Descendants of power

While Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal,’ his three daughters did not feel that equality.

By MARY ANN GWINN / NEWSDAY
February 21, 2018 20:33
3 minute read.
THOMAS JEFFERSON

THOMAS JEFFERSON. (photo credit: WHITE HOUSE ARCHIVES)

Founding father Thomas Jefferson had three daughters who survived to adulthood. Two were white – Martha and Maria, his daughters by wife Martha Wayles Jefferson. One was black – Harriet Hemings, daughter of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave and lifelong consort. In Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, Catherine Kerrison aims to tell the stories of all three women using books, historical records, diaries and letters to re-create their lives, all extraordinary by any measure.

While the life of eldest daughter Martha was extensively documented, neither Maria nor Harriet left much trace in the historical record. Maria, said to be strikingly beautiful, never had her portrait painted and died young at age 25. Of Harriet, only the faintest trail remains, including entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he recorded allotments of food, blankets and clothing to slaves, including his children by Sally Hemings. She is briefly mentioned in the recollections of Madison Hemings, Sally’s son and Harriet’s brother, who in 1873 revealed the story of Thomas Jefferson’s secret family in an Ohio newspaper. Kerrison, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, tries to re-create the substance of their days with her historical expertise.

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