Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America

Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America

The remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson's three daughters - two white and free, one black and enslaved - and the divergent paths they forged in a newly independent America. Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings. In Jefferson's Daughters, Catherine Kerrison, a scholar of e...

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Title:Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America
Author:Catherine Kerrison
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Edition Language:English

Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America Reviews

  • Rachel

    This is a definite must-read for those who likes to read history, especially American history. Ever since I visited Monticello, I have been fascinated with Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This book even shared more details of Maria Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's younger daughter, whom nothing has been written much about. I will admit that it wasn't till this past year that I realized that Thomas Jefferson had 2 daughters, since not much was mentioned about Maria. I didn't even know he had a

    This is a definite must-read for those who likes to read history, especially American history. Ever since I visited Monticello, I have been fascinated with Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This book even shared more details of Maria Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's younger daughter, whom nothing has been written much about. I will admit that it wasn't till this past year that I realized that Thomas Jefferson had 2 daughters, since not much was mentioned about Maria. I didn't even know he had a third daughter till I read this book.

    This is incredibly fascinating. It is a historical research, that is packed full of information about the three daughters that I am looking at history with a renewed interest. This is not a novel, by any means. It embraces everything, especially the issue of slavery and Jefferson's descendants who were born in slavery but left, passing for white.

    This is a heavily researched book on Jefferson and his impact on his daughters, the people around him and while the rest of the nation celebrates his heritage as a founding father, this book exposes his human flaws in the fact that he doesn't think his daughters have a voice in the new country. It is an incredible read and one that I think would appeal to new readers to history as well as those who do research for a living. Kerrison did a fine job of tying all the ends together in her research, while admitting there is more that is left to the ages because she doesn't have all the information. What she has here is a great start, and definitely more information regarding Jefferson's daughters, who ensured his comforts in his old age and made sure his legacies continued.

    I personally think this is my favorite book so far on the Jefferson women. I am enlightened now as to what his third daughter had endured when she left the plantation to be an independent woman. While Harriet still remains shrouded in the veils of history, Kerrison did her best to explain what Harriet had to endure as a slave, as an unrecognized daughter of Jefferson and what might have happened to her once she left the plantation with her older brother. Kerrison also devoted time to that time period where slaves would try to pass for white especially if they were lighter-skinned. It covers a sensitive subject that still resonates even today, 200 years after the Revolution.

    I would definitely recommend this book to everyone who is interested in history.

  • Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    Thomas Jefferson had three daughters, two with his wife Martha, and one with his slave, Sally Hemings. Jefferson's Daughters looks at how the daughters were raised, their education, upbringing, expectations, and how they fared in adulthood.

    Although I was aware that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings, I did not know that Hemings was actually a half sister of his deceased wife - they had the same father. Sally Hemings' mother also probably had a white father, so Sally was, by all accounts,

    Thomas Jefferson had three daughters, two with his wife Martha, and one with his slave, Sally Hemings. Jefferson's Daughters looks at how the daughters were raised, their education, upbringing, expectations, and how they fared in adulthood.

    Although I was aware that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings, I did not know that Hemings was actually a half sister of his deceased wife - they had the same father. Sally Hemings' mother also probably had a white father, so Sally was, by all accounts, fair skinned and straight haired. Still, this was no love match. Sally was a slave and Jefferson treated her and her children as slaves. He made some concessions, such as allowing them to be house servants rather than field hands, but he was hardly the proud father. In fact, he was embarrassed when it became common knowledge that he was fathering children with a slave. The fact that he did not respond to the public accusations lets us know that it was not considered acceptable behavior and that Jefferson himself was well aware of that.

    Sally had some leverage with Jefferson, though. She had been with the Jefferson family in Paris when he was the Ambassador to France and she learned French, and more important, that if she stayed in France instead of returning to Virginia with the family, she would be a free woman. Instead, she bargained with Jefferson, who apparently wanted to continue the relationship with the sixteen year old. He agreed that any children she had with him would be freed when they reached adulthood. She decided to trust him and returned with the family to the States.

    Jefferson never treated the children as anything other than slaves, allotting them the usual rations and clothing allowances, not educating them, and when they became adults, he didn't actually sign over their freedom, rather he allowed them to "escape." To legally free them would have been to acknowledge paternity, which he would not do.

    Harriet Hemings, half sister to the Jefferson girls, saw her brothers set out as free black men, and how difficult that was for them. She could only imagine how difficult it would be for a free black woman. So she decided her best bet was to pass as white. Evidently, she was able to do so. Kerrison's account at the end of the book of how she approached the puzzle of where Harriet went and who she became is a fascinating study in detection and genealogy.

    Excellent study of how women in an upper class American household at the turn of the 18th century lived.

