave family. He praised the virtues of an Enlightenment education while insisting that it wasn’t worth lavishing on women. Of many telling details in this book, among the most revealing is the design of Monticello, which one architectural historian called “very self-centered” house. Writes Kerrison, “[T]his ‘great advocate of light and air,’ as Jefferson called himself, provided little of either for his family members on a floor with a series of small, poorly lit, nondescript rooms, none of which were even visible from the exterior.”

“Jefferson’s Daughters” is a richly textured and satisfying book, but there is unavoidable frustration in the author’s many caveats – that Maria “may have” done this or that Harriet “probably” did that. We simply don’t know. Still, this is a striking portrait of how women in Jefferson’s era lived, bravely and resourcefully, in an age that demanded fealty and absolute obedience to men.

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