Stacy Schiff: Founding Chauvinist Pig?

Roundup: Talking About History

If you really want to analyze the founding fathers through their love lives, Alexander Hamilton is the man to watch, the only blackmail-paying, apology-offering adulterer in the bunch. Washington, Adams, Jay, the long and loyally married, can sit this one out. A scamp from early on and a flirt well into his widowed 70s, Franklin was ultimately more talk than action. Which again raises that pesky question: What to do with Jefferson?

The romantic history is a checkered one. It begins with the radiant, lighthearted Rebecca Burwell, who in 1763 spurned 20-year-old Tom, to his embarrassment. Five years later, he aggressively pursued a married woman, the wife of a close friend. The overtures continued for some time, probably into Jefferson’s marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton. Under duress he came about as close to acknowledging his lapse as have others in his situation. “When young and single I offered love to a handsome lady,” he conceded later, without noting that the lady in question was not herself single or that it was not exactly love he was offering.

A decade of marriage followed, the texture of which is unknowable; Jefferson destroyed the correspondence with Martha. We do know that widowerhood plunged him into despair, for which France was the remedy. With Paris came a dalliance — sentimental if not sexual — with the enchanting, golden-haired Maria Cosway, the Italian-born marvel, and with Paris came of course Sally Hemings, the mulatto beauty, Martha Jefferson’s half-sister and Jefferson’s slave, who would bear her owner six children.

In “Mr. Jefferson’s Women,” Jon Kukla connects the dots — a painful, public rejection; a series of boorish, inappropriate advances; an ill-fated marriage; a two-week Parisian idyll; and a sexual relationship with a slave — to make the case that Jefferson at best harbored a “lifelong uneasiness around women,” at worst distinguished himself as a thoroughgoing misogynist. The author of a book on the Louisiana Purchase and the executive vice president of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, Kukla knows his period. And he is at ease with his Virginia history. Whether you will buy his portrait of Thomas Jefferson is another story....

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