  • TammyJo Eckhart

    Catherine Kerrison has a difficult task in this book. She wants to tell us about the three daughters that Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson "raised" to adulthood. I say "raised" because as you continue reading you discover just how little direct contact he often had with his daughters, particularly Harriet, who was born into slavery via her mother, Sally Hemings. Hemings had been promised freedom for her children when they turned 21 years old but Jefferson's gendered attitudes and belief in raci

    Catherine Kerrison has a difficult task in this book. She wants to tell us about the three daughters that Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson "raised" to adulthood. I say "raised" because as you continue reading you discover just how little direct contact he often had with his daughters, particularly Harriet, who was born into slavery via her mother, Sally Hemings. Hemings had been promised freedom for her children when they turned 21 years old but Jefferson's gendered attitudes and belief in racial inequalities resulted in her never being given legal documents to protect her freed status. Instead Harriet had to pass as white and thus disappeared from historical records to protect herself and her children. Kerrison has a good chapter walking us through her look into every type of record she could to try and find out what happened to Harriet and it is a good example for wouldbe historians to understand. History is not easy to construct if one is not of the most privileged group. While there is no doubt that compared to other slaves Jefferson owned the Hemings children were treated better, they were still treated as his slaves because they were.

    Jefferson's daughter, Maria, leaves behind more records of her life yet because she was not the chosen companion of her father, we do not have as much as we do from the older daughter, Martha, that's I'll write about in the next paragraph. Maria comes across as a very different personality though how much of that reflects innate differences versis how they were raised and how much contact they had with their father. Maria did marry and have children but she died relatively young. Even though Jefferson claimed her death touched him, given the information that Kerrison shares his grief felt weak to me.

    The daughter Jefferson was closest to, Martha, was the one whom we know most about because she functioned in many ways as "first lady" in the family and in his political career. Martha's personality seems to change dramatically from her early life in America to her years in France to her return to America. At first, we might hope she's learned to see all humans as human from her years in a convent but records about her life back at her father's and then her plantation show she thoroughly bought into the philosophy underlying slavery and enforced it.

    At times the text is challenging to follow. If the chapters had been laid out one sister and then another it would have been clearer to follow perhaps but the text is more chronologically arranged. The switching between sisters' experiences and describing the world they live in feels overwhelming at times. I believe their experiences could have been better differentiated at times to help a layperson understand more easily.

    Even as a historian who has studied gender and slavery, this book was emotionally challenging to read. It should be difficult to read and Kerrison has done a good job of not toning down the realities.

  • Cherei

    I read this book slowly.. as I wanted time to research a few items that I'd read. OMG! The author outdid herself. This has to be one of the best researched novels of Jefferson's daughters. If you've read, "First Daughter".. then, this book is a MUST read. You will gain insights that you would not have even thought of prior to reading this story. It's a standalone novel.. you do not need to do prior reading.. but, it does help you understand the Jefferson family and their role in forming this cou

    I read this book slowly.. as I wanted time to research a few items that I'd read. OMG! The author outdid herself. This has to be one of the best researched novels of Jefferson's daughters. If you've read, "First Daughter".. then, this book is a MUST read. You will gain insights that you would not have even thought of prior to reading this story. It's a standalone novel.. you do not need to do prior reading.. but, it does help you understand the Jefferson family and their role in forming this country!

    I did not realize that his "wooded" retreat was three days from Monticello. Everyone else made out like it was just a few miles in the woods. Jefferson's architectural building concepts were so far ahead of his time.. it's not funny. Though, I found it very odd that he chose to give himself the best lit rooms.. and then, locked the library. To visit his sanctuary was by permission only.

    An absolute treat for the mind! A book that I am sure I will re-read more than a few times in the coming years.

  • Sharon Lawler

    More than a biography of Jefferson's three daughters, Martha and Maria, who were born to his wife, and Harriet Hemings, born to Sally Hemings, the author offers a heavily researched and documented description of the societal and legal constraints on women, especially Southern women, in the US, regardless of their educational or social status. Martha, the oldest, was educated in France during her father's long period of residence there. She benefitted from the coursework at her elite Parisian sch

    More than a biography of Jefferson's three daughters, Martha and Maria, who were born to his wife, and Harriet Hemings, born to Sally Hemings, the author offers a heavily researched and documented description of the societal and legal constraints on women, especially Southern women, in the US, regardless of their educational or social status. Martha, the oldest, was educated in France during her father's long period of residence there. She benefitted from the coursework at her elite Parisian school, which was not meant to prepare her as an “ornamental” wife, as was the goal in the US, but was meant to prepare young women with the knowledge to enter into philosophical and political discussions in the salons of Europe. She thrived, but unfortunately she returned to rural Virginia when her father's tenure in Paris ended. Gone were the intellectual stimulation, and her only outlet became the education of her own daughters and sons. This included fluency in French, Spanish, and Latin, which was a subject only boys were taught. For all Jefferson's talk of “equality” and his love of books and knowledge, he was completely negligent in applauding and utilizing the exceptional minds of his daughters. Needlepoint, music, art, French, manners, and of course household management were encouraged rather than science, math, philosophy, economics, or rhetoric. At the end of the day, Martha's daughters were the most educated women of the period, but unfortunately, the US at this time did not recognize the importance of education for women. Martha's younger sister, Maria, died at the age of thirty-five due to the complications of childbirth, but she only spent 2-3 years in Paris, and was not as indoctrinated in the culture of learning. She had one son who survived childhood, but he was very young when she died.

