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."