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April 2019: History > Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America - Catherine Kerrison - 4 Stars

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message 1: by Jemima (last edited Apr 20, 2019 05:54PM) (new)

Jemima Ravenclaw (jemimaravenclaw) | 351 comments Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Catherine Kerrison has set herself a difficult task in this book. She wishes to bring to light and to examine the lives of the three daughters, 'white and black', of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, and explore their individual experiences of growing up in America and also France, through the years 1770-1840. Through no fault of her own, she is forced to flesh out reasonably large tracts of history with suppositional theories based on little solid data and some comparative experiences, written down for posterity in the form of saved commentary and letters by peers, relatives, employees and friends of Thomas Jefferson, his legitimate daughters Martha Jefferson Reynolds and Mary (Maria) Jefferson Eppes as well as his illegitimate daughter Harriet Hemmings, born into slavery.

Martha and Maria were the only children of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha Wayles to survive past infancy. Through her marriage, Martha Wayles Jefferson endowed on Jefferson within her inheritance of 130 family slaves, the family of Elizabeth Hemmings, with whom her own father had conceived a large alternate family, including her half sister Sally. The Hemmings family was taken into her own household and served in roles in the house as trusted and loyal personal slaves to the Jefferson family.

When Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to the French court, after the death of his wife, his young 9 year old daughter Maria was sent out to him in the care of this Sally Hemmings, who was only fourteen years old herself. At some point during the next two years, Jefferson took his bonded slave Sally as 'concubine', being fully owned of him, his absolute property by Virginan law, with no rights or freedoms of her own. However, because they were in France, where it is possible that Sally could have achieved legally her freedom from her master, some verbal contract was made between them to the effect that if Sally agreed to return to Virginia with Jefferson, he would set all of their children free from slavery when they each reached their 21st birthdays. Harriet Hemmings was born into this agreement some years later, a middle child and only surviving daughter of six other children. The children born of this union were related by blood to Jefferson's legitimate offspring on both paternal and maternal sides, but were unacknowledged by the family as siblings their whole life long. Jefferson's own mother, Jane Randolf, was the daughter of a wealthy Virginian slave trader, and it is obvious from Kerrison's work that Jefferson viewed slavery, as a legitimate and necessary part of becoming a successful and productive Virginian land owner in the 18th century.

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Jefferson on June 11th 1776, extract:

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.'

To be frank, I was more than a little shocked that the man who authored and drafted the famous Declaration of Independence, described in articles even today as 'the foremost American son of The Enlightenment', could possibly have these contradictory views at one and the same time in his head. It seems that he believed that slaves, because of their race, were in some manner subhuman. Inferior beings who lacked the mental and emotional capacity to provide for themselves and their families, and could therefore be entered into his farm book amongst his list of cattle, work horses, breeding mares and sows, dehumanising more than 600 individual souls in his care. These were people with individual intelligences, abilities, emotions, desires, hopes and dreams.

As I came to this history with the haziest of ideas about pre and post revolutionary America, and the workings of the South and the North and the War of Independence (a result not of ignorance but of the fact that I am not actually American and have therefore never formally studied the history of a nation whose culture until relatively recently, had little or no impact on the history of my own country). I had a basic understanding, but no proper knowledge of the thinking and societal norms prevalent in young America and the basis of reasoning which allowed the institution and protection of slavery and skin colour based caste systems to predominate and persevere so definitively, even up until todays' modern thinking. Of course this type of thinking is also prevalent in my own country in many diverse societies, but is based on different history (although no less abhorrent) in which slavery had no direct part. The political laws and agendas of both free and slave states were not carefully being balanced against each other in the formation of our political constitution and laws, nor was our economy based on the perceived necessity of the protection of the institution of slavery.

