STARRED REVIEW
January 30, 2018

Three women in their father’s shadow

By Catherine Kerrison

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson, his family and his illegitimate daughter, Harriet Hemings. But historian Catherine Kerrison eloquently manages to shed new light on the Founding Father and his relationships with three of his very different children in her new book, Jefferson’s Daughters.

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Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson, his family and his illegitimate daughter, Harriet Hemings. But historian Catherine Kerrison eloquently manages to shed new light on the Founding Father and his relationships with three of his very different children in her new book, Jefferson’s Daughters.

Jefferson married a young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, in 1772, and eventually had six children with her, although only two would reach adulthood—Martha and Maria. But these girls had half-siblings mothered by Sally Hemings, a slave who was their lady’s maid and companion.

Each daughter took a different path. Jefferson brought Martha, the apple of his eye, along with him while serving as ambassador in Paris, where she thrived and received a top-notch education. Maria was a beautiful and feisty young woman who strove to break away from her father’s control, exhibiting an “emotional maturity that has been entirely overlooked” by scholars. And although she was born into slavery, Harriet was able to leave Monticello and escape slavery at the age of 21, passing as a white woman and obtaining the “privileges of white womanhood,” bearing and raising her children in freedom. However, this meant giving up her family name and being separated from her mother and younger brothers, who remained in slavery.

Jefferson’s character has been the subject of much scrutiny, particularly after DNA testing documented a connection between Sally’s youngest child, Eston, and the Jefferson male line in 1998. Although Jefferson promoted individual liberty, he contradicted this endorsement by owning slaves. Kerrison writes about this contradiction with thoroughness and candor, piecing together massive amounts of research, including letters, journal entries, financial accounts and commentary from family descendants. In meticulous detail, her knowledgeable yet conversational style makes Jefferson’s Daughters a thought-provoking nonfiction narrative that reads like a novel.

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Jefferson’s Daughters

Jefferson’s Daughters

By Catherine Kerrison
Ballantine
ISBN 9781101886243

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