Skip to main content

Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison: A Book Review

Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America
Author: Catherine Kerrison
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: 2018
Pages: 334
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: 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 early American and women’s history, recounts the remarkable journey of these three women—and how their struggle to define themselves reflects both the possibilities and the limitations that resulted from the American Revolution.
     Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha and Maria received a fine convent school education while they lived with their father during his diplomatic posting in Paris—a hothouse of intellectual ferment whose celebrated salonnières are vividly brought to life in Kerrison’s narrative. Once they returned home, however, the sisters found their options limited by the laws and customs of early America. 
     Harriet Hemings followed a different path. She escaped slavery—apparently with the assistance of Jefferson himself. Leaving Monticello behind, she boarded a coach and set off for a decidedly uncertain future.
     For this groundbreaking triple biography, Kerrison has uncovered never-before-published documents written by the Jefferson sisters when they were in their teens, as well as letters written by members of the Jefferson and Hemings families. She has interviewed Hemings family descendants (and, with their cooperation, initiated DNA testing) and searched for descendants of Harriet Hemings. 
     The eventful lives of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters provide a unique vantage point from which to examine the complicated patrimony of the American Revolution itself.  The richly interwoven story of these three strong women and their fight to shape their own destinies sheds new light on the ongoing movement toward human rights in America—and on the personal and political legacy of one of our most controversial Founding Fathers.

     My Review: Thomas Jefferson is famous for being the author of the Declaration of the Independence and the third president of the United States. However, we tend to forget about the women behind him. This triple biography by Mrs. Kerrison tells the little known story of Jefferson’s daughters. Two of them were daughters of his marriage. The third daughter was by his slave, Sally Hemings. These three girls lived in very different circumstances. Martha and Maria lived privileged lives and were well-educated. Harriet was a slave who was eventually freed. The story of Jefferson’s daughters shows the contrast of women of different races living in colonial America.

     While I knew a little bit about Martha from the historical fiction novel, America’s First Daughter, I did not know much about Maria or had even heard of Harriet Hemings. These daughters are very different. Martha was educated in France. She was like her father. She loved reading and writing. She wanted her daughters to get a great education. Even though Martha’s daughters were well educated, they were not taken seriously because they lived in a patriarchal society. In fact, Thomas Jefferson did not believe in his daughters getting a good education. He believed that his daughters were supposed to marry well and raise a family.

     Maria has often been overshadowed by her elder sister. She was lazy and did not fancy learning. The short letters she wrote to her father greatly disappointed him. However, she had a love of novels and composed music. Maria spent some part of her childhood with her aunt, and she considered her to be a maternal figure. She married her childhood friend and had a happy marriage. However, she had a difficult time with pregnancies. One of them eventually killed her.

     Because Harriet was a slave, she was not educated. She worked in a textile workshop. The author states that this was a better option for Harriet because it was a much more preferred job than the fields. The author also states that she had a happy childhood with her family. There is not much information regarding Harriet, except that she escaped. Thus, the author speculates what may have happened to Harriet after she escaped. Mrs. Kerrison claims that Harriet may have gone to Washington D. C. and married a respectable gentleman. Even though Harriet was a slave, Thomas Jefferson still wanted the best for his daughter and helped her to be a successful free woman.

     Overall, this biography gives us an in-depth look at the women behind Thomas Jefferson. These women were fascinating, accomplished, and resourceful in their own right. There were a few time jumps that made the novel confusing. The author has a habit of going into tangents and gets side-tracked in discussing side details. Also, the book is a bit dry at times. Still, Jefferson’s Daughters introduces us to these women’s personal happiness and their challenges. Hopefully, there will be more studies on these women in the future.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Popular posts from this blog

The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post by Allison Pataki: A Book Review

The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post Author: Allison Pataki Genre: Historical Fiction Publisher: Ballantine Release Date: February 15, 2022 Pages: 381 Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review. Synopsis: Mrs. Post, the President and First Lady are here to see you. . . . So begins another average evening for Marjorie Merriweather Post. Presidents have come and gone, but she has hosted them all. Growing up in the modest farmlands of Battle Creek, Michigan, Marjorie was inspired by a few simple rules: always think for yourself, never take success for granted, and work hard—even when deemed American royalty, even while covered in imperial diamonds. Marjorie had an insatiable drive to live and love and to give more than she got. From crawling through Moscow warehouses to rescue the Tsar’s treasures to outrunning the Nazis in London, from serving the homeless of the Great Depression to entertaining Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Hollywood’s biggest stars, Marjorie Merriweath

Tituba: The Intentional Witch of Salem by Dave Tamanini: A Book Review

Tituba: The Intentional Witch of Salem Author: Dave Tamanini Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy Publisher: David F Tamanini Release Date: 2020 Pages: 317 Source: Publisher/Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Synopsis: If you love historical fiction... come revisit Salem's terror in this provocative new telling of enslaved Tituba, no longer a caricature, but a fully human woman with magical powers.      Come! Let Tituba cast its spell with a unique and tantalizing tale that explores the wild emotions driving accusations of witchcraft in 1692.      A Promise and a Hope      Enslaved Tituba has been faithful to a promise to her dying mama in Africa. She has appeased the masters from Barbados to Boston to Salem and waited for her magic.      A Mother’s Agony      When Tituba’s only son dies trying to escape slavery, her life changes forever. After enduring the crush only a mother can feel, she rages and turns to vengeance.      Witches Tear into Salem      The villagers see wi

Interview with Tessa Afshar

     It was my honor to do an interview with Tessa Afshar! Ms. Afshar is one of the top-selling Christian fiction authors in the genre. Her books have won numerous awards in the field and her books show the love she has for the roots of Christianity. I asked Ms. Afshar about her latest work, Daughter of Rome . The novel focuses on Priscilla and Aquila, who had once brought Paul into their home  for 18 months. I appreciate Ms. Afshar taking the time for my interview, and I hope you enjoy looking into the latest work by Tessa Afshar, Daughter of Rome ! What attracted you to the story of Aquila and Priscilla? Although we know little about this extraordinary couple, what we do know is spellbinding: they saved Paul’s life, set up house churches in different cities in the Roman Empire, shared the gospel with many Gentiles, and became influential spiritual leaders through some of the most harrowing years of the church’s history. Their marriage must have been remarkable! Ther