• Email
  • Print

Uncle Thomas’s Cabin

Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

by Fawn M. Brodie
Norton, 591 pp., $12.50

Two vast things, each wondrous in itself, combine to make this book a prodigy—the author’s industry, and her ignorance. One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world’s greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world’s ugliest building.

Start with ignorance, as the most understandable part of the book. She regularly treats us to sub-freshman absurdity—thus: “We do not even know for certain if Jefferson signed on the second of July, when the Declaration was formally voted, or on the fourth, as he later insisted. There is still controversy over this, though Julian Boyd makes out a good case for the fourth….” She has tangled up as two things the three events at issue: (1) the July 2 vote on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution (not, as she says, on the Declaration), (2) the July 4 vote to pass the amended Declaration, and (3) the signing of the formal copy of the Declaration on and after August 2. Boyd’s elaborate discussion concerns events (2) and (3), which Brodie recasts in terms of (1) and (2). No one before her ever raised the inconsequent matter of a signing on July 2. And Boyd was not arguing for a signature on July 4 or August 2 (as she seems to think), but for one on July 4 and August 2.

Not only does she misconceive all three elements in the problem, considered singly; she then collapses them into two (the wrong two for her purpose) and says that we must choose one or the other from these wrong two on the basis of inapplicable norms. Then, just to complete our amazement, she tells us that Julian Boyd has made “a good case” on the matter—though his case has nothing to do with the garbled mess she has made of things. Error on this scale, and in this detail, does not come easily. There is a skill involved.

And much nerve. She has managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories—all of which greatly concerned Jefferson. She constantly finds double meanings in colonial language, basing her argument on the present usage of key words. She often mistakes the first meaning of a word before assigning it an improbable second meaning and an impossible third one. When Hamilton assures Washington that he will do nothing to “endanger a feud” with Jefferson, she calls this “a curious slip of the pen”—though the word more often meant “incur the danger of” in Hamilton’s time than “cause danger to” as in our own.

Ms. Brodie seems never to have heard of the OED. When a slave (Robert Hemings, who may have been Jefferson’s son) was freed by purchase, Jefferson wrote that the purchaser had “debauched him from me.” Ms. Brodie calls this a “curious phrase”; yet the literal first meaning of the word in Jefferson’s time, in English as in French, was “to turn or lead away, entice, seduce, from one to whom service or allegiance is due.” The phrase can only be “curious” to one who has excluded the possibility that words still in use can have had different meanings two hundred years ago.

Ms. Brodie delights in the small titillation of finding sexual references wherever possible. It seems a shame to deprive her of such innocent fun; but the game becomes tedious to anyone who has not got her endless appetite for it. “He began his Syllabus with a curious sentence [by now we know what “curious” means to her]: ‘In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.’ Could the repetition of the word ‘corruption’ suggest that he was not so much contemplating the ‘corruptions of Christianity’ or the ‘corruptions of reason’ as the corruptions of Thomas Jefferson? That he was defensive and anxious shows not only in the document itself but in….”

That last sentence is typical of Ms. Brodie’s hint-and-run method—to ask a rhetorical question, and then proceed on the assumption that it has been settled in her favor, making the first surmise a basis for second and third ones, in a towering rickety structure of unsupported conjecture. Why should Jefferson use the “curious” word corruption in this context? Because it was a commonplace of deistic thought that a pristine Christianity had been corrupted by medieval additions. Because one of the books that moved Jefferson to this composition was Priestley’s Corruptions of Christianity. Because it was the natural and established usage in this kind of discussion. Ah, but why repeat the word? Because Jefferson is instituting a series of comparisons—by contrast—and his opening sentence poses a neatly balanced paradox—how ancient reason was corrupted by the vulgar, and Christian faith was corrupted by the learned. The sentence is as carefully wrought as a couplet, and the repetition is as inevitable to it as rhyme within the couplet.

