The Patriarch

From The New York Times:

Jeff Thomas Jefferson’s mother, who came from a rich and influential Virginia family, was in the first generation of colonial women brought up to run a plantation. But although her husband died when Jefferson was only 14, she allowed his executors to manage her son’s inheritance. And when Jefferson married a wealthy widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, he added to that estate. Martha was not only rich, she was also beautiful, and she shared Jefferson’s love of music. With her he pursued his dream of domestic tranquility — one in which he ran the plantation and she organized the household. Women, Jefferson believed, should not “wrinkle their foreheads with politics” but instead “soothe and calm the minds of their husbands.” There are no surviving letters between Jefferson and his wife, or between Jefferson and his mother, and too often Scharff must resort to phrases like “We have no way of knowing” and “She may have disagreed.” Sometimes, though, an entry in an account book succeeds in bringing Martha alive — when, say, a little sketch of two birds summons up the image of her doodling and dreaming over her housekeeping. It’s only Jefferson’s grief after her death, in 1782, that opens a window onto their relationship. For weeks he shut himself in his room or feverishly roamed the forests and mountains.

Two years later, Jefferson traveled to Paris with his oldest daughter, Patsy, to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as an American diplomat in Europe, leaving his two younger daughters, Polly and Lucy, behind. When he received news that Lucy had died of the whooping cough, he once again fell into a deep depression. In the aftermath, he sent for Polly, who crossed the Atlantic at the age of 9, accompanied by 14-year-old Sally Hemings, a slave who was also Martha Jefferson’s half-sister. (She was the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, and his slave Elizabeth Hemings.) As Annette Gordon-Reed has convincingly argued in “The Hemingses of Monticello,” it was in Paris that Sally probably began her lifelong job as Jefferson’s chambermaid — and also became his mistress. Like his father-in-law, Jefferson would have a shadow family: Sally and their children. His was a world of complicated relationships hidden behind a veil of silence.

More here.