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Jefferson’s Daughters – fact and fiction

When a book club picked the 2016 Dray and Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, a fictionalized historical drama about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, I looked for reviews and found the authors’ discussion of their book in Five Lies We Told in America’s First Daughter and  How We Got Away With It.

Curious to know more about the historical facts,  I was redirected to a nonfiction book written in 2018 by historian Catherine Kerrison – Jefferson’s Daughters.  I decided to read the facts first before the fiction.

Although stories about Sally Hemings have resurrected and revised Jeffersonian history in recent years, my only recollection of Jefferson’s first wife Martha was the sweet singing Blythe Danner in the musical 1776, before she had children.  Kerrison reveals how a constant state of childbirth, miscarriages, and infant death took its toll on her.  The accurate depiction of Blythe as Jefferson’s wife evolved into a weary and sickly woman, often left alone to manage a household, or fleeing from the War, who eventually died prematurely at thirty-three.  Patsy, the eldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Martha, was ten years old when her mother died.

The focus of America’s First Daughter is the eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) but she is one of three sisters in Kerrison’s analysis.  Patsy had an eclectic education, first learning to read and write with her mother;  later in Paris with her father, she had five years of rigorous convent education, with forays into French society.   She later stressed the importance of educating her own eleven children, giving her daughters more than lessons in drawing and needlework, as expected from society at the time. She established a school on the grounds of her home, near Monticello, with study in “mathematics, history, literature, and languages.”

Kerrigan connects Sally Hemings to the family by identifying her as the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings.  Martha, Jefferson’s wife, had inherited the Hemings slaves from her mother and had brought them to Monticello when her father died.   Later, Sally accompanied Maria (Polly), Patsy’s younger sister when Jefferson brought them to Paris.  As she matured into a beautiful sixteen year old, possibly pregnant with her first child by Jefferson, she considered staying in Paris with her brother, an aspiring chef.  Knowing returning to America would take away the freedom she had in France, she negotiated freedom for herself and all her children, who were by parentage seven-eighths white.  I found an interesting historical note relating to Patsy, making me wonder about that promise.

“In 1834, Patsy dictated an informal addendum to her will, instructing her children that she wished that her half-aunt Sally Hemings would be given her freedom, but that would also mean that, according to state law, the now-elderly mistress of Jefferson would be forced to leave Virginia. It became moot since Sally Hemings died a year before Patsy.”

Although Kerrison spreads her research across all three sisters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet (Sally’s daughter), I focused on Martha, since she is the heroine of the fictional tale in America’s First Daughter.  I wondered if Martha’s determination to become a cloistered nun, thwarted by her father’s spoiling her with luxurious clothes and fancy balls, would be in the fictional tale. I wondered about her marriage at seventeen to Randolph, two months after returning to Virginia from Paris.  I wondered how Martha’s relationship to her father would appear in fiction.  I wondered if Harriet would appear at all in the fictional story of America’s First Daughter.

Martha holds the focus in Kerrigan’s research.  Maria, her younger sister died young giving birth to a child and not much information is available about Harriet as a young slave in the household.

An interesting note, however, has Kerrigan trying desperately to locate Harriet’s descendants, noting in her article for the Washington Post –  “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter?” that Harriet assumed the role of a white woman when she was finally freed from plantation life.  In her book, Kerrigan details Harriet’s education, clothing, and contacts, as well as money from Jefferson for a coach to carry her to Philadelphia and away from slavery when she was twenty-one – all helpful for making the transition into a new secret life.  Like Kerrigan, I could only find conjecture about Harriet’s life and descendents – the secret seems well kept.  But I wonder if a fictional account might be forthcoming someday about Harriet, who she became, and how she thrived in her new world. It would be a book I’d like to read.

I’ve satisfied my curiosity.  Full of Kerrigan’s research, I am ready to read the fictional tale of America’s First Daughter.  Knowing the facts,  I know I will enjoy the story more, despite the authors’ tangent into a murder mystery.  If you are about to read America’s First Daughter, you might consider Kerrison’s book as a companion read.  Kerrigan’s book is full of facts and research but she delivers the information in an easily readable format, despite its length – 450 pages.    (First Daughter has 624 pages.)