Blame Ken Howard. Or those orange biographies. I can't remember which came first, but at about the same time my parents took me to the film musical 1776, which starred a young Ken Howard as the very romantic Thomas Jefferson, I also read the Childhoods of Famous Americans biography of Jefferson. From kindergarten on, I revered our third president.
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I don't recall exactly when I learned about Sally Hemings, but it sure wasn't when I was a kid. At some point I became aware that Jefferson was a slave owner (though it wasn't from the orange biography, which avoids the word "slave" altogether). The revelation that Jefferson owned both his mistress and the children she bore to him came pretty late.
I realized that I'd managed to cling to a romanticized vision of Jefferson as a weak but essentially benevolent and just man when I read Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's Jefferson's Sons. It didn't take very long for my attitude to shift 180 degrees.
Bradley gives readers a leisurely snapshot of life at Monticello through the eyes of three enslaved children: Beverly and Madison Hemings, Jefferson and Hemings’ two older sons, and Peter Fossett, another enslaved boy at the estate. She covers a little over 20 years, shifting perspective from boy to boy as each ages.
One telling detail, right at the beginning of the book, took my breath away. Readers meet the Hemings family in their cabin on Mulberry Row, Monticello's slave quarters. Master Jefferson is home from Washington for a visit, "and everything had changed…Mama worked and worked. What's more, she stayed up at the great house every night."
Beverly is 7, Harriet is almost 5 and Madison is a baby. What kind of monster takes a mother away from her small children all night, every night, leaving them with a "big girl" who must soothe the infant with a cloth soaked in sugar water if he wakes up before Mama returns?
One who truly regards this family—his family—as property, not fellow human beings.
Time and again, the effects of Jefferson's capriciousness as an owner of human chattel is felt on the families of Monticello. Bradley weaves these details in matter-of-factly, letting readers experience them as enslaved people must have. It is the accretion of these details, leading up to a truly devastating ending, that drives home to readers that there's no such thing as benevolent slaveholding.
Bradley's art is backed up by copious research. Her decision to describe Hemings’ sleeping arrangements as she does is artistic license informed by a keen understanding of the recorded household patterns of Monticello. It is, in my opinion, a masterstroke. Her fictional lens presents a fully complex vision of a man whose public works may have been great but whose private life exemplifies one of our country's greatest brutalities.
Readers will never look at Jefferson the same way again.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.