The Magazine

Jefferson Revised

Was the architect of liberty our first limousine liberal?

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Mr. Jefferson's Women

by Jon Kukla

Vintage, 304 pp., $14.95

Twilight at Monticello

The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson

by Alan Pell Crawford

Random House, 352 pp., $15

Thomas Jefferson in public and in office is a formidable figure: delegate to the Virginia legislature, governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, first secretary of state, second vice president, third president, and the inspiration and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, one of those rare documents that remake and unsettle the world.

But Jefferson in love and retirement is a whole other story, as these two books by Virginia historians, now in paperback, contrive to set out in detail. In these, the Sage of Monticello is depicted as a racist, a sexist, a deadbeat, a sexual predator à la Bob Packwood, a bad grandfather, a terrible paterfamilias, a bad farmer, an even worse businessman, and a most unreliable friend. Most of the loves in his life were the women: his daughters, Maria and Martha, and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, who loved him; Maria Cosway, Rebecca Burwell, and Elizabeth Walker, who rejected him; and Sally Hemings, his wife's slave and half-sister, who could, and did, not.

The other great love was his house, Monticello, which had always been more an ideal than a building; a demanding mistress that absorbed much of his time and attention, and drained him of large sums of cash.
Jefferson began building it in 1767 at age 24, shortly before laying siege to Elizabeth Walker, and brought his wife to it as a bride five years later; saw his wife, three infants, and his daughter Maria die there; and retired to it--and Martha and Sally--in 1809, after serving his two terms as president.

"I long to be among you," he wrote to Martha three months before he retired, "where I know nothing but love and delight." But love and delight would prove hard to come by, as would most of his hopes for domestic tranquility. And his last 17 years at his home--with two of those women--would prove very trying indeed.

Like his hopes for retirement Jefferson's hopes for romance often fell short of reality, and began doing so at a young stage in his life. He was 19 in 1762 when he fell in love with Rebecca Burwell, then 16 and the sister of one of his schoolmates, and spent two years nursing elaborate fantasies, which he never shared with the lady herself.

On October 6, 1763, he proposed; but in the event he was stricken by panic, expressing himself in "a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length." Not surprisingly, he was rejected, and when he heard months later of her engagement to Jacquelin Ambler, the news "triggered a violent head ache" that lasted three days.

What happened next would be even more troubling: Asked in 1768 by John Walker, his close friend and neighbor, to look after his wife and small daughter while Walker was on a four-month trip away from Virginia, the 25-year-old bachelor began a campaign of seduction that went on through the summer, continued even after Walker returned in November, continued after Jefferson himself was married, and went on for 11 years. Apparently feeling that if her husband knew, he and his old friend would come to blows (or worse, a duel), Elizabeth Walker kept silent until 1784 after Jefferson left for his tenure in Paris, only telling her husband repeatedly she had no idea why Walker continued to trust him, and urging him to remove Jefferson as executor of Walker's will.

According to a paper Walker wrote later, between July 1768 and October 1779, the future president continued to press his attentions, slipping a note in praise of adultery into the cuff of Elizabeth's sleeve during a visit to Shadwell paid by the Walkers, slipping into her room while she was undressing in the course of a visit both couples paid to a neighbor, and trying to "seize her on her way from her Chamber" on a visit that Jefferson (along with his wife) paid to the Walkers at their mansion, Belvoir.

In Walker's account, which was never refuted by Jefferson, these assaults on his wife overlapped with the first seven years of Jefferson's marriage, casting a cloud on a time and union which Jefferson described as one of "unchequered happiness." Nonetheless, when Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, five months after the birth of their sixth and last child, Jefferson's grief was extreme. Minutes before, he "was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister .  .  . who, with great difficulty, got him into his library where he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he would never revive."

He spent three weeks in his room, pacing incessantly, then emerged to go on long, aimless rambles on horseback, followed by Martha, his 10-year-old daughter, who wrote nearly 50 years later, "In these melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent (out)burst of grief." Jefferson would later attest to "that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss had occasioned it," and complain that "a single event wiped away all my plans, and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up."

He did, in fact, not do so until four years later when he met Maria Cosway in Paris, the unhappy wife of a talented artist, and a talented artist herself. There were two idyllic weeks in Paris before Jefferson's luck turned again: He fractured his wrist (which would never heal properly) and, soon after, the Cosways were gone.

