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A deeply undemocratic Jefferson

Book details Founder's anti- female attitudes

Mrs. Maria Cosway, with whom Jefferson conducted a brief flirtation. Mrs. Maria Cosway, with whom Jefferson conducted a brief flirtation. ("MR.JEFFERSON'S WOMEN")
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kammen
December 23, 2007

Mr. Jefferson's Women
By Jon Kukla
Knopf, 279 pp., illustrated, $26.95

This fascinating book is not a frivolous addition to the extensive body of writing about one of the most renowned among the Founders. It is serious, meticulous, and well written (save for some needless repetition), and it will significantly tarnish Thomas Jefferson's already sullied reputation as the father of at least several children by his slave Sally Hemings.

The latter is only one among numerous charges leveled by a scholar who has spent much of his long career in Virginia. Jon Kukla never uses the familiar colloquial phrase, but Jefferson comes across as a male chauvinist pig - a misogynist even more committed to patriarchalism than many of his contemporaries. He had no interest in education for women, except to prepare them for deferential roles as republican mothers. Equally serious, he strongly opposed any place for women in civic life.

This lifelong outlook had its genesis in 1763, when a socially inept Jefferson at 20 proposed marriage to the lovely and well-connected Rebecca Burwell, age 17, who rejected him in favor of a gentleman less rustic and with a superior lineage. For almost a decade thereafter, even as his male friends married, Jefferson displayed a dismissive mistrust of the fair sex and in 1770 recorded the following in his memorandum book: "Entrust a ship to the winds, do not trust your heart to girls, / For the surge of the sea is safer than a woman's loyalty." There was nothing wrong with his libido, however, because during the summer of 1768 he made repeated attempts to seduce the wife of one of his closest friends, who was away for months on frontier militia duty and had asked Jefferson, who lived nearby, to serve as the guardian of his wife and young child.

On Jan. 1, 1772, at the age of 29, Jefferson married a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, the daughter of a prosperous planter who had taken a slave mistress following the death of his third wife. The slave bore him several children, including the fair-skinned Sally, who thereby became the half sister of Jefferson's wife. The Jeffersons appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage that produced six children, only two of whom survived to maturity. When Martha died of exhaustion in 1782 following her final pregnancy, Jefferson's grief was not only genuine but overwhelming. As Martha lay on her deathbed, she displayed four fingers and said to her husband that "she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them. Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again." He did not, yet two intense but very different relationships ensued.

The first involved a famous though unconsummated affair with the Florentine-born Englishwoman Maria Cosway. For Jefferson it was infatuation at first sight, yet he observed all the proprieties as he and both Cosways made the rounds sightseeing in Paris and its environs. Ultimately, as Kukla explains quite well, it was Maria "who defined the terms of their relationship: a friendship enhanced by shared cultural passions rather than an erotic physical affair." The famous literary "product" of this episode was Jefferson's "Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart," dated Oct. 12, 1786. It is unusual for many reasons, most notably because the normally discreet statesman not only sent a copy to Maria, but made a fair copy for himself that survives in his papers, indicating he wanted posterity to know the reasons his head prevailed over his heart.

His relationship with Sally Hemings has received abundant attention during the past decade, especially after DNA evidence demonstrated conclusively that Jefferson had fathered at least some if not all of Sally's children. Jefferson was 50 when the sexual relationship began, quite early in 1794, at Monticello. Kukla's key contribution involves his use of Jefferson's own words to reveal just how fully he understood the exploitative nature of his actions. Early in the 1780s he had written that "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances."

At his death, Jefferson freed the children he had sired with Sally. He could not manumit Sally for legally complex reasons without forcing her to leave Virginia; but she lived virtually a free woman until 1835 and remained in her native state with two of her children. Because of his massive indebtedness, much of Jefferson's property was sold the year following his death, including almost all his remaining slaves (which resulted in the separation of families).

Kukla's book is not intended as character assassination. It carefully and candidly sifts a great deal of fragmentary and elusive evidence. Although the author deems his subject "exploitive and selfish," he concludes the "Sally chapter" with these carefully chosen words: "With his daughter's help, Jefferson finally rescued Sally Hemings and all their surviving children from slavery. Against some formidable [legal] obstacles - through thoughtful actions that implied respect, gratitude, and some measure of affection - their story ended in a way that suggests that promises had been made and were kept."

One other anecdote must be added here because it resonates so fully with a heated issue of the moment. The only woman whose intellect and spirit Jefferson felt compelled to respect was John Adams's wife, Abigail, and their extensive correspondence is illuminating. After Adams and Jefferson (such ardent allies in 1776) fell out during Adams's presidency when Jefferson served as vice president, rancorous letters began to be exchanged by Jefferson and Abigail. Ultimately, she could forgive all his partisan activities save one: When Jefferson became president, John Quincy Adams was dismissed from his district judgeship in Massachusetts, apparently for political reasons.

Jefferson strenuously denied any knowledge of what had happened or why. He also pointed out to Abigail that her son had been replaced by another Federalist rather than a Republican. In 1800, perhaps, qualified Republicans were scarce items in Massachusetts.

Michael Kammen is the author of "A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture," recently reissued in paperback by Transaction Books.

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