The Unknown Jefferson: An Interview with Andrew Burstein


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Mr. Burstein is the author of the book, Jefferson's Secrets.

In your book you look at Jefferson’s last years, the most neglected of his life. When did you reach the conclusion that this was a fruitful area of research? Was there a eureka moment?

In my first book, The Inner Jefferson, I concentrated on his political prime, for which period almost every significant piece of correspondence has been published. What I tried to do there was to use the available texts to show how Jefferson fashioned a genteel, sympathetic personality suited to the social and political world he knew and influenced. The result explained the Jeffersonian ideal; it explained his humanism. For Jefferson’s Secrets, my goal was a bit different, because I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to go deeper into his emotional world. In poring over the unpublished day-by-day papers of his post-presidential years, most of which are only available on microfilm, and precious little of which previous historians have cited, I discovered a physicality, hints of a private angst, and a rawness absent from Jefferson’s well-crafted public appeals. There was no single “eureka” moment, but a series of curious discoveries.

You argue in the book that Jefferson is wrongly depicted in most accounts as all-head, no heart, or rather, as a man of reason above all. But you argue otherwise. What made you emphasize his emotional life?

I do not discount the rational or cerebral Jefferson, when I explore his private impulses. Every rational being is also an emotional being. I focus on the world of appetites he occupied, the ways in which he evaluated mind and body—his own and others’. In that sense, I am not just writing about Jefferson, but also about the men of privilege with whom he interacted and the women with whom they were intimate. The subtitle of the book intentionally reads, “Death and Desire.” I wanted to know more about what literate early Americans read that spoke to personal health issues, including sexuality, and how they integrated political and religious beliefs into their general understanding of the human organism. So, the book has turned out to be a very visceral, as well as emotional portrait.

Do you believe that Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemings?

Yes, and I would not characterize it as an affair, or suggest that the relationship can be understood in modern terms. On Jefferson’s isolated mountaintop, sex took place as part of a hierarchy that everyone involved understood. Jefferson, and those of his class, did not share our current understanding of sexual morality. Sally Hemings was his servant, and had little power. She was dependent economically, though this does not mean her feelings were irrelevant. But it does mean that he had extraordinary power, and she very little, and so, as his concubine, she likely replicated her mother’s relationship with Jefferson’s father-in-law; for she was, in fact, Jefferson’s late wife’s half-sister, and I have described the Hemings family as a parallel, subordinate family to the all-white Jeffersons.

Of course, many people still do not believe that Jefferson slept with Hemings. Virginius Dabney famously said that it was inconceivable--it just wasn’t in Jefferson’s character. But you provide evidence that Jefferson could be duplicitous and that he even lied to his family. Jefferson could lie?

We should not be surprised by the lie. Dabney is correct that it was not in Jefferson’s character as he appears in his better-known texts—but those texts do not delineate the whole man. The more perplexing question at this point is whether members of the family who explicitly denied the relationship were complicit in the lie, or believed what they preferred to believe. Importantly, Jefferson was mocked by his enemies not for sexual immorality but for a social transgression—acting out the ordinary urges of an ordinary man, having sex with an alluring, lower-class woman when he appeared to all as a philosopher, immune to base urges. I offer abundant evidence in the book that Jefferson could rationalize his behavior to himself on the basis of the medical authority of his age, which literally recommended for a widower like himself occasional sex with a young, healthy, fruitful, attractive female, in order to preserve his own mental and physical health.

Jefferson never offered a defense of his alleged relationship with Hemings. But you explain how he might have rationalized his conduct. What might have been his rationale?

The leading medical authority who set the tone for Enlightenment intellectuals’ understanding of healthy versus unhealthy sexual behavior was a Swiss physician, Dr. Samuel Tissot. Jefferson owned practically everything he wrote. Tissot and his many disciples—-he was the Alfred Kinsey of his generation-—warned against masturbation and recommended a moderate routine of intercourse. The prevailing medical theory specifically gave permission to men of letters, upper class men, to find suitable sex partners to safeguard their physical and emotional health. Physicians helped one such as Jefferson justify the correctness of his course as a sexually active man, assuring that spermatic fluid was healthy for the female who received it. Sally Hemings’s exclusive attention to him would also have protected him against venereal disease, which was prevalent. Middle age was a time of anxious prevention, and standard advice books recommended, for example:"There is nothing in the world more refreshing to those that are bilious than the caresses of women." In sum, regular intercourse was thought to preserve a man’s energy and sustain his productive imagination. Both celibacy and masturbation were thought to weaken the nerves and lead to recurring melancholy. How convenient for lustful 18th-century men!

Often speculation about the interior life of a person is unfruitful. And in this case, the speculation is based on a controversial DNA test that may prove no more than that a male Jefferson relative had sexual relations with a black slave. Yet I admit that I was persuaded by the argument you make concerning Jefferson’s rationale. It makes sense. Did you worry that you were venturing out on thin ice?

