Dear friends and readers,
As I wrote last time, with this book I felt I had come back to one of my first books that had real content, Patsy Jefferson (by whom I do not know). I’m still not satisfied; while major parts of the falsifying sentimental picture of this woman that appealed to me and stayed in my memory have been corrected, a lot not. The loving father-and-daughter, the well-educated young girl & effective Washington DC hostess for the president now has been filled out with Patsy or Martha’s education (I shall call her Martha as that was her name when she grew older), adult woman’s life, difficult last years, I was still left with a white world. At each turn, for each chapter of Martha’s life the African-American people she was surrounded by were presented as an afterthought, a couple of sketched in paragraphs, apart from everything else. Paradoxically too Jefferson himself was somehow omitted: his attitudes towards women’s education, and his white wife and daughters, his outward public politics, and shaping decisions, to some extent why he went broke in the end, but nothing inward, none of his philosophy.
And yet I did like the book and recommend it for what it does. MJR belongs with thorough studies of upper class educated white southern women of the 18th and through the middle 19th century; Kierner is really readable and adds to our knowledge of the texture of such women’s lives. She also gives a frank if too discrete depiction of a slave-based society.
Love & Death at Monticello; Patsy Jefferson’s education
Kierner’s opening chapter concentrates on creating the world of mid-18th century plantation, colonial, settler’s life. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with, but also married prudently a widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of John Whales. When she came to Monticello, she brought with her as property, the children grown into adults her father had had by an enslaved woman, Elizabeth Heminges. Among them were two brothers, James and Robert, whom Jefferson trained to be a French cook and a valet, and Elizabeth’s (unacknowledged because a slave) half-sister, Sarah known to history as Sally Hemings. The first chapter covers the Jefferson’s family during the time he was a colonial official and then a participant-rebel-architect of the American revolution. Jefferson’s first career, the dangerous revolt and his rise to national prominence. Jefferson was Governor of the colony of Virgina, and the family lived in a beautiful mansion (large and fashionable for Americans, but destroyed in 1781, a fire). Then Jefferson’s position and place enabled him to receive and convey political and military information for the revolution.
We all remember the British lost, maybe not that Jefferson’s military behavior was wanting. Virginia was a main theater for some of the Revolutionary battles, and though Lafayette had arrived with a force of 1200 men, Jefferson did not call out the local militia to defend Richmond itself. The criticism heaped on him led him to do what he periodically did throughout his life: retire from public office and imply he would not be back. Until very old, he would return.
Suffice to say while the family sustained losses (including it’s recorded 30 slaves who successfully escaped), they emerged sufficiently wealthy to return to Monticello and make it again a center of local social life. Meanwhile Jefferson’s wife, Martha had had six live births or babies, and many miscarriages; two children only survived to adulthood, Martha when young called Patsy and her younger sister, Mary or Maria when young called Polly. Her fate is one Kierner records frequently: the woman slowly grew feebler with continual pregnancies and childbed ordeals, and died of them.
Jefferson was a man dependent on women for affection; he liked having women around him, and treated the young Martha as a substitute wife, a companion from the time her mother died. She was intellectually gifted. Jefferson was hostile to women having any independent careers, public power, but eager to educate those able to able to in the finer arts and thought of their society, to provide them with manners and the wherewithal to run a large household effectively and educate their own children. They were to be companions to men (very Rousseau). The portrait of the Martha that emerges is of a gifted young woman living in a society that developed these gifts for a private domestic life, leaving her room and time to fulfill herself and do limited good within her terrain.
When the new US was (so to speak) in place, Jefferson managed to secure the ambassadorship to France for himself after spending a good deal of time in Philadelphia (then the culture capital of the US) and Boston. He took Patsy with him, each time leaving her with a woman to live with to guide and educate her. One worked out well, of an enlightened intelligent mind, the other a narrow religious type she had to struggle with. She did have resentments against being left behind and the education she had to undergo — “finishing” (drawing dancing). When they went to Paris, Jefferson put her in a convent. This would seem to contradict his apparent stance that he took her with him for company and to be a hostess for him. Kierney says it was because the convent offered the best education to be had; but Jefferson wanted his daughter chaste, sheltered. He brought Patsy to Paris as a front for him to appear conventional. While there, he had a liaison, with the married Maria Cosway, an Italian-English artist; it’s revealing of his character that Jefferson remained friends with Maria by letters until his death.
