Tag Archives: Jefferson

Throwing Stones Through Conception Windows

At the center of the Jefferson/Hemings controversy... is the contention that Thomas Jefferson was in residence at Monticello 9 months prior to the births of Sally Hemings’s  four surviving children.  These ‘conception windows’ now serve as one of the three legs of the case for Jefferson’s paternity(along with the inconclusive DNA and inconsistent oral history.)

Behind closed doors?

Behind closed doors?

Fraser Neiman’s 2000 analysis... published in William and Mary Quarterly seemed to be just the type of evidence the paternity advocates wanted, the proverbial smoking gun.  Jefferson was at Monticello when Hemings conceived her children– case closed.  This is just the kind of scholarship that sells books, but at the same time,  assails history.  When it comes to the Jefferson/Hemings controversy, minds were made up before the DNA results, Annette Gordon-Reed’s revisionism, and Neiman’s loosely connected dots…whatever circumstantial evidence produced is now seen as definitive– scholarship be damned.

Be true, keep it real

Be true, keep it real

  • Neiman bases his assumptions solely on recorded birth dates in Jefferson’s Farm Book.  Jefferson was not present for all the births and there is no way of knowing when he recorded the events.
  • The conception windows are established by Neiman counting backward 267 days- a full term pregnancy.  There is no proof Sally Hemings carried all her children to term. It seems unlikely that a woman in the 19th century would have six full term pregnancies.
  • Jefferson was present at Monticello for  long stretches where Hemings did not give birth.  Neiman implies throughout his study that Jefferson’s visits consisted of sexual liaisons. Jefferson was at Monticello for nearly two years before the birth of Harriet Hemings(there were two Harriets)  in January 1795.   There are three year gaps between two of her births- Jefferson’s visits to Monticello did not result in a Hemings pregnancy.
  • Beverly Hemings’s conception date was set prior to July 8, 1797- yet Jefferson doesn’t arrive at Monticello until July 11.  Neiman cleverly fudges the numbers in this case.
  • Hemings’s next birth was not discovered in the Farm Book, but in a letter to Jefferson’s son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes.  Jefferson relates the birth  to “Maria’s maid.”  Maria was not living at Monticello during this time (Spring of 1799.)  Sally Hemings’s residence at Monticello is never firmly established.
  • Harriet Hemings was born in May of 1801, shortly after Jefferson became President.  Evidence suggests he was in the Charlottesville area during the conception window, but also reveals he was rarely at Monticello during the crucial period of August-September 1800.
  • Madison Hemings(one of the original sources in the oral history) was conceived during April of 1804.  Neiman wants us to believe that Jefferson did this during the final days of his daughter Maria’s life(she died April 17) and her funeral–with large number of extended family present.
  • There is evidence Sally Hemings worked outside the Monticello community.  When Martha Jefferson Randolph  informed her father of Harriet Hemings’s death, she wrote the letter from her home at Bellmont.  Jefferson referred to “Polly’s maid” giving birth in 1799.  If Sally was Martha’s maid at this time- they were not living at Monticello.
  • Sally Hemings conceived her last child, Eston, when Jefferson was 64 years old.  Jefferson took up permanent residence at Monticello in 1809- Sally Hemings stopped having children.  She was 35 at that time.  Wouldn’t Jefferson’s presence mean more births?

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Jefferson in Love….Sort of…

Jefferson struggled with his love for Maria Cosway…. going as far as to illustrate his emotional agony to her in a letter- the letter detailed the tug-of-war between Jefferson’s head and his aching heart.  Jefferson was perfectly content to remain within his head, buried in his books and letters.  But, as seen in the previous post, Jefferson was a man who cared and loved deeply.  Maria Cosway was a special woman, he knew he would never find another like her:

Dear Friend

Head: In fine, my friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid these eternal distresses, to which you are for ever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, and see which preponderates…The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures. 

Heart: This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten it’s burthen we must divide it with one another. But let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, and as you have put into one scale the burthens of friendship, let me put it’s comforts into the other….In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want and accident, yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, and to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody.

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A True Love Affair

Thomas Jefferson began his courtship… of young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton in 1770.  Music helped strengthen the bond between the young couple,  Jefferson played the violin and Martha the harpsichord.  The courtship took place at The Forest, Martha’s father’s plantation, where Jefferson was a frequent guest during the summer of 1770.  The warm afternoons were filled with romantic duets so passionately rendered, other suitors left without further inquiry.  The couple was married New Years Day, 1772.

