Today’s Boston Globe offers a review of Mr. Jefferson’s Women, by Jon Kukla. The reviewer is Prof. Michael Kammen of Cornell, whose A Season of Youth is an interesting exploration of how the memory and symbolism of the American Revolution played out in American art and literature.
Jon Kukla never uses the familiar colloquial phrase, but [Thomas] Jefferson comes across as a male chauvinist pig - a misogynist even more committed to patriarchalism than many of his contemporaries. He had no interest in education for women, except to prepare them for deferential roles as republican mothers. Equally serious, he strongly opposed any place for women in civic life.Of course, the same could be said for most of Jefferson’s contemporaries, male and female. His misogyny appears not in his policy ideas but in his private writings.
This lifelong outlook had its genesis in 1763, when a socially inept Jefferson at 20 proposed marriage to the lovely and well-connected Rebecca Burwell, age 17, who rejected him in favor of a gentleman less rustic and with a superior lineage. For almost a decade thereafter, even as his male friends married, Jefferson displayed a dismissive mistrust of the fair sex and in 1770 recorded the following in his memorandum book: “Entrust a ship to the winds, do not trust your heart to girls, / For the surge of the sea is safer than a woman’s loyalty.” There was nothing wrong with his libido, however, because during the summer of 1768 he made repeated attempts to seduce the wife of one of his closest friends, who was away for months on frontier militia duty and had asked Jefferson, who lived nearby, to serve as the guardian of his wife and young child.One of those relationships was Jefferson’s unrequited interest in Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman he met in Paris. The image above is an engraving of her that Jefferson had at Monticello; click on it for more detail about her.
On Jan. 1, 1772, at the age of 29, Jefferson married a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. . . . The Jeffersons appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage that produced six children, only two of whom survived to maturity. When Martha died of exhaustion in 1782 following her final pregnancy, Jefferson's grief was not only genuine but overwhelming. As Martha lay on her deathbed, she displayed four fingers and said to her husband that “she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them. Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again.” He did not, yet two intense but very different relationships ensued.
The other relationship was with Sally Hemings, Martha’s half-sister. Jefferson’s own words acknowledge his attempts to woo the four white women, but the evidence of his affair with Hemings appears in his closely documented activities and her pregnancies, in other people’s words, and in the Jefferson Y-chromosome haplotype. Kukla’s book and Kammen’s review testify to how many scholars now accept without quibble that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, an idea still controversial a decade ago when Annette Gordon-Reed analyzed the previous historiography in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Kukla ultimately credits Jefferson with “thoughtful actions that implied respect, gratitude, and some measure of affection” during that relationship, noting how the law hemmed him in from treating Hemings better.
When it came to women, Jefferson was also hemmed in by his own personality. Though he was eloquent on paper, and thus eloquent to us, he was a diffident speaker and apparently shy. But as a rich, intelligent Virginia gentleman, he didn’t like to admit such shortcomings. Kukla’s book tracks how we know Jefferson showed interest in four women not enslaved to him. Three turned him down, two while they were married to other men. Yet, in a bitter irony, he wrote complaints about the uncertainty of “a woman’s loyalty,” putting the blame on the other sex. Jefferson certainly felt the bitterness, but I think he was too close to the situation to note the irony.