Luther Spoehr: Review of Jon Kukla's Mr. Jefferson's Women (Knopf, 2007).
After a century and a half of reverential treatment, Thomas