“the horrible dreariness of such a house”

Thomas Jefferson led Martha to his mountain… through one of the worst snowstorms in Virginia history.  The newlyweds were forced to abandon their carriage and trudge the last several miles on horseback.  Martha was dismayed at the sight of the tiny south pavilion, Jefferson had yet to construct the house most associated with his mountaintop.  Jefferson rummaged through some books and found a bottle of wine, and so the couple began their married life.  Nine months later, Patsy was born.

Jefferson’s career dragged him from Monticello… months at a time, but he considered the ten years of his marriage the happiest of his life.  Martha gave him six children, but only three survived infancy.  Historians believe that Martha suffered from diabetes;  Each of their children were larger at birth, the last child Lucy Elizabeth, may have been 16 pounds.  She never recovered from Lucy’s birth in May of 1782.    Jefferson was at her side during that long summer, tending to her every need.  Near the end, when Martha could no longer speak, the couple penned lines from their favorite novel, Tristram Shandy:

Martha began-  Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of windy day never to return– more. Every thing presses on–  Too weak to finish, Jefferson completed the passage-and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make! 

“for what good end could the sensations of grief be intended?”

Martha made Jefferson promise to never remarry… she couldn’t bear the thought of the children being raised by a stepmother as she was.  After she closed her eyes on September 6th, Jefferson had to be carried from the room.  He was inconsolable for weeks, only his daughter Patsy was able to help him through the ordeal.  Jefferson kept the slip of paper, in his wife’s hand, at his bedside the rest of his life.  It was discovered decades later, fragile after being folded and unfolded hundreds of times.  Inside were locks of hair from Martha and their deceased children.

This is a love story excluded from current… Jefferson scholarship, and for good reason.  It does not fit the salacious narrative that dominates popular opinion about our third President.  A man who felt deeply and loved deeply is contrary to the image of the wicked slave owner.  Pseudo-scholarship promoting this revisionist view of Jefferson is pervasive in our society, even earning some of the highest literary honors.  Decades of scholarship cannot be ignored for the sake of political correctness.

“And were we to love none but with imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love”

 

 

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On Loss

The grieving optimist- Jefferson lost nearly everyone dear to him…. so he could relate grief to his dear friend, John Adams upon hearing of the death of Abigail.  Relating grief is not the same as understanding it, however…..

 

“Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi­cine….although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again.”

 

” I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended.”

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It’s Jefferson Week Again

Jefferson would detest this yearly remembrance of his birthday… but the readers of this blog support the Jefferson content.   More Jefferson posts are on the way…..

 

To stop desecrating my memory

 

Maybe there’s hope

 

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On Grief

Even the eternal optimist within… Thomas Jefferson was dragged down to earth by loss.  Behind the iconic image was a man who loved deeply and lost nearly everyone dear to him.  Despite the pain, Jefferson remained optimistic, immersing himself in books and his correspondence.  He told his friend John Adams;

“You ask if I would agree to live my 70. or rather 73. years over again?  To which I say Yea.  I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us.”

Tugging at his enlightened nature… was the depression that followed the loss of his loved ones.  Jefferson pondered the concept of grief to Adams;

“I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended.  All our other passions, within proper bounds, have a useful object.”

Jefferson outlived his wife and all but one… of their children.  The thought of living out his days alone terrified him;

“This morning between 8 & 9. a clock my dear daughter Maria Eppes died…. My evening prospects now hang on the slender thread of a single life. Perhaps I may be destined to see even this last chord of parental affection broken!”

Sadness and reflections....

Sadness and reflections….

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Cousin vs. Cousin

Thomas Jefferson battled with his cousin, John Marshall… over the role of the federal judiciary, but also over the direction of our young republic.  Jefferson long feared an unchecked judicial branch during the ratification crisis- Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison only deepened his distrust.

Keep legislating to a minimum

Keep legislating to a minimum

The Court determined at once, that being an original process, they had no cognizance of it; and therefore the question before them was ended. But the Chief Justice went on to lay down what the law would be, had they jurisdiction in the case, to wit: that they should command delivery . . . . Besides the impropriety of this gratuitous interference, could anything exceed the perversion of law?
Yet this case of Marbury and Madison is continually cited by bench and bar, as if it were settled law, without any animadversion on its being an obiter dissertation of the Chief Justice. like gravity by night and day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the states, and the government of all be consoli¬dated into one.” Jefferson 1804

Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family

Marshall answered:

“For Mr. Jefferson’s opinion as respects this department, it is not difficult to assign the cause. He is among the most ambitious, and I suspect among the most unforgiving of men. His great power is over the mass of people, and this power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy. Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows. He looks of course with ill will at an independent judiciary.”  Marshall 1807

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