Jillian Sim: Was Thomas Jefferson a Misogynist?

[Jillian Sim lives and writes in the desert Southwest.]

Thomas Jefferson, third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, is, as the historian Joseph J. Ellis put it, the American Sphinx. He may be most puzzling of all in his relationships with women. Those women—from mother to wife and also to putative slave mistress—have remained over the centuries comfortably invisible in the public record, their presence flashing feebly only when their master allowed their contributions to be known and remembered. It is a daunting task for a Jefferson biographer not only to illumine the lives and inner desires of these invisible women but also to attempt to reveal through them the deeply enigmatic man. But that is what Jon Kukla, who earlier produced a highly regarded account of the Louisiana Purchase, promises in his new biography, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (Knopf, 279 pages, $26.95).

Biographies of Jefferson are published almost constantly, each new addition boasting to cover uncharted territory on the man. The Library of Congress holds tens of thousands of letters and papers that have been consulted and consulted anew. Yet the man’s inner life remains a paradoxical sketch; the vast paper trail is the frustrating work of a genius self-editing his life and political career. The last truly successful biography may be Jack McLaughlin’s 1988 volume Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. McLaughlin wisely surmised that to understand Jefferson he should stick to the architect and his prime obsession, his hilltop plantation outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson unwittingly left, in extensive farm and family records, ample evidence of the man behind the President—his failures as an engineer, his spendthrift nature, his brutal handling of slaves, and his indifference to the comforts of his own family, who lived in a house that was repeatedly rebuilt and never completed during his lifetime. Because of his obsession, Jefferson saddled his family with staggering debts, a burden borne by a grandson into old age.

Little remains in the record to recall two of the most important women in his life. There’s next to nothing on his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, and little more on his only wife, the pretty widow Martha Wayles Skelton. He almost never referred to the former, and he destroyed all his correspondence with the latter. Trying to understand him through the women in his life is like viewing Monticello’s architectural details through Virginia’s early morning fog. But it’s worth the effort.

As a young man, attending the College of William and Mary, in booming Williamsburg, Jefferson struck out with women. He developed the kind of scorn and condescension toward the “weaker sex” that can come after rejection, especially in a humorless man. In Mr. Jefferson’s Women Kukla describes, in unadorned prose that plays well off Jefferson’s ornate English, a young man we might today call a geek—insecure, self-absorbed, and obsessed with the teenaged sister of a college friend.

He carried the torch for two years, writing the girl’s name backward in Greek in coded notes to friends, futilely hoping to protect his secret from prying eyes. Then he bungled two quintessentially Jeffersonian obfuscations meant to be marriage proposals. The girl, Rebecca Burwell, turned him down. After that, Kukla writes, “her betrothal to a rival triggered the onset of Jefferson’s recurrent and debilitating headaches. It fueled the misogyny of Jefferson’s twenties and aroused a more predatory attitude toward women that ended in a series of unwelcome advances toward a married neighbor.”...

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