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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


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