Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Women Jefferson Loved

Thomas Jefferson didn't really have a First Lady. His wife died before he was elected president and Jefferson had his daughters visit now and then, but they were busy having babies and raising children and couldn't permenantly be in Washington to act as the president's hostess. Not that Jefferson would have wanted a hostess anyway. He was far too Republican (Democratic) for that. He wanted to avoid any hint of a "royal court" feel creeping into the Presidential mansion.

So the question for me was "who should I read about if Jefferson had no First Lady?"

An Amazon search gave me the answer: The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff.

This book is divided into four sections that cover the lives of the women in Jefferson's life: his mother, his wife, his slave mistress, and his two daughters. A fifth section finishes the story of Jefferson's life and also comments on his granddaughters. It was so well written and well researched. During the day, when I saw the book on my nightstand, I was tempted to drop everything and read to find out what happened next!

Three things impressed me through the reading of this book.

First of all, Jefferson was a slave owner who married a slave owner. Slave-owning, plantation lifestlyle was all they knew. Such a contrast to the Adamses who paid neighbors to work on their farm and did much of their daily work themselves. Jefferson, the man who wrote "all men are created equal", owned men. 

Secondly, Jefferson was a shop-a-holic.  The debt he left behind after his death ruined his family. In today's dollars, he left between 1-2 million dollars of debt! Although he inherited some of this debt, much was accumulated because he was constantly buying things beyond his means! And spending on building projects. After his death many of his possessions were sold including Monticello to try to pay the debtors. Moral of the story? Don't spend what you don't got! Also: a refined person is refined because of their character, not because of their fancy stuff bought on credit.

Thirdly, Jefferson had some strange views on women. While in Europe, he was appalled when he noticed women doing men's work. He called this "an unequivical indication of extreme poverty." It was both a cause and symptom of social injustice. He also thought women had absolutely no place in politics. They shouldn't even discuss it. I don't know enough history of the time period to know if this view of his was unusual for the time, but what I do find strange is he often discussed politics with Abigail Adams while holding this view. And while writing that women should be focused on domestic pursuits, his daughters and granddaughters were well educated.

While discussing this book with my father, he said, "the more I read about Thomas Jefferson, the less I like him." I have to agree. I felt the same way when I read how he had a slave mistress, how he fled Monticello as the British troops were arriving, how he tricked his young daughter onto a boat to sail to France against her will, and how he purposely did not escort Elizabeth Merry, wife of the British ambassador, into dinner which possibly was a cause of the War of 1812. 

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