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December 19, 2010

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President's leading ladies

THOMAS Jefferson has often been described as an enigma. He was a slave owner who declared that all men are created equal. Despite insisting that he had no political ambition, he spent much of his life in politics. The third president of the United States, he saw himself foremost as a farmer, gardener and philosopher. Jefferson's character was so multilayered and contradictory that successive generations have identified with and celebrated utterly different aspects of the same man. In a similar fashion, historians and biographers have studied various facets of his life - from the obvious, like his political thought, to the more obscure, like his love of wine. Now Virginia Scharff, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico, has sought to understand Jefferson through his relationships with the women he loved: his mother, Jane Randolph; his wife, Martha; his daughters and granddaughters; and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

Jefferson's mother was in the first generation of colonial women brought up to run a plantation. But although her husband died when Jefferson was only 14, she allowed his executors to manage her son's inheritance. And when Jefferson married a wealthy widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, he added to that estate. With her he pursued his dream of domestic tranquility – one in which he ran the plantation and she organized the household. Women, Jefferson believed, should not "wrinkle their foreheads with politics" but instead "soothe and calm the minds of their husbands."

There are no surviving letters between Jefferson and his wife, or between Jefferson and his mother, and too often Scharff must resort to phrases like "We have no way of knowing" and "She may have disagreed." Sometimes, though, an entry in an account book succeeds in bringing Martha alive - when, say, a little sketch of two birds summons up the image of her doodling and dreaming over her housekeeping. It's only Jefferson's grief after her death, in 1782, that opens a window onto their relationship. For weeks he shut himself in his room or feverishly roamed the forests and mountains.

Two years later, Jefferson traveled to Paris with his oldest daughter, leaving his two younger daughters, Polly and Lucy, behind. When he received news that Lucy had died, he once again fell into a deep depression. In the aftermath, he sent for Polly, who crossed the Atlantic accompanied by 14-year-old Sally Hemings, a slave who was also Martha Jefferson's half-sister. (She was the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles, and his slave Elizabeth Hemings.) As Annette Gordon-Reed has convincingly argued in "The Hemingses of Monticello," it was in Paris that Sally probably began her lifelong job as Jefferson's chambermaid - and also became his mistress. Like his father-in-law, Jefferson would have a shadow family: Sally and their children. His was a world of complicated relationships hidden behind a veil of silence.

For those who have read Gordon-Reed's books, the story of Jefferson and Sally is familiar, so his relationships with his daughters and his grandchildren are the most revelatory parts of Scharff's book.

Scharff's approach to Jefferson allows her to paint a portrait of a man who was passionate, vulnerable and charming but also hypocritical, difficult and demanding.

Unfortunately, Scharff's imagery can often pull the reader up short. To understand the entanglement of the Wayleses, Jeffersons and Hemingses is, she asserts, "a little like trying to eat spaghetti with a knife." Speculating on whether Jefferson had sex with Maria Cosway is "a little like playing tennis with an invisible ball." Perhaps most bizarre, though, is Scharff's conclusion that reality no more resembled Thomas Jefferson's ideal of domestic bliss "than an unripe persimmon resembles a perfect pear."


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