According to the extensive archival and DNA research of historian Catherine Kerrison, Thomas Jefferson had three daughters who lived into adulthood: Martha Jefferson Randolph (b. 1772), Mary “Maria” Jefferson Eppes (b. 1778), and Harriet Hemings (b. 1801).
Were we to time travel to the early 1800s and ask Jefferson directly, he almost certainly would have claimed two.
“He never in his lifetime publicly acknowledged the shadow family he had with Sally Hemings,” says Kerrison, speaking from Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in colonial and Revolutionary America and women’s and gender history at Villanova University, “and a time-travel visit would give him no incentive to begin in 1801.”
In Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, Kerrison (Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South, 2005) does what Jefferson could not—would not—by bearing admiring witness to the remarkable life of Harriet Hemings, who was born a slave.
“I don’t know where to start with Harriet,” Kerrison says. “She just had to be the most amazing woman. We can’t know how many people passed [as white], but I would think the combination of a high intelligence and courage, because that’s what it would have taken.”
With her slaveowner father’s approval (though not his express legal consent), Harriet left Monticello at age 21 to live free, for the rest of her life, by passing as a white woman in Washington, D.C. That Kerrison was ultimately unable to confirm her new name and lineage—despite vigorous efforts recounted in the book, included the investigation of no fewer than 58 Harriets listed as living in D.C. at the appropriate time—is a testament to the success of Harriet’s transformation.
“Unlike most enslaved girls, Harriet Hemings...had harbored great expectations for her life,” Kerrison writes in Jefferson’s Daughters, “but while Maria and Martha had played by the rules of a patriarchal society, Hemings had broken one of the most inviolate of them when she rejected racial hierarchy. In expanding the boundaries of the life into which she had been born, she was spectacularly successful, arguably even more so than the privileged Jefferson and Randolph women had been.”
Harriet’s free, white half-sisters were educated in Paris and Philadelphia and married men who, like their father, became landowners, slaveowners, and legislators. Yet they met drastically different fates: studious Martha became the magnetic matriarch of a large, curious, and capable brood whom she personally educated. Unreservedly affectionate Maria died undeservedly young, after many illnesses and complicated pregnancies.
“As we look back at them,” she writes, “these stories prompt us to ask: why were the lives, gifts, and passions of so many women excised from the Revolution’s historical legacy? Why, long after the Revolution, were people still forced to choose between their family connections and the color of their skin? And why do the discredited ideologies of gender and race continue to control and separate Americans so powerfully?”
The three, disparate female narratives in Jefferson’s Daughters allow Kerrison to discuss systems of oppression “woven into the very fabric of our common existence—before we were even a nation,” she says, and persisting to this day.
“Finding out that the founders weren’t perfect, finding out that they both created these systems of oppression and perpetuated them, shows us, in fact, how literally ‘man made’ these structures are,” Kerrison says. “The fact that they’re man made frees us to unmake them.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.