Monday, November 8, 2010

Virginia Scharff's "The Women Jefferson Loved"

Virginia Scharff is Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly publications include Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (1991); Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West (2003); two textbooks, Present Tense: The United States Since 1945 (1996); and Coming of Age: America in the Twentieth Century (1998); and the edited volume, Seeing Nature Through Gender (2003).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Women Jefferson Loved, and reported the following:
If you open The Women Jefferson Loved to page 99, you’ll get a revealing glimpse of the book. You’ll be standing at the moment when Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of Thomas, lost her father, John Wayles, and gained her inheritance. Wayles took care to see that his four daughters, Martha and her half-sisters, Elizabeth, Tabitha and Anne, received equal portions of his holdings. He was especially concerned to see that Martha, daughter of his first wife, was not cheated out of her due by any of his later wives. Jefferson would later have his own way of dealing with that potential problem.

Martha’s inheritance (which, of course, instantly passed to her husband) included eleven thousand acres of land and 135 human beings, more than doubling Thomas Jefferson’s fortune. Along with those things, however, came a debt “that did not seem onerous at the time, but would bedevil Jefferson for all the years to come.”

Readers may already know something of the stories of the land and the debt and the people Martha Jefferson brought to her union with her husband. Martha Jefferson inherited her father’s concubine, Elizabeth Hemings, and six of her own half-brothers and sisters. The Wayles-Jefferson-Hemings family was the very embodiment of Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided,” a family that lived every day pretending, at least publicly, that the bonds among them did not exist, even as they were all pledged, in different ways, to take care of each other. Thomas Jefferson would carry on in his father-in-law’s fashion, himself fathering children with John Wayles’s daughter, Sally Hemings, and not insignificantly, piling up debts of his own.

But what you won’t see on page 99 is the emotional quality of Jefferson’s relationships with women, the belief in love and affection that he learned at his mother’s knee. The lifelong connections, of blood and tension and affection and denial, between the enslaved and free children of John Wayles, and the family of Thomas Jefferson, were forged in kinship, and in Jefferson’s promises to women he loved. Those unequal bonds shaped everything he brought into being, from the first spring peas of his garden to his greatest public legacies.
Learn more about The Women Jefferson Loved at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue