“A focused, fresh spin on Jeffersonian biography.” —Kirkus Reviews
In the tradition of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello and David McCullough’s John Adams, historian Virginia Scharff offers a compelling, highly readable multi-generational biography revealing how the women Thomas Jefferson loved shaped the third president’s ideas and his vision for the nation. Scharff creates a nuanced portrait of the preeminent founding father, examining Jefferson through the eyes of the women who were closest to him, from his mother to his wife and daughters to Sally Hemings and the slave family he began with her.
Scharff (Home Lands: How Women Made the West) doesn't shy from controversy in this account of five women who greatly impacted Thomas Jefferson's life and career. Jefferson's mother Jane was born into privilege and mismanaged her estate her entire life. But she was educated and motivated, and passed along a "sense of duty, respect for learning, and enjoyment of the fine things of life" to her children. Jefferson's wife, the widower Martha Wayles, was a strong woman who endured one tragedy after another; Jefferson described their 10 year marriage as "unchequered happiness." Martha was the half-sister and owner of Sally Hemings, the youngest of a family of slaves she inherited from her father. Scharff cites Hemings's son in writing that Sally's "coming of age" in her late teens was linked directly to her "becoming the mistress or to use Madison Hemings's word, concubine of Thomas Jefferson," who was thirty years her senior. Jefferson's fiercely devoted daughters, Patsy and Polly, denounced rumors of the affair and round out the cast of characters who populate Scharff's fascinating study. Writing with precision, control, and a delicate lyricism, Scharff unearths not only five important figures but also a society facing epic shifts. Photos.
Totally enjoyed this book.