This post contains affiliate links. Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison sat on my bookshelf for a few years. However, when it came up as optional reading for PB & J’s American history, we decided to tackle it. Unfortunately, this book took us months to read because there were so many minute details.
About Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison
Kerrison set about the difficult task of writing about each of Jefferson’s three daughters who made it to adulthood–Martha and Maria–from his wife, and Harriet from his mistress, slave Sally Hemings.
What the reader got was great detail about Martha Jefferson Randolph’s life, a little about Maria’s life, and only speculation about Harriet’s life.
Kerrison also details how difficult being a woman, especially an intelligent woman, was back then. Even Jefferson, who enjoyed his daughters’ and granddaughters’ wit and intelligence, didn’t see a role for them outside of being wives and mothers. I appreciated this angle because women have many rights now, and we (at least I) forget how limiting society was for women years ago.
My Thoughts on the Book
Kerrison has meticulously researched this book. However, she tried to stuff ALL of her research into the book. She included so many minute details that the book became dry. We both felt the book much too long, and we were glad when we finished.
I do have a strong picture of what Jefferson’s life was like, as well as his daughter’s, Martha Jefferson Randolph. Unfortunately, Maria and Harriet remain a mystery, mainly because Maria died young (at 25) and was not fond of correspondence, so she has limited written records. Harriet, who passed as white after she left Monticello, slipped out of Virginia without a trace. The only detail the author has is that Harriet married and raised a large family in Washington, D.C. That information came courtesy of her brother many years after she left Monticello.
One puzzle is why Kerrison even attempted this book when there is no information about Harriet after she left Monticello and very little information about her while she lived at Monticello.
In addition, I also wondered why Sally Hemings agreed to return with Jefferson when she had freedom when she went to France with him. I would assume that she came back because she didn’t want to leave her own family behind forever. But what a difficult life she set herself up for! She was enslaved until Jefferson died. (Jefferson didn’t free her in his will; instead, his daughter Martha freed Sally after Jefferson’s death.) However, Jefferson promised her that any of their children would be free at 21. While he kept this promise (which I found surprising because no one would enforce his pledge), Hemings then had to endure losing her children forever because those who passed as white could never return to Monticello.
I give Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison 3 out of 5 stars on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.