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.

  • Bridget Vollmer

    I received this book in a GR giveaway in exchange for my review.

    This I my first book I've read pertaining to Jefferson' daughters.

    I thought Catherine Kerrison did a wonderful job not only describing the very different lives of the three sisters but also daily life, education, and the social environment of that time period. I also enjoyed how Kerrison broached the topic of slavery, and how it's impact is still seen in modern times.

    A great non fiction historical read recommended for those who love

    I received this book in a GR giveaway in exchange for my review.

    This I my first book I've read pertaining to Jefferson' daughters.

    I thought Catherine Kerrison did a wonderful job not only describing the very different lives of the three sisters but also daily life, education, and the social environment of that time period. I also enjoyed how Kerrison broached the topic of slavery, and how it's impact is still seen in modern times.

    A great non fiction historical read recommended for those who love American history.

  • TC

    I am not a historian by either inclination or education. I come from the upper Midwest and was not familiar with either Southern ways nor racial diversity. I chose to read this book because I was interested in the lives of women in the post Revolutionary era. Professor Kerrison examines the live of 3 very different women. Martha and Maria are the daughters of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha. Harriet Hemings is Jefferson's daughter by slave Sally Hemings. Eldest daughter Martha traveled with

    I am not a historian by either inclination or education. I come from the upper Midwest and was not familiar with either Southern ways nor racial diversity. I chose to read this book because I was interested in the lives of women in the post Revolutionary era. Professor Kerrison examines the live of 3 very different women. Martha and Maria are the daughters of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha. Harriet Hemings is Jefferson's daughter by slave Sally Hemings. Eldest daughter Martha traveled with Jefferson to France where she was educated in a convent school. Besides the typical studies of music, dance and needlework, the sisters taught Martha in subjects more frequently reserved for young men. Social contact with Jefferson's political and personal acquaintances introduced her to many educated, sophisticated, politically aware women. She grew into a woman who loved reading and the accumulation of knowledge. Younger daughter Maria stayed with relatives for the majority of Jefferson's time in Paris. She stayed with a family where she was loved, coddled and schooled in the traditional role of a Southern plantation owners wife. She joined her sister and father in Paris for a short time but was resistant to education in languages, literature, mathematics and geography. Sally accompanied the Jefferson's to Paris and returned with them after exacting a promise from Jefferson that their children would be freed from slavery at adulthood. Harriet and was raised as an upper level slave with freedoms not enjoyed by other household slaves. She was eventually trained in the skill of spinning.

    Author Kerrison adroitly incorporated known facts about these three women with blanks filled in by describing the typical lives of women in their place in society, often positing several possibilities of action. Her narratives present an interesting study of their lives, roles in society and the general attitudes toward women in different levels of society. After marrying a suitable but not very robust or successful man, Martha directed her love of learning to educating her many children and assisting her rather remote father. Maria, on the other hand, married a loving, successful man and happily lived the life of a planter's wife. Her marriage was plagued with stillborn children and poor health. She died in childbirth leaving one son and a grieving widower. Little is know of Harriet's life beyond a few bare facts but Kerrison describes well the life of an upper slave in that era. She came from a large and loving family. As she approached the age where she would be freed, according to Sally's bargain with Jefferson, she left her family and the plantation...possibly with the assistance of her brother and to a small degree Jefferson himself. She vanished into the Washington (DC) area where, later accounts tell us, she passed for white, married and had a family. She, perhaps, had the happiest life of all three of Jefferson's daughters.

    I loved the descriptions of the everyday lives of these three women. I was fascinated by information on the political climates, emerging philosophies concerning women's roles and rights, and on the eye-opening slave culture in the post Revolutionary US. I felt badly for these three women who were locked into the cultures in which they were born and wished I could reach back in time to tell them that some things will change and that, sadly, other things haven't.

  • Tiffany

    This is a well researched and well written history about Jefferson's three daughters, two with his wife and one with his wife's half-sister and slave, Sally Hemmings. Kerrison's depth of knowledge is expressed in a manner that draws the reader in and keeps them engaged throughout the entire work. I found the examination of education, societal expectations, and the fact that Kerrison did not gloss over the fact Jefferson's treatment of Hemmings and their children was unfair and harsh a refreshing

    This is a well researched and well written history about Jefferson's three daughters, two with his wife and one with his wife's half-sister and slave, Sally Hemmings. Kerrison's depth of knowledge is expressed in a manner that draws the reader in and keeps them engaged throughout the entire work. I found the examination of education, societal expectations, and the fact that Kerrison did not gloss over the fact Jefferson's treatment of Hemmings and their children was unfair and harsh a refreshing look at the lives of both wealthy and slave girls/women of the 18th century.

  • abby

    After TWO MONTHS of trying to read this, I'm pulling the plug about a third of the way in. I hate to do it, but this book is so, so, so boring. I feel like I'm being forced to read it for school. And I say this as someone who reads a decent amount of non-fiction and historical books. I got pulled in by the gorgeous cover art, which belies the dry, academic effort inside.

    This book follows the daughters of Thomas Jefferson: his two legitimate, white children by his wife, Martha, and one daughter h

    After TWO MONTHS of trying to read this, I'm pulling the plug about a third of the way in. I hate to do it, but this book is so, so, so boring. I feel like I'm being forced to read it for school. And I say this as someone who reads a decent amount of non-fiction and historical books. I got pulled in by the gorgeous cover art, which belies the dry, academic effort inside.

    This book follows the daughters of Thomas Jefferson: his two legitimate, white children by his wife, Martha, and one daughter he had with his slave Sally Hemings (who was his wife's half-sister). It became clear early on in the book, at least to me, that the source material for what the author wanted to write just isn't there. There's a lot of speculation involved. Jefferson might have been thinking this, and his daughters might have done that. I'm not interested in hundreds of pages of what people

    have done 200 years ago. We learn that Martha, the eldest daughter, learned to dance and draw. Then she goes to Paris where she might or might not have wanted to become Catholic. Riveting. So it's not that this book is terrible, but I'm relieved not to be reading any more of it.

    I received an ARC of this book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

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