    At the other end of the social ladder was Harriet Hemings Jefferson. Her education was focused on learning a trade so that when she was freed at the age of twenty-one, she could find work. However, because Sally Deming's daughter and three sons worked in Monticello home, they were exposed to the culture, mannerisms and lessons of the of the upper class, and they absorbed the behaviors like sponges. Although Harriet did not learn to write until adulthood, her brothers learned by watching, and as they entered the world outside of slavery, they could read and write. Besides the differences in the education and living conditions of the three sisters, the author provided extensive background information on the practice of “passing”, which all four of Sally Hemings's children chose to do, rather than become “freed slaves”, and there intelligence and perseverance allowed them to achieve success.

    Occasionally the author seemed to repeat information, but since I was reading a Net galley, courtesy of Random House, this might not be the case in the final, and it wasn't that much of a distraction. I was engrossed in the story, and would definitely recommend for students of history, both casual and professional. It is a perfect fit for courses in women's studies, and US history, both cultural and political, and as a character study of Thomas Jefferson. Once again, in my opinion, he comes up short.

    I can't help but wonder if Martha's and Sally's outcomes would have been different if they had remained in France. Sally's living conditions would surely have been better, and any daughters Martha might have had the educational opportunities they deserved. This is a strong contender for my book club the next time I host.

  • Susan

    A well written biography of Thomas Jefferson's three daughters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet, the first two born to his wife, the third born to his slave, Sally Hemings. Martha has already been the subject of a full-length biography, but Maria, who died as a young woman, and Harriet, who disappeared into obscurity after being freed, have been given less attention. Much of the book is devoted to bringing the latter two out of the shadows. Kerrison looks at Maria, who has suffered in comparison with

    A well written biography of Thomas Jefferson's three daughters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet, the first two born to his wife, the third born to his slave, Sally Hemings. Martha has already been the subject of a full-length biography, but Maria, who died as a young woman, and Harriet, who disappeared into obscurity after being freed, have been given less attention. Much of the book is devoted to bringing the latter two out of the shadows. Kerrison looks at Maria, who has suffered in comparison with her more accomplished sister, in her own light, and attempts to reconstruct Harriet's post-slavery life. I recommend it.

  • Jo Ann

    This was a very intriguing read for me, and served to inform me more about the mores, values, educational opportunities (and lack thereof), in both Jefferson's time, and for Jefferson in particular. All 3 daughters, and the man himself, were certainly impacted by societal expectations and prejudices. I knew quite a bit about Martha, little about Maria, and almost nothing about Harriet, whose mother was Sally Hemings. We still do not know much about Harriet...much of what the author writes about

    This was a very intriguing read for me, and served to inform me more about the mores, values, educational opportunities (and lack thereof), in both Jefferson's time, and for Jefferson in particular. All 3 daughters, and the man himself, were certainly impacted by societal expectations and prejudices. I knew quite a bit about Martha, little about Maria, and almost nothing about Harriet, whose mother was Sally Hemings. We still do not know much about Harriet...much of what the author writes about her is conjecture, based on the times. I know we'll never know more, but I wish we did. While I loved reading about the 3 daughters, what continues to amaze me are the discrepancies between what Jefferson said he believed, and what he acted (or didn't act) upon. For instance, he loved his family...I truly believe he loved his 2 girls from Martha, and loved Martha. But, as we look at his planning of Monticello, he was more enamored with himself and his own comforts, relegating even his loved ones to poor, dark, small rooms, while he basked in the beautiful rooms for himself. He will remain an enigma to me, and this book served only to solidify that enigma!

  • Dawn Wells

    An amazing book written in chronological order and may be a stay on your toes read to keep up. Was very emotional and highly intense at times. The author went deep to help you understand what was really happening at the time. This story of three sisters, white and black and their relationships with their father. The term father here used biologically. The oldest,Martha his oldest and in many ways the Matriarch of the family. She knew him best and was by far the most liked. His daughter, Maria wh

    An amazing book written in chronological order and may be a stay on your toes read to keep up. Was very emotional and highly intense at times. The author went deep to help you understand what was really happening at the time. This story of three sisters, white and black and their relationships with their father. The term father here used biologically. The oldest,Martha his oldest and in many ways the Matriarch of the family. She knew him best and was by far the most liked. His daughter, Maria who we may know the most about. Then of course, his daughter with his slave Sally Hemings named Harriet. Whom he forgot to free at the age of 21. This is truly an interesting book.

  • Cheryl James

    Great history story regarding Jefferson's daughters and his life. Much history on the white daughters, more speculation on the black daughter, but at any rate I enjoyed the story.

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