If you really want to analyze the founding fathers through their love lives, Alexander Hamilton is the man to watch, the only blackmail-paying, apology-offering adulterer in the bunch. Washington, Adams, Jay, the long and loyally married, can sit this one out. A scamp from early on and a flirt well into his widowed 70s, Franklin was ultimately more talk than action. Which again raises that pesky question: What to do with Jefferson?
MR. JEFFERSON’S WOMEN
By Jon Kukla.
Illustrated. 279 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
The romantic history is a checkered one. It begins with the radiant, lighthearted Rebecca Burwell, who in 1763 spurned 20-year-old Tom, to his embarrassment. Five years later, he aggressively pursued a married woman, the wife of a close friend. The overtures continued for some time, probably into Jefferson’s marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton. Under duress he came about as close to acknowledging his lapse as have others in his situation. “When young and single I offered love to a handsome lady,” he conceded later, without noting that the lady in question was not herself single or that it was not exactly love he was offering.
A decade of marriage followed, the texture of which is unknowable; Jefferson destroyed the correspondence with Martha. We do know that widowerhood plunged him into despair, for which France was the remedy. With Paris came a dalliance — sentimental if not sexual — with the enchanting, golden-haired Maria Cosway, the Italian-born marvel, and with Paris came of course Sally Hemings, the mulatto beauty, Martha Jefferson’s half-sister and Jefferson’s slave, who would bear her owner six children.
In “Mr. Jefferson’s Women,” Jon Kukla connects the dots — a painful, public rejection; a series of boorish, inappropriate advances; an ill-fated marriage; a two-week Parisian idyll; and a sexual relationship with a slave — to make the case that Jefferson at best harbored a “lifelong uneasiness around women,” at worst distinguished himself as a thoroughgoing misogynist. The author of a book on the Louisiana Purchase and the executive vice president of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, Kukla knows his period. And he is at ease with his Virginia history. Whether you will buy his portrait of Thomas Jefferson is another story.
Many things gave Jefferson debilitating headaches — the death of his mother and the trial of Aaron Burr among them — but the news of Rebecca Burwell’s engagement to a rival set off the first. It does not seem too much to label the affair an obsession on Jefferson’s part, though generally he was tepid in his tributes, except where architecture was concerned. There is no question that he took the news badly. There is equally little question that a long sulk followed. On the other hand, brooding was a Jeffersonian specialty. After his college graduation, he warned that he would in all likelihood die soon, a claim he made regularly for the next 63 years.
It’s entirely plausible that Rebecca Burwell reinforced the swoons of self-pity; first love will leave an impression. But Kukla goes further. To the rejection he attributes “the misogyny of Jefferson’s 20s,” a “deepening mistrust of women” and a “more predatory demeanor” toward the opposite sex. That discomfort would mature, he reminds us often, into an extreme selfishness: Jefferson would “always put himself and his needs first.”
Sally Hemings was manna from heaven to a 19th-century Federalist in search of an impeachable offense on President Jefferson’s part, and she remains a great gift to anyone in search of an indictment today. While it is difficult to read that relationship in anything resembling a flattering light, the truth is that we know nothing of its emotional tenor. Kukla admits as much, though not without convicting Jefferson in the same paragraph for having always been with Hemings “exploitative and selfish” — “an extreme version perhaps of his attitudes toward women in general.” Generally, Kukla is working with a thin historical record; the perhapses pile up. More disturbingly, the evidence seems honed to fit an argument.
Kukla pays ample tribute to Abigail Adams but has no time for other women of whom Jefferson thought highly: for the feminist Fanny Wright, for example, or Lafayette’s aunt, Madame de Tessé. When Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he meant what he said; he believed women were put on earth to love, honor and obey; he sentenced them to the domestic sphere. He indulged in a severely patriarchal style of parenting. (To his younger daughter, for whom his letters were as a rule admonitory: “Remember too as a constant charge not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you as much.”) Always he maintained a firm faith in appearances; he seems to have assumed a woman to be the sum of hers. He could indeed be attracted to married women. He disapproved of female meddling in politics, but his blaming Marie Antoinette for the French Revolution does not necessarily reveal a hatred of women. Surely it’s possible to decry “the spirit of female intrigue” without being a misogynist, or at least I hope it is, or I’m one too.
gainst President Jefferson, Kukla holds his frequent all-male dinners; by preferring these to receptions, Kukla argues, Jefferson neatly “deflected the social influence of women at the seat of government.” Was this on account of “his personal fear of women” or because there was no Mrs. Jefferson at the time? Similarly, Kukla makes a good deal of Jefferson’s snubs of Elizabeth Merry, the overbearing, overdressed wife of the British ambassador. Here Kukla seems to confound a distaste for pageantry with a distaste for women. Maybe Jefferson simply committed a diplomatic faux pas. Maybe he missed a social cue. Or maybe (as Jefferson implied elsewhere) Elizabeth Merry was insufferable.
Kukla contrasts Jefferson unfavorably with Benjamin Rush and the Marquis de Condorcet, progressive thinkers whose ideas about women were especially advanced. If, however, the charge that Jefferson “did nothing whatsoever to improve the legal or social condition of women in American society” holds, his entire generation stands convicted. It seems as unfair to tar him with that brush as it does to accuse him of selfishness, behavior that would hardly distinguish Jefferson, or most of the rest of us, in any century.
What the archives do reveal, despite some exasperating lacunae, is a pronounced ability on Jefferson’s part to make himself wretched; a vexed battle with self-control; and a vast capacity for self-deception, or what we might today call compartmentalization. Insecure, self-conscious, high-minded, he had no great gift for intimacy and no time for the unpalatable. He placed a premium on female modesty. He was more at ease on paper than in person, except perhaps with his daughters, with whom we can only hope the reverse was true. As the last few years have made abundantly clear, Thomas Jefferson was rather less sterling than his prose. But sometimes — even for the man who first identified life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights — a broken heart is just a broken heart.