Maria returned, alone, a year later. But when she did, her interest had tempered: She spent her time with Italian and Polish nobility, and saw Jefferson at large dinners and balls. "Already an emotional catastrophe for Jefferson, Maria Cosway's visit ended early in December on a particularly sour note," Jon Kukla tells us, as Maria arranged a breakfast the day of her scheduled departure, and then stood him up: "The emotional details are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart waiting for Ingrid Bergman at the train station in Casablanca."

They corresponded intermittently for several decades, but never again saw one another. "The blunt fact remained," Kukla writes, "that three of the four women to whom Jefferson had offered his Heart had rejected it, and the fourth would be taken from him by death."

Two months before Maria's second visit to Paris, Sally Hemings had arrived in the city, having accompanied Jefferson's daughter Maria, then six. A house slave who had come to Monticello in Martha Jefferson's dowry, Sally was also his late wife's half-sister, one of six children born to John Wayles by his slave, Betty Hemings, after Wayles's two wives had died. Then 14, she was later described as "light-colored, and decidedly good-looking .  .  . very handsome .  .  . [and] mighty near white."

What was not said, but also seems likely, was that she may have looked a great deal like Jefferson's wife, who was also described as "slender and pretty," though with auburn hair and dark hazel eyes. What happened next will be never made certain, but sometime between 1789, when she was 16, and 1795, when she was 22 and bore her first child, Sally Hemings and Jefferson had established a strong and informal relationship which lasted the rest of his life.

Aside from the rumors, which circulated widely through Jefferson's lifetime, these two books rest their case on three things:

First, that Jefferson's bedroom after he came back from Paris was on the first floor of the house and far away from those of other family members; the windows of his room were shielded by louvered verandas that made it hard to see into it, while hidden staircases led from the room to the slave quarters beneath it, and a circular staircase led from Jefferson's library to Sally Hemings' room underneath.

Second, that in the later years of Jefferson's retirement, when Sally's children were older, visitors to Monticello remarked on the resemblance of some of the younger slaves to their master, and in the words of a grandson, one dinner guest "looked so startled as he raised his eyes from [Jefferson] to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was .  .  . perfectly obvious to all."

Third, Sally and her children were given privileges above all the other house slaves and servants, "permitted to stay in the great house, and required to do such light work as going on errands," as one of her children wrote later. "We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used."

All of Sally Hemings's children were freed, either before Jefferson's death, when they were permitted to "walk off" the plantation, or shortly after, under the terms of his will. So was Sally herself, "who lived out her life as a virtually free woman" in the care of her two younger sons.

Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson (long married to her cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph) and children of both were at Monticello to greet Jefferson when he came home for the last time, after having retired the presidency in March 1809. In today's world Jefferson would have written his memoirs, joined corporate boards, made speeches, and settled into life as a millionaire super-celebrity. In the world of 1809 he went back to farms that had suffered as a result of his absence, inside a larger plantation economy that was entering a period of economic decline.

It was a bad situation that he made even worse. A rich man's son, he had always spent lavishly, and refused to adjust to conditions, or even acknowledge them. Money continued to flow, on fine wine, thoroughbred horses, books, clothing, silk dresses, and musical instruments for his army of grandchildren, and of course, constant improvements made to his house. Aware of the debts he already shouldered, he began building a new house on his property, in spite of the fact it would double his debts. Periodically, he made sporadic attempts in questionable taste to pay off his burdens: He sold lands belonging to his friend Philip Mazzei and never sent him the money; he sold his books to the Library of Congress; near the end, he was trying to float the idea of a state-sponsored lottery, by which the citizens of Virginia (presumably in gratitude) would band together to pay off his debts.

Nothing helped. In 1815 visitors to Monticello found the beloved house in the process of falling to pieces, with slaves busily boarding up broken windows and the chairs in the drawing room "completely worn through." Ten years later the family's plight had become the talk of the county, with friends and family members suggesting such remedies as closing off half the great house and renting the farms. As a last resort Jefferson pulled his grandson and heir--Martha's oldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph--away from his studies to come home and work as a general overseer, ending the boy's hopes for a professional or political career. Caught in a spiral of downward mobility, other grandchildren talked about taking in boarders. One granddaughter "wished she could support herself .  .  . instead of .  .  . keeping house here, but I suppose not until we sink entirely will it do for the granddaughters of Thomas Jefferson to take in work or keep up a school."

The financial woes intensified all of the strains in the family, which were trying enough on their own. Daughter Martha, who had married in haste and spent the rest of her life repenting at leisure, was a permanent houseguest with most of her children, fleeing the stresses of life with her husband, an unstable man of erratic temperament whose resentment of the emotional ties between his wife and his lionized father-in-law had made him a difficult mate. Eventually, it would be found that Randolph had run up on his own a debt of between $20,000 and $30,000, to add to that already carried by Jefferson, leaving some of his children to sue him to avoid being carried down in his wake.

His grandson's role as the family member chosen to shoulder the burdens not borne by his father and grandfather continued to rankle: "Jefferson Randolph's life during his years as his grandfather's tenant farmer was not what he had imagined for himself," Alan Pell Crawford tells us, with some understatement. "Almost overnight [he] had 'gone from being a student .  .  . to being a glorified farm hand. Compelled to throw my books aside and devote myself, mind and body .  .  . to the care of my grandfather and his affairs.' " In his memoir Jeff Randolph would write of years spent rising before dawn and coming home after nightfall, traveling 30 miles or more to inspect far-flung holdings, returning home after dark in inclement weather, swimming his horse across rain-swollen streams.

In 1819 he was attacked by a brother-in-law, who stabbed him repeatedly, nearly killing him, and almost cost him the use of one arm. As his reward Jefferson would one day hang his grandson's portrait in the second tier of his gallery at Monticello, telling him he was not fit to hang with his heroes--Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette among them--because he had not finished school.

The deterioration in Jefferson's approaches to finances and family carried over to public affairs. When the Missouri Compromise was announced in 1820, he was alarmed, largely by the declaration that the states north of the 36-30 border would always be slavery-free. Jefferson, Crawford says, "now found himself favoring the spread of slavery into the territories .  .  . [and] also hoping for the creation of new slave states if only to counter the growing power of the north." So morally obtuse was he at this point that he considered the north's antislavery protests to be a "mere party trick," a stalking horse for the Federalists he had fought in Washington to further their plans for a strong central government. He left no doubt he would favor secession to further submission to northern and federal power, as further attempts to regulate slavery would "render separation preferable to further discord."

Jefferson may have reflected the views of the majority of planters in his state and region, but among the Founders he had always been the exception, far more comfortable with the "peculiar institution" of slavery than George Washington, George Mason, or James Madison, not to mention northerners such as Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and John Jay. There is no doubt that, had he lived decades later, Jefferson would have been in the forefront of those defying Abraham Lincoln. The most progressive of the Founders in 1776 had become the most reactionary 40 years later, clinging hard to an unlovely past.

Kukla, who writes from the viewpoint of an ardent NOW booster, makes a case, based on Jefferson's dislike of Marie Antoinette, certain French socialites, and Elizabeth Merry (wife of the British ambassador during Jefferson's tenure in the White House), that Jefferson was afraid of and hostile to intelligent women, and took care to suppress their political aspirations.

The first part of this claim is complicated by his fondness for Abigail Adams and Angelica Church, among others, and by Crawford's statement that, at Monticello,

The "accomplished" women spoke as freely as the half-educated men. .  .  . Martha and her daughters spoke their minds, even on matters that on other plantations were reserved for men only. At Monticello, women were encouraged to enter into serious conversation by Jefferson himself. .  .  . Throughout his retirement years, Jefferson's closest and most trusted advisor was clearly Martha, whose judgment he esteemed above that of most men.

As for the second, too much is made of the moves of the widowed president in eliminating the twice-weekly soirees held by first ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams in favor of working dinners restricted to male politicians, as there were no female officeholders in Washington in the 1800s and there was no first lady or hostess at hand.

What would Jefferson do in 2009, faced with a Hillary Clinton or a Condoleezza Rice? We don't know. Nor can we know his emotions when engaged in his most problematic affairs. Was Jefferson a predator who took advantage of a woman he owned, as did many slave owners? Or was he a lonely man, badly bruised by loss and rejection, who struck a bargain with an attractive young woman, whose conditions he honored, and kept? Was he indifferent to the pain and strain he was causing Elizabeth Walker? Or was he ashamed and caught in an obsession he had tried, and failed, to control?

What we can know is how Jefferson behaved in retirement, and on that score the verdict is clear. He was, in effect, our first limousine liberal, a child of privilege who fancied himself the voice of the people, laid out ideals that he failed to live up to, and imagined a life far more high-minded than the one that he managed to live.

He was a man of the future who impoverished his children; a prophet of freedom who opposed its extension; and one of the architects of a great and powerful union who admitted, years later, that he would not take it badly if it were to be broken apart. Old age did not become Thomas Jefferson, who was in the end a bad friend, a bad patriarch, and a bad friend to union and liberty.
It is not enough to blot out the many great things that he did for his country, but it is sufficient to make one think twice when one looks at his lovely memorial. Or thinks of the writing therein.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.