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Book Review: Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life With Thomas Jefferson

By Mary Burruss
8/7/2015 • American History Reviews, Reviews

Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life With Thomas Jefferson,
By William G. Hyland Jr., Rowman & Littlefield

One is taught not to judge a book by its cover, but the cover art for William G. Hyland’s Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life With Thomas Jefferson raises immediate questions about the historical accuracy of its content. It is a picture of the East entrance to the second version of Monticello—conceived by Jefferson after his wife’s death, and thus one she never saw much less inhabited.

That miscue sets the tone for the rest of the book. Hyland, a practicing attorney and sometime author (his previous book challenged assertions that Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings), aims to dramatically and authoritatively expand our knowledge of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. But his book is too filled with errors and historical fiction to have much scholarly legitimacy. For example, he opens with a poignant account of 33-year-old Martha’s final moments. As she “slipped away in death,” Hyland writes, a distraught Jefferson was at her side. It is moving, but wrong: According to Martha Jefferson’s account of her mother’s death, Jefferson was not in his wife’s bedroom when she died.

Fact is, very little is known about Martha Wayles. She was the daughter of English immigrant turned planter John Wayles and his first wife, Martha Eppes, who died during the younger Martha’s birth. Growing up on a tobacco plantation in Charles City County, Va., Martha was raised primarily by her enslaved mammy, Betty Hemings. (Two stepmothers both died by the time Martha was 13.)

A small, comely woman with auburn hair and hazel eyes, Martha learned at an early age how to manage the planation’s accounts and handle chores like brewing beer and making soap. She loved to read and ride and was an accomplished musician—passions she shared with Jefferson. At 18 she married attorney Bathurst Skelton and then, 22 months later, found herself a widow with a 10-month-old son. Several suitors sought Martha’s hand, seeing her as a propertied, fecund woman. Jefferson won it. They were married on January 1, 1772, six months after Martha’s son Jack died, and four years before Jefferson would write the Declaration of Independence. The two shared a decade of “unchequered happiness,” according to Jefferson, though he was busy being a legislator, governor of Virginia and delegate to the Second Continental Congress during their marriage and wasn’t home much. Martha endured six more pregnancies, the final one draining the remainder of her strength and ultimately causing her death in 1782.

Hyland claims to have taken advantage of “the explosion of research in recent years that has enriched our understanding of both Jeffersons.” However, most of what he considers new material is merely speculation based on period social practices and established historical information about Jefferson himself. “Jefferson’s dislike of slavery (and probably Martha’s too)” is typical of the way Hyland reveals information about Martha Jefferson. His description of the couple’s courtship is derived not from actual accounts but from, as Hyland puts it, “a reasonable degree of historical probability based on eighteenth-century customs and habits in addition to what we know about Jefferson’s behavior.”

The book contains some entertaining snippets about plantation life in pre-revolutionary Virginia, but there are too many inconsistencies, and too much questionable material, to be a credible biography of a woman we all wish we knew better.

—Mary Burruss

Originally published in the October 2015 issue of American History magazine.

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