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American History Book Review: Mr. Jefferson’s Women

By Frederike Baer
5/8/2018 • American History Magazine

Mr. Jefferson’s Women

by Jon Kukla, Alfred A. Knopf, 279 pp., $26.95

When, almost a decade ago, DNA test results revealed that the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings was almost certainly true, historian Jon Kukla set out to learn more about Jefferson’s attitudes toward women generally. The result of Kukla’s efforts is a well-researched and highly readable account of Jefferson’s private and public sentiments about women.

Kukla begins his narrative with the future president’s “adolescent obsession” in the early 1760s with Rebecca Burwell, the sister of one of his college classmates. She responded coolly to his awkward advances; twice she declined his offer of marriage. Kukla asserts that Jefferson reacted to this painful public rejection with a “deepening distrust of women” and a “more predatory demeanor toward them.”

This increasingly aggressive stance became evident five years later in Jefferson’s pursuit of Elizabeth Moore Walker, the wife of a close friend. In 1805 Jefferson admitted that “when young and single he had offered love to a handsome lady.” Kukla demonstrates that Jefferson’s behavior hardly constituted an offering of “love.” The adulterous advances may have continued into his marriage to Martha Skelton, which lasted from 1772 until her death in 1782. When Martha died after giving birth to their sixth child, Jefferson plunged into a depression from which he emerged only after Congress dispatched him to Paris several weeks later.

In Paris, Jefferson forged a close relationship with the beautiful, intelligent and married Maria Cosway. After her departure for England in 1786, Jefferson composed a “Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart,” in which he sorted out the confusing passions that Cosway had provoked in him. Jefferson also began a relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave and late wife’s half-sister. With Hemings, Kukla explains, Jefferson, always self-absorbed and selfish when it came to women, was safe from rejection. Between 1795 and 1808, she bore him six children.

Jefferson’s experiences with these women, Kukla asserts, shaped his increasingly critical and suspicious attitudes toward women. His correspondence with Abigail Adams confirmed his unwavering conviction that women were dependent and potentially dangerous creatures who should remain within the domestic sphere. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” Kukla concludes, he did not refer to women.

Kukla draws a convincing portrait of Jefferson as a man who was deeply uncomfortable with women. Still, some readers will object to certain explanations. For example, Jefferson may have been critical of Marie Antoinette not because of her gender but because of her incompetence as a ruler. To his credit, Kukla readily admits that, given the paucity of sources that shed light on the emotional content of Jefferson’s relationships with women, some of his conclusions must remain speculative. For those who want to judge for themselves, the book includes a selection of key documents. In sum, Mr. Jefferson’s Women is a much needed and provocative study of a facet of Thomas Jefferson’s life that, Kukla concludes, “shaped American laws and traditions in ways that echo into the twenty-first century.”

 

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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