Technically, there were other Jeffersons with matching DNA characteristics, but the white Jefferson descendents who established the family denial in the mid-nineteenth century cast responsibility for paternity on two Jefferson nephews (children of Jefferson’s sister) whose DNA was not a match. So, as far as can be reconstructed, there are no Jeffersons other than the president who had the degree of physical access to Sally Hemings that he did.

Your book title refers to “Jefferson’s Secrets.” What other secrets did he have in addition to his alleged affair with Hemings?

Other than the sexual secret, Jefferson’s “secrets” are hidden in plain sight. For example, he is known to have said publicly, and written eloquently, that he would confidently leave his historical reputation in the hands of posterity. In fact, though, he was not as secure as his noble statements suggest and actively tried to shape how he would be remembered by us. He took great pains to undo the dominant narrative of his retirement years, which belittled his achievements. I piece together his behind-the-scenes effort to find a writer with national standing to publish a history of his times, based on his notes and his own personal recollections, that would overcome the impact of what his political opposition had published.

We all have secrets. What made Jefferson’s so interesting to you that you would want to write a book about them. Should we be writing books about every president’s secrets? Or was there something about Jefferson that made his especially revealing?

I am interested in Jefferson’s secrets, for the obvious reason that he was an inspired writer and humane thinker who bequeathed an immense amount of detail about his life, and expected it to be read in a certain way. His purpose was, surely, to acquit himself well before the bar of history. And yet, as we would expect of any historical actor, he manipulated the record, trying to show his best side wherever possible. Had he conceived, for instance, that history would single him out for his failure to end slavery, he would not have waffled on this subject that directs so much of our attention today when we reflect on the founding era. So, his thought process, his rationalizations, his manipulations, are as compelling to me as those revolutionary sentiments that he more confidently put on the record.

One of difficulties of biography is that you never know what you don’t know.. You could spend ten years researching someone’s life and then discover—as Joseph Ellis did in his biography of Jefferson—that you had fundamentally misconstrued them because you had gotten a fact wrong. Did you worry that you had gotten Jefferson wrong?

Every historian should take certain chances. Otherwise, you write a book that recapitulates what is already written. I wouldn’t write a treatment of early America just for the purpose of joining a consensus of dominant historians; I would rather compile sources that others have ignored, introduce subjects or historical actors who may have been forgotten but whose relationship to my theme may prove integral. When that work is done, I engage in a certain amount of informed speculation. I hope it awakens a new interest, but I am always prepared for someone else to come along and approach the subject from a different perspective and reach different conclusions. All I wish to do is to generate an honest and respectful conversation, that is, for readers to approach my books with an open mind.

You were working on this book during the impeachment of President Clinton. Did you ever stop and think that your timing was serendipitous in a way because Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton both had secrets? It seemed to me as I was reading your book that Clinton would approve of it as a subtle reminder of the complexity of human beings. (Do you know if Clinton read your book?)

Funny you should ask that. I took part in Ken Burns’s documentary on Jefferson, which was screened at the White House in 1997, not long before the Clinton sex scandal was publicized. At that time, I had a conversation with President Clinton concerning Jefferson’s life and legacy—he owns a rare edition of Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia—and he asked me whether it was realistic to portray Jefferson as celibate for four decades after the death of his wife in 1782, as his moral defenders had insisted for 150 years. I could not give him a definitive answer. The president’s question was posed matter-of-factly, not with a wry smile, as some might suppose—the other person involved in the conversation was an African-American attorney who believed himself to be a descendant of Jefferson and Hemings. This took place a year before the DNA results were made known. I can’t tell you President Clinton’s current thinking, but I will say that his question deepened my interest in the history of sexuality in early America.

If you could ask Jefferson a question—one question—what would you ask?

I’d ask him what his favorite book was, and hope his answer surprised me.

Are you working on a new book?

I am currently researching a book on Washington Irving, also for Basic Books, which published Jefferson’s Secrets. Before he became famous for his storytelling, Irving was active in New York politics, his family prominent supporters of Aaron Burr, and he was a brilliant political satirist during the years of Jefferson’s presidency.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Herbert Barger - 3/13/2009

Many statements are made by the author that are downright unsupportable by fact. I don't believe I saw in his book any reference or quotes from the Scholars Commission Report (13 prominent scholars, white, black and female), www.tjheritage.org.

You will note that the author worked on the Ken Burn's film which was used by Judge Robert Cooley, a descendant of Thomas Woodson, whose family had long claimed descent from Thomas Jefferson to adamately prance before the camera on several occasions and proclaim that he was an ancestral grandson of TJ. BUT, the DNA Study revealed that all his claims in the Burn's film were false in that the DNA did not find a Jefferson/Woodson match as the old James Callender Campaign Lies of 1802 told us.

It was this Eston Hemings DNA always claimed by Eston and later generations, that they descend from "a Jefferson uncle", a reference to Randolph, much younger brother of Thomas that proved a match.....according to the Eston family this was justification of their oral family claims.........RANDOLPH, NOT THOMAS.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society