Thomas Jefferson, who crafted some of the most eternal words in American history, knew a thing or two about the “pursuit of happiness.” He did, after all, spend much of his life seeking something more.
The British Empire didn’t meet his needs, so he helped foment a revolution. The New Testament wasn’t up to his standards, so he edited out those pesky parts he didn’t like. And when he became a widower, he wasn’t satisfied to seek companionship among people of his own class. Instead, evidence suggests, he looked much closer to home.
Biographers are still wrestling with the question of what drove Jefferson, who is “arguably the most revered, vexing, contradictory, complicated figure in American history,” as historian Virginia Scharff puts it in The Women Jefferson Loved.
Arguably indeed. Jefferson as the most revered American? That’s a stretch. But it’s not unusual when it comes to this rebellious redhead: Biographers have long tried to pull the fabric of Jefferson’s life over inconvenient holes and irregularities in his story. While her book is a fine portrait of a place and time, Scharff too often falls into the same trap.
Jefferson loved plenty of women, and several of them get plenty of attention in the book – his mother, wife, daughters, and granddaughters. His most infamous and problematic relationship – make that “alleged relationship” – is here too. That, of course, is the one he may have had with a slave named Sally Hemings.
The problem is that there’s little to no written documentation about many of these relationships. Except for a stray letter or two, we can’t see his mother, wife, or Hemings through their own words. For that matter, we can barely see them through his.
But Scharff, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, thinks there’s enough evidence to draw conclusions. “For Jefferson,” she writes, “love was indestructible and lifelong, a self-evident truth and a sacred obligation. Love was loyal and generous beyond limit. But it was not equal.”
Unfortunately, Scharff creates a fog that obscures Jefferson’s through the shadowy wisps of “must have been” and “maybe.”
For example, how did Jefferson and his mom get along? He hated her, claimed Fawn Brodie, one of his most controversial biographers. Wrong, Scharff says. According to her, Jefferson loved his mother.
Which is it? There are just a few strands of actual evidence, and they’re inconclusive. Yet Scharff, like other Jefferson historians, won’t let them just sit there or, for that matter, assume that the relationship may have been somewhere between love and hate. She needs to reach a verdict.
Scharff also seeks and finds clarity in the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Back in the 1970s, biographer Brodie dared to link Jefferson to his black slave and infuriate historians who were racist (or sure acted like it). They would have preferred to let the legend fade into oblivion and never consider whether Jefferson bore children with Hemings, whose descendants still live today.
DNA testing suggests – but doesn’t prove – that Jefferson indeed had a relationship with his slave. Scharff plunges into the controversy and takes a position straight out of the land of women’s studies: “His conduct was toward her was predatory and exploitative…. When Thomas Jefferson took Sally Hemings to his bed, he made her his victim.”
Again, Scharff stretches too far. While Hemings had no choice about being a slave, we don’t know about the other decisions she made regarding Jefferson or the influence, if any, that she managed to wield. She’s little more than a name, a woman who left not a word to our world, and she deserves more than to be forever defined only by the power that others had over her.
Despite its flaws, "The Women Jefferson Loved" is still an engaging read. Underneath all the speculation is a story of Revolution-era America and its many divides – slave and free, male and female, revolutionaries and loyalists. The characters in the book lived in a turbulent time when living close to the land didn’t protect them from the threats of war and uprisings and murder.
None of this is new, but Scharff brings us in for a closer look. We read about everyday activities from the duties of the slaves to the debts, family feuds, and mounds of paperwork that occupied the rich. We learn who loved whom and how. And we see people trying to pursue happiness, including a mighty and mightily flawed man named Jefferson. Here’s hoping he found what he was looking for.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.