Jefferson’s Daughters and Revolutionary Thought

Fellowships

Throughout the Fall 2012 semester, VFH Fellow Catherine Kerrison has been at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities working on a book, tentatively titled Jefferson’s Daughters, that will tell the stories of these three women: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Maria Jefferson Eppes, and Harriet Hemings. Kerrison explores the ways in which these women—all linked to a man so central to the rhetoric of the American Revolution—experienced the effects of Revolution, and how they understood the gender, class, and racial conventions of their era.

While watching media coverage of the 2008 election, Kerrison was struck by the ways Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were portrayed and pitted against each other. Kerrison, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, was dismayed by the sexist nature of the media coverage of both Clinton and Palin. To understand why Americans were still grappling with these issues, she turned to the American Revolution (1775–1783) and its impact on conceptions of gender and race.

Kerrison’s interest in the intellectual history of Southern women, especially in the eighteenth century, can also be traced back to her graduate studies at the College of William and Mary. Her first book, Claiming the Pen (2006), explored how elite white women of the eighteenth century—the only literate women at the time—went from being consumers of literature to producers of literature. Her book examines when and how women began to realize that they could have ideas of their own and pass them down through writing.

This quest led her to the archives of Jefferson family papers at the University of Virginia. Among them were letters from Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Maria Jefferson Eppes, that revealed the contradictions and tensions they faced in their own lives and in their educations, especially after the Revolution. Though Harriet Hemings, whom Jefferson reputedly fathered with his enslaved house servant, Sally Hemings, was not represented in these letters, Kerrison also wanted to explore her life and the ways that the Revolution would have impacted her.

Throughout the Fall 2012 semester, Kerrison has been at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities working on a book, tentatively titled Jefferson’s Daughters, that will tell the stories of these three women: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Maria Jefferson Eppes, and Harriet Hemings. Kerrison explores the ways in which these women—all linked to a man so central to the rhetoric of the American Revolution—experienced the effects of Revolution, and how they understood the gender, class, and racial conventions of their era.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to daughter Martha (“Patsy”), December 11, 1783, outlining his plan for her education. Scan courtesy Library of Congress.

Martha Jefferson Randolph portrait by Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Martha Jefferson Randolph

Randolph, Kerrison notes, was one of the most educated women in the South during her lifetime, and passed that knowledge on to her daughters. However, her daughter Ellen Randolph—a favorite granddaughter of Jefferson’s—realized, at age twenty-eight, that the world was not prepared to use the talents of educated women.In a letter that Ellen wrote in 1824, she mentioned her discovery that being well educated meant thinking critically and raising questions, rather than merely repeating word-for-word the opinions of others to please those around her. Ellen lamented that, though she was inspired to start her education all over again, it would be pointless because she was not a man. Kerrison argues that although some women of this era received an excellent education, it was not intended to (nor did it) lead to gender parity. Kerrison encourages readers to reflect upon why this remains a problem for women today.

Maria Jefferson Eppes

Eppes was known for being rather obedient and passive in comparison to her outgoing, articulate older sister. She married and had three children, but only lived to age twenty-five. Kerrison compares Eppes to her mother, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (who died at thirty-three), to explore the complications and the costs for women who are taught that their sole purpose in life is to be good housewives and mothers. Both women did precisely what society expected and conditioned them to do, but did not live long enough to enjoy the results of their work. In fact, both women actually died from complications related to childbirth. Kerrison links their lack of control over their bodies to the contemporary political debates over women’s reproductive rights and access to contraception.

Harriet Hemings

Harriet Hemings’s story is a difficult one to tell. To begin with, some claim that Jefferson did not father Sally Hemings’s children, although Kerrison—and most historians—accept that the preponderance of evidence indicates otherwise. But Kerrison has encountered another problem: the record of Harriet’s existence nearly disappeared after she left Monticello in 1822. Jefferson never formally freed Harriet or her brother Beverly, who also left Monticello, but his overseer, Edmund Bacon, recalled in his memoir that Jefferson paid for Harriet’s transportation to Philadelphia. The only information about her life after Monticello comes from another brother, Madison Hemings, who noted that she “passed” into white society, hiding her past racial identity; married a white man; and raised children. Harriet Hemings’s story explores the complicated roles of race and gender in the post-Revolutionary era. While Hemings might not have received the level of education that Martha Jefferson Randolph or Maria Jefferson Eppes did, her ability to pass as white allowed her to live as a free person—but as a woman, she had less freedom than Beverly, who had also passed into white society.

With this book, Kerrison hopes to make contemporary readers realize the limitations and still-unfulfilled promises of the American Revolution. Kerrison urges us to reflect upon why women, African Americans, and other groups excluded from these promises continue to struggle with the same issues that Jefferson’s three daughters faced in their lifetime.

Despite its pivotal importance to American history and its sweeping, inspirational rhetoric, the Revolution did not mean that everyone was truly free and equal. The ideals of the Revolution, and the men who wrote them, did not accept the full humanity of women or of people of other races, and Kerrison argues that these battles continue to be fought in the political arena today.

Kerrison presented some of her research on Jefferson’s daughters in a Fellows Talk recently at VFH. To receive invitations to Fellows Talks, subscribe to our e-newsletter. To help fund scholars like Catherine Kerrison, please consider giving to the Fellows Program.

Catherine Kerrison

Catherine Kerrison is an associate professor of History at Villanova University and a fellow at VFH.