When Jefferson wrote to Maria Cosway, “his anxiety over the spreading gossip [about an affair between the two] crept in a most curious [of course] fashion into the first line of his letter, which began: ‘So many infidelities in the post office are complained of since the rumors of war have arisen….’ ” Far from being curious, this was a natural eighteenth-century expression of exasperation with the mail’s untrustworthiness. So Burke wrote to Fox: “My opinion of the infidelity of that conveyance hindered me….” Ms. Brodie’s easy method for uncovering scandal would, if followed logically, reveal not only Jefferson’s affair with Mrs. Cosway but a more shocking one with Ralph Izard, to whom Jefferson wrote: “The infidelity of the post offices, both of England and of France, are not unknown to you.”

One more example, from the thousands: Ms. Brodie argues that Jefferson had, by 1788, fallen in love with the fifteen-year-old quarteroon slave, Sally Hemings, who accompanied his daughter to meet him in France. She offers as “evidence” of his “special preoccupation” with Sally the “singular” fact that he used the word “mulatto” eight times in twenty-five pages of his travel account that spring. But all these references are to the color of the soil, and the OED gives that use of the word as peculiarly American and eighteenth-century. In the journals of his European travel, Jefferson regularly keeps note of the different regions’ soil under four different categories: color, consistency (mould, rotten rock, loam, clay, gravel, sand), quality (rich, good, middling, poor, barren), and crops borne on it.

The color notation is the most frequently used of these categories, and it covers this spectrum: black, dark, dark brown, reddish brown, red, mulatto, gray, white. Given that mode of classification, the repetition of mulatto in the twenty-five pages she refers to means no more than the repetition of red (seven times) or gray (three times)—unless we are to assume that Jefferson deliberately falsified his own records just to relieve his psyche from the strain of not repeating “mulatto” for the sixth or seventh or eighth time, in obscure tribute to Sally. So much for the argument that it is “singular” (why not octuple?) for a word to be “repeated” eight times in twenty-five pages.

Well, does the psychic revelation derive, not from repetition of the word but from its choice in the first place? After all, though it was a use common in agrarian contexts, Jefferson could have chosen another word. Did he choose this one (instead of yellowish brown, which it seems to stand for) because he had just fallen in love with Sally? Unfortunately for Ms. Brodie’s thesis, he had used “mulatto” in exactly the same way during his tour of southern France, the spring before Sally arrived in Paris. The category already existed in his mind. Ms. Brodie tries to solve this difficulty by stressing, once again, the repetition. In the tour of France, she tells us, Jefferson used the word “mulatto” only once in forty-eight of Boyd’s pages, as opposed to eight times in the twenty-five pages of his Holland tour.

Well, as usual, Ms. Brodie has her facts wrong, even before she loads them with unsustainable surmise: She refers to “the single use of the word ‘mulatto’ ” at Boyd XI, 415, in the tour of France, and cannot find a second use at XI, 429. There is no other term that might have done service for mulatto in the account of the first tour, so the naïve might suppose that the varying rate of use had something to do with the different soil conditions in France and in Holland.

Ms. Brodie has delivered us from such naïveté, however, so we know how to read Mr. Jefferson’s accounts. For instance: on the seven-week tour of Holland he used the word “red” only seven times; but on the nine-week tour of southern France he used it (or “reddish”) thirty-eight times. Such a disparity must reflect “special preoccupation” of some sort, according to the Brodie method. Since his daughter had Jefferson’s reddish hair and complexion, and he was arranging for her to come join him, the soil descriptions are really covert expressions of an incest drive. How on earth did Brodie miss this “curious” fact?

It should be clear, by now, what fuels the tremendous industry this author poured into her work—her obsession with all the things she can find or invent about Jefferson’s sex life. Since that life does not seem a very extensive or active one, Ms. Brodie has to use whatever hints she can contrive. In particular, she reads practically the whole Jeffersonian corpus as a secret code referring to what is presented as the longest, most stable, most satisfying love in Jefferson’s life—that with Sally Hemings.

