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History's Blue Dress



It won't come as a shock to anyone who's heard of Sally Hemings that Thomas Jefferson did more with his free time than write the Declaration of Independence. What's surprising is that until the just-published "Mr. Jefferson's Women," no book has thoroughly examined the influence of this long-term illicit affair, crushing unrequited love and several aborted attempts at adultery on one of America's foremost Founding Fathers.

Style Weekly spoke with Jon Kukla, the former director of historical research and publishing at the Library of Virginia and author of "A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America," about his exploration into the life, loves and romantic snafus of Thomas Jefferson.

Style: What was the inspiration for this book?

Kukla: Well, basically, I was at a conference in the late '90s, right after DNA tests proved a biological connection between a male in the Jefferson family and a descendant of Sally Hemings. At the conference people were talking about all of the implications, and one of the audience members prefaced a question by saying that they must have had a loving relationship, and another said, "It must have been rape." I turned to a friend and said we're never going to know unless we see how he treated other women in his life, so when I finished my book on the Louisiana Purchase, I looked for that book. I thought surely there was one already out there, but there wasn't.

What was the greatest surprise about Jefferson you uncovered?

I expected Jefferson to be more sympathetic. I suppose there are many people who admire Jefferson and rightly so; he wrote the Declaration of Independence. I expected him to be more sympathetic of the plight of women, and what I found was, that simply wasn't the case. There were two phases to his life: the years before he went to Paris, expressing paternalist conventional attitudes; then in Paris he experiences "illicit meddling in politics by French women." Right on the eve of the French Revolution, he warns Washington that everything could be undone by women.

In a time of revolutionary change, my hunch would have been that he would have been more sympathetic toward bettering the lot of women. In that era, people don't talk about feminism per se, but one of the things you see about people who want to help women is the desire to expand women's education, but Jefferson admits that he hasn't thought much about education for women.

How would you describe Jefferson's character?

I think if Jefferson could take a Myers-Briggs test, he'd come out as a real introvert and that has some implications for the way he interacts with people. In the case of his infatuation with Rebecca Burl, the more I read the sources, letters to his close friends, most of the courtship was going on in his mind and in letters to his buddies. It's incredibly adolescent. It's like your kid trying to get their friend to tell their friend. … He makes up a nickname for Rebecca and then turns the English into Greek and then runs it backward in case someone gets a hold of the letters. This is not adult correspondence; this is kids passing notes.

Is he totally heartbroken over Rebecca?

Apparently. Later he gets word she's engaged to someone else, and when he gets word, he begins to suffer debilitating, well-documented, crippling headaches at intervals for the rest of his life. They're technically not migraine, but the kind of headache triggered by stress situations. He was pretty clearly well-devastated.

By your descriptions, he seemed heartbroken and crushed by relationships that went badly. Did he end up hating women?

There is some of that. People talk about misogyny. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means the hatred of women, and that doesn't fit. But then I read "Southern Honor" by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and he described misogyny as the fear of women and that definition clicked with me. He's uncomfortable with women, particularly unmarried women. He did, however, grow up with six sisters.

Do you think he was rebelling against a matriarchal upbringing?

It's all speculation. His father died when he was 14, and his brother was much younger. He spent a good deal of his years of schooling in a boarding school situation, so he wasn't around his sisters that much.

How did Jefferson's feelings about women influence the Declaration of Independence? What impact have his feelings made on the U.S. today?

One thing is that Jefferson, in addition to writing the Declaration, was the key person on a committee that spent three years revising the legal code of the Commonwealth of Virginia that led to the statute of religious freedom, a plan for education that led to U.Va. … Jefferson does imaginative, innovative things, but he neglected to reform property laws as they affected women. In the 18th century, British common law as it affected women, the woman, her rights, completely disappeared. While she's married, everything is run by her husband.

You say there is no way to prove how he felt about Sally Hemings. What is your instinct?

To my mind, the best reading of the evidence is that they had six children. In fact I talk briefly about a guy in Jamaica named Thomas Thistlewood who was abusing slaves -- a head count of about 29 different slave women a year — that's a sexual predator and that's clearly rape. But this is a sticky area to try to figure out. Here's a very powerful man, even if he wasn't powerful in politics, he had this huge plantation and owned everything there. You can't suppose Sally or anyone else came into the relationship on the basis of equality. What's compelling is that when Jefferson was nearly bankrupt at the end of his life, he arranged for her to live comfortably on his grounds. He arranged for her to be "given her time" (that's a phrase they used): She remained legally a slave, but had control of her own time. After Jefferson died, she remained in Charlottesville with her sons. The other reason I think there's some evidence of affection or an understanding between them is that all of her children become free. Some of them during Jefferson's lifetime. Some of the light-skinned children who could pass for white were allowed to escape.

Did he have any female friends?

One of the parts I had fun with, late in the book, is with Abigail Adams, a woman Jefferson very much admired. The Adamses and Jeffersons were in Paris for a little bit more than a year together, and so they kept a correspondence. Abigail is a wonderful character — she can't spell worth a damn, but she is forthright and brilliant and she writes to her husband John, "Please remember the ladies." Later Jefferson writes to her that he loves the French people, making it clear that "people" included the masculine and feminine gender. That's as far into feminism as he ever got. S

Jon Kukla will discuss and sign "Mr. Jefferson's Women" at the Library of Virginia Thursday, Nov. 15, at noon (692-3500) and at Book People Saturday, Dec. 1, 3-5 p.m. (288-4346).

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