Jefferson's attitudes and embracement of inequalities based on blood hereditary, his wish to protect his reputation for posterity and his legitimate family from scandal, as well as the tightening laws on previously freed slaves in Virginia, resulted in his sons and Harriet never being given legal documents to protect their freed or birth statuses. Instead, Harriet travelled to Washington in disguise to independently pass as white, changed her name and so disappeared from any known historical records, to protect the futures of herself and her children. There is a reasonably large commentary on the historical subjection of women to the right of male relatives at this time in America, in nearly all aspects of their lives within this work. An examination of the institutions of education, home, marriage, freedom of expression, the law and women, and how these subdued even the exceptional diligence and intelligences of Jefferson's daughters and granddaughters, who were all subject to his discriminatory edicts on these matters. In Catherine Kerrison's work, a detailed picture of Jefferson is given from the particular point of view as a landholder, slaveholder, family man and father. What emerges is a man who seems to have very little depth of feeling for others, even his own children. I found myself thinking that he was fairly accurately described by many peers as what today might be described as the ultimate narcissist, even within an era where white man reigned unchallenged, supreme.

Although the difficulties in obtaining accurate and personal knowledge of Martha, Maria and Harriet is well set out by Kerrison in this work, I feel that she has done an excellent job in making a complex and difficult subject accessible to the layman. She has provided enough plausible story to the dry facts to make it an enjoyable (if slightly pedantic at times) read for the person wanting a better knowledge of this turbulent time in American and also European history. It is written from the perspective of the lives of his three daughters and so tends mainly to include in depth information about Jefferson that might have related to them and their lives, rather than attempting a full biography of the man who became the third American President.

I feel that one of the wisest conclusions drawn from reading this historical work is deftly summarised on the last page by the author herself. I believe it may provide some motivation for reading a book which is extremely thought provoking, in also giving some explanation and understanding to why current political and social issues may be deeply rooted in the acts and attitudes of the founders of the American Nation, rather than in their glorious rhetoric, of which many patriotic Americans are justly proud.

'The tragedy of the American experience is how much has been lost following Jefferson's lead. America's hope, however, lies in the vision of those who reject those limits and strive to build the legacy embedded in his most famous words.'

Catherine Kerrison, 2018.

View all my reviews

message 2: by Joanne (new)

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7097 comments Wonderful review-I love hearing your thoughts, always so well written and provoking. I have this one on my TBR, and was happy to see a review that allows me to keep it there(as I try to whittle it down).

message 3: by Jemima (new)

Jemima Ravenclaw (jemimaravenclaw) | 351 comments Thanks Joanne. Well worth a read. Glad you liked my review

message 4: by Amy (new)

Amy | 8136 comments This is an incredibly well done thought provoking review! I deeply enjoyed it and read it the whole way through!

One of my favorite books and it squeaked into my top ten for 2016, read in the last days of December, was America’s First Daughter, (Jefferson’s Daughter). And I deeply enjoyed that view of Jefferson and his relationships over the course of time. Interesting to be contrasted to now - the guy who proposed Freedom, didn’t necessarily believe in freedom for everyone. Kind of mind blowing to think about! Well done!

message 5: by Holly R W (new)

Holly R W | 1106 comments I have been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. I read your review while thinking about that setting. At the time, my husband and I were shown the slave quarters as well as documents listing slaves as property. I have also seen a more recent article explaining that Jefferson's descendants from his two families are not on speaking and cordial terms with each other. Thank you for your well thought out review. This is a history that still has echoes and repercussions to the present day here in the U.S.

message 6: by Karin (new)

Karin | 6876 comments Interesting! I watched a program about his relationship with Sally, who was the half sister of Martha, and then read a different book on this subject, but about the children at that time.

message 7: by Jemima (new)

Jemima Ravenclaw (jemimaravenclaw) | 351 comments Holly R W wrote: "I have been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. I read your review while thinking about that setting. At the time, my husband and I were shown the slave quarters as well as documents listing sl..."
Yes, interestingly, Kerrison portrays in her book that in finally acknowledging their other relations (given no choice in the face of the definitive evidence of the truth of their claims finally), the Hemmings line relations although invited to join a reunion held annually at Monticello, were somewhat forcefully debarred from any rights to the graveyard and were shown the property by their legitimised relations who still held the keys. I imagine that went down badly after years of denial, slander and cover ups on the part of Jefferson's legitimate family.

message 8: by Jemima (new)

Jemima Ravenclaw (jemimaravenclaw) | 351 comments Amy wrote: "This is an incredibly well done thought provoking review! I deeply enjoyed it and read it the whole way through!

One of my favorite books and it squeaked into my top ten for 2016, read in the las..."

Thanks so much Amy. That book you speak of sounds like a good choice to further my education in an area I started with little knowledge.

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