It is not enough for her to claim that Jefferson sired most, if not all, of Sally’s recorded children—a reasonable thesis ably argued by Winthrop Jordan and accepted by historians like Richard B. Morris. She must also posit the existence of an elusive first child, imprudently and improbably named after his father, of whom there is no sound record at all. She puts together, as a way of substantiating James Callender’s references to “Tom,” two references to four slaves that escaped by “passing”—even though the two references contradict each other and neither makes any direct reference to Tom. On the same page, she defends two widely varying dates for Tom’s disappearance from Monticello. She shows a desperate need for this early-born child, and more interest in him than in any of the substantiated children—for an obvious reason. If Jefferson did not start having intercourse with the fifteen-year-old girl almost immediately upon her arrival in Paris, then all those references to “mulatto” fields must be returned from Jefferson the romantic lover to Jefferson the precise observer.

Ms. Brodie is confident that Jefferson shared her own obsession with Sally, and all his later references to slavery, Negroes, manumission, or miscegenation are read as direct or indirect expressions of his feeling for her. Guilt, torment, and conflict are interlineated through all his writings to make his soul quiver in tune with la Brodie’s. Yet there is no scrap of evidence for this passion, except perhaps the fact that he retained Sally at Monticello after stories about her had been widely circulated. Still, what was he supposed to do? Kill her? Freeing or selling her would make her more likely to talk, or to be tricked into talking. It was safer to keep her nearby. She was apparently pleasing, and obviously discreet. There was less risk in continuing to enjoy her services than in experimenting around with others. She was like a healthy and obliging prostitute, who could be suitably rewarded but would make no importunate demands. Her lot was improved, not harmed, by the liaison.

Her offspring seem, by Jefferson’s own theory, to have been legally white (i.e., with one white parent in all three preceding generations)—without, of course, ceasing to be slaves. Ms. Brodie had earlier written that this consideration may have freed Jefferson from his own strictures on miscegenation; but now she thinks it added to his burden of remorse over the inability to recognize and educate his only sons. Both considerations are gratuitous. What concerned Jefferson as a result of miscegenation was the degrading of the citizenry’s stock; and his bastards by Sally were like those that could have been born from any white prostitute—not legitimate, not heirs, not property holders, not citizens. He let those children who could “pass” run away, and did not seek to find them. The rest he freed in his will. The arrangement was convenient to him, and imposed no new burdens on his slaves.

This is not a very romantic light in which to view Jefferson; but he was not a romantic fellow. We know what he thought of his Negroes’ capacity for love. He spelled it out in the scientific report by which he hoped to commend himself and his country to the French savants:

They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.

Ms. Brodie tries to reconstruct the touching love of the great philosopher for his unlettered mistress—but it seems unlikely that Jefferson went to Sally for “reflection” instead of “sensation.” He led a severely compartmentalized life, and had a constant absorption in the economy of its arrangement. He resented intrusions on his time and energy, avoiding so far as possible the duties of plantation hospitality. He was shy with women of his own social class; he married late, and never remarried; his awkward lunge at a friend’s wife and his stilted semi-courting of Maria Cosway reveal him in uncharacteristic moments.

Sex and love would be disordering elements in a life rigidly ordered—unless a sane division of his appetites and affections could be worked out. It is the kind of solution he sought in every other aspect of his crowded yet minutely scheduled activity. Some will find this picture of Thomas Jefferson unattractive—but Ms. Brodie proves that the attempt to construct one more to the liking of today’s romantic daydreamers involves heroic feats of misunderstanding and a constant labor at ignorance. This seems too high a price to pay when the same appetites can be more readily gratified by those Hollywood fan magazines, with their wealth of unfounded conjecture on the sex lives of others, from which Ms. Brodie has borrowed her scholarly methods.

(This is the first of two reviews of new books on Jefferson.)

  • Email
  • Print