Enticing, relentlessly driving exposé of a Founding Father’s private and public misogyny.
After a stormy scholarly conference about Thomas Jefferson’s long affair with his slave Sally Hemings, Virginia historian Kukla (A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America, 2003, etc) looked for a book about Jefferson’s relations with women in general, assuming that it already existed. Instead, he ended up writing it, and his conclusions are dismaying. Kukla asserts that after belle Rebecca Burwell rejected his proposal when he was 20, Jefferson demonstrated throughout his adult life predatory urges toward women, a fear of disruptive female influences (exacerbated by the alarming conduct of women during the French Revolution) and a distasteful endorsement of the master-slave model for male-female relations. Despite his friendship with Abigail (“Remember the Ladies”) Adams, Jefferson remained adamant about excluding women from the liberties of the new American republic. He needed to control the women in his life, Kukla argues. Before his happy 11-year marriage to the widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, the young lawyer repeatedly attempted to seduce Elizabeth Walker, the wife of his best friend. Marriage to Martha, the perfect domestic partner, solidified Jefferson’s patriarchal ideal of gender roles. Marooned at her death, he later futilely flirted with a married Englishwoman in Paris and back home in Monticello took up for the rest of his life with the much younger, attractive and light-skinned Hemings, who was actually the half-sister of his dead wife. Their six children were emancipated in his will, although he never mentions Hemings by name. Closing with a grim litany of his subject’s consistent opposition to “any departure from an exclusively domestic role as republican wives and mothers,” Kukla concludes that “Jefferson’s personal aversion to and fear of women in public life shaped American laws and traditions in ways that echo into the twenty-first century.”
Necessary reading—but an awful revelation of a great man’s failings.