The convent was French Catholic and Martha did have a period of religious enthusiasm where she told her father she longed to become a nun — soon after which she was pulled out. Nonetheless, she emerged cosmopolitan in attitudes by the whole experience. In the convent and then in her father’s house, she came across all sorts of attitudes, including outright condemnation of slavery and she herself wrote a few remarks showing she understood the abysmal horrors of this condition. Then her sister, Polly (who had never known the mother and didn’t know the father by then) was brought over (against Polly’s will) to accompany Patsy and Polly joined her father as another companion (sort of).
It was around the time Martha was taken from the convent and was joined by her sister that her life with her father changed. Polly had been accompanied by Sarah Hemings (as a sort of enslaved caretaker-governess); Sarah was a year younger than Martha and 4 years older than Polly. Sarah was also these girls’ aunt (their mother’s half-sister). Robert as Jefferson’s valet and James as the French cook were already there — mingling with the French free servants. I note they were also his wife’s half-brothers, thus Martha’s uncles (and slaves). It seems that by the time Jefferson left Paris for home again Sally was pregnant by him. Suddenly when Kierner tells the reader this, she also says that it’s probable Patsy wrote many letters during this period but all have been destroyed. Well, duh. I wonder why. I imagine she was shocked.
Jefferson was in Paris a total of 7 years. Martha had fallen in love with a Wm Stone, a protege of Jefferson, very intelligent, sophisticated, Stone had gone to Wm and Mary and come with Jefferson, but he declined to return. He had had a number of affairs with the wives of French aristocrats and preferred the relatively free liberated life of France. Martha herself made friends while there, and her Paris life remained in her mind as a high point in her existence, a time when she envisioned for herself a life of liberty and social engagement.
The picture of this family going home may seem to a 21st century mind awkward: Jefferson, Patsy and Polly, the whites and Sally, Robert and James Hemingses, the blacks who slept apart in slaves’ quarters. It’s at this point that Kierner drops in passing how much Sally looked like the white wife, Martha, now dead. The question arises why they didn’t stay in Paris? Kierner says it’s supposed Jefferson promised to free them all when he died, and to free Sally’s children at age 21. I suggest that living with him in relative opulence was superior to having nowhere to turn for jobs or sustenance, no network but Jefferson’s and the one at home was the deciding factor. Jefferson treated Sally as somewhere between a mistress and slave; she had no status — it has to be remembered how a slave is someone defined as w/o any status at all.
Wife, mother, plantation mistress
Told by a less discreet, less determinedly optimistic author, Martha’s marriage would turn into a story of how after a mere two months back, centrally because Jefferson had made Sally his mistress-wife, he married Martha off to a friend of his, Thomas Mann Randolph, whose properties abutted, whose family had intermarried with the Jeffersons. Within a few years Randolph the son’s ill-tempered and highly emotional personality emerged, and when the plantation business failed (very hard to achieve given his role as Jefferson’s substitute-aid again and again politically), he became “unstable and abusive,” even in his last decade someone who moved in and out of psychosis.
But this is not the way Kierner tells us. She produces Sally in Monticello as Jefferson’s slave-mistress very much as an afterthought as a reason for wanting to remove Patsy from the house. She concedes others have explained this over-hasty, over-young marriage as a result of Sally’s pregnant presence.
Kierner tells us that Tom Randolph and Patsy Jefferson were childhood sweethearts, of how intelligent Tom was, how much he admired Jefferson, how as the eldest son of the Randolphs he was set to inherit, how natural it all was. Only the lack of time was unusual. And yes maybe Patsy was bit young, just 17. Hard to say, only that what happened was after in the earliest couple of years of her marriage, initially living afar from Monticello, and then wanting to come back to live, Patsy’s desire to be near and with her father re-asserted itself and she and her husband first moved to a property nearby and then into Monticello itself. The couple at first did seem happy enough and worked hard to make themselves independent plantation master and mistress while Jefferson went off to serve in New York city where the political center of the country was. (Taking Sally with him.) Within 5 years Patsy had 4 children.
The Randolph family did not cooperate with Jefferson’s scheme of providing for Martha through their heir and placing her in a thriving atmosphere. Tom’s father remarried a much younger woman, Gabriella Harvie — she too the daughter of a friend and she just entrenched herself in the big house, and she had a son. Then Tom’s father wrote a new will giving most of his property to the new son. A close relative, another Tom Randolph impregnated Nancy, his wife’s sister, who seemed continually to be living with them; worse yet, when it was born, he helped her murder it. They thought to cover it up but the slaves saw and eventually the magistrates saw they would have to prosecute. The court exonerated the couple (so not only juries nullify) and Nancy and Tom and Judith took up life together again, only soon after Tom died, and then Nancy and Judith was left alone with little property.
An interesting set of statistics brought in at one point: in Albemarle where Tom and Patsy had their main property near Monticello 5579 slaves accounted for 44% of the population; the county’s 9226 slaves were the majority. To do Patsy’s husband justice he at first did not want to have more than a minimum of slaves, wanted a small holding and to be an attorney, but found he could not make money that way and found he didn’t have time to study. It’s clear that many of these wealthy people lived on an edge and their wealth was very much dependent on free slave labor, slaves they didn’t have to treat well.
Tom did not that quickly succumb to too much stress, emotional, and some kind of organic illness. He held public office, and what did him in more than anything else was debt. Debt was the burden of the southern plantation owner.
Martha spent much of her life making sure that illness did not conquer her children, a major feat with malaria everywhere. Educating them. She ran an efficient plantation too, and an important presence in her life was Molly Hemings, Sally’s niece. Molly was the daughter of Mary, Sally’s sister and thus another half-sister of Jefferson’s first wife. Jefferson has Martha and Maria (Polly’s name changed to that when she grew up, and she too was married off to a son of one of Jefferson’s friends and county allies) come to Washington to be his hostesses.
Chapter 4 comes to an end with Kierner’s suddenly telling of the children Sally had by Jefferson before Jefferson became president, Harriet, a girl who died at age 4 and William Beverly. Jefferson’s children by Sally were given white names.
Kierner does say there is a disconnect between the life Martha was allowed to live in Paris and the expectations for her future she could have formed there — especially watching how other upper class women lived. If so, and if the life thrust upon her quickly, ever felt at odds with what she had dreamed for herself, Martha never said so.
The President’s Daughter
Martha and her sister, Maria, spent two periods in Washington DC acting as hostess for their father. This was not easy for them as both had responsibilities to their husbands and homes and children. But he needed someone to present a socially acceptable face and family to the DC world. Since sometime after Jefferson became president for the first time the first raw and mean caricatures of Sally as his mistress-bull were printed, I guess that he took the bold step of taking her with him to DC. There is something unusual here: southern men did simply take black woman as if some kind of animal they had a right to, or sometimes more humanly but Jefferson’s behavior was too consistent and continual towards Sally; he also named her children with names from his family and white culture and he was bringing them up with education. Thus he was a target for ridicule and derision as part of campaigns by those who disagreed with his policies.
The tale of Jefferson’s two daughters’ lives is otherwise yearly pregnancies, childbed traumas, and babies for Martha, with Maria finally (like her mother before her) dying of this. Martha’s husband, Tom gradually gets deeper into debt. At one point they feel forced to sell a large group of black people south.
Then we have Jefferson’s post-presidency years. The book is organized along the lines of Jefferson’s life because Patsy (or Martha) organized her life in accordance with where her father was. Yet Jefferson kept his distance. We are told his part of the house were his, and Martha’s family was leary of coming into these places (library, his bedroom, a sitting room). Sally is mentioned once and we hear of more children as well as other Hemingses trained to do skilled work (John, a master woodworker, p 169)
For Martha of course yet more children too, more deterioration of her and her husband’s finances. Again Kierner is the justifier, seeking balance and cheerful normalization. Tom craved respect as a man and joined the military and made a temporary success out of that. Martha was afraid of losing Tom (by death) and got him to resign, but he felt he had won respect. Kierner recounts how most accounts of Martha’s life tell of much unhappiness and discord because finally the husband could not accept his second place and says that’s not so, there was much compatibility and satisfaction. Perhaps. But all Kierner’s details are of clash, discord. They did sell a huge parcel of land again.
Perhaps the nadir of this phase of Martha’s life is found in what happened to her daughter, Anne, whom Martha had married off young to a nearby neighbor, Charles Bankhead. Bankhead turned out to be not just a gambler, and unfaithful but violent. He assaulted his wife and not one member of the family — not Jefferson, not Martha, tried to protect her. It was okay for this man to beat this woman in another room. They would not interfere and said they were powerless. So here you have your aristocratic home with elegant knowledge and how is a chief daughter treated? (pp. 168-169) One day this man stabbed Martha’s oldest son, Jeff and almost killed him. Again (as with the early infanticide incident) there were charges but the man was found not guilty. Since her family would not help her, it’s almost fortunate that Anne was dead by 36 — the yearly pregnancies hadn’t helped either.
Martha tried to find good husbands for her other daughters. She made efforts to step them from marrying young — as she had, her (dead) sister had and now her daughter, Anne. She sent them to DC to women she knew there (Dolly Madison among them) to find suitors. One problem was she had kept them too much at home and they were awkward and somehow naive.
Decay and dissolution
A bright spot for Tom, the husband, was he became governor three times. There was no general election; you were elected by the members of the state senate. Along with his military record, this gave him a boost. Ellen, Martha’s daughter had married late and well and is happy with a well-to-do lawyer in Boston, has a baby. But the debts became overwhelming, Thomas Jefferson’s too, and by the end of the chapter Martha’s husband has had to sell most of his beloved property and also slaves. He does feel bad about this — as does she and she tries not to sell some house servants and succeeds to a certain extent. One wanted to be sold because she so hated her father who beat her. At Monticello and other Jefferson properties “enslaved persons’ to keep Kierner’s formulation were allowed to marry and encouraged to live in family groups.
Tom finally separates from Martha. He had himself been if not physically abusive, emotionally so in the last years together. He had suffered from the comparison of himself to Jefferson; now Tom’s eldest son, Jeff, the same Jeff who was stabbed was left all the property by Jefferson — some in trust for his mother. This Jeff was not intellectual and did poorly at university but he was a very good businessman. Tom could not accept this. It was Jeff who pushed his father, Tom, to sell his property and then Jeff himself bought it, cut it into parcels and sold each separately, making a profit — something badly needed.
Jefferson took a long time dying. While just ill, Lafayette came once more and it was a happy time — both aging men cried. Again Kierner is grating. It seems to take her a real effort to finally admit the last 2 week vigil of Martha sitting by her father included Sally in that room. It also is hard to her to call Jefferson’s sons by Sally his sons. They were freed shortly before he died and sent on their way as apprentices and with skills — well out of the area to protect them. Sally was (oddly)was not freed. I don’t know why not and it’s not explained. She goes to live with a (suddenly appealing) grandchild and other Hemings relatives in Charlottesville. Nominally she and they remain owned by Martha. It was an understood arrangement which worked. Salley died in 1835.
So the chapter closes, and Martha must leave her home. She chooses first to live with Ellen in Boston. Her other unmarried daughters plan to open a school. Jess is a businessman farmer. They all did dislike slavery, on record about this and they now own very few — house and personal servants. she staved off opening a school and teaching. She would say she wanted to, but in a revealing phrase, she concedes that since people send their children to learn whatever it is for a few short years at most, you must ever be introducing a pupil to an area, giving them elementary background and never get to where it’s interesting. So all her languages knowledge would have devolved into grammar exercises.
For Martha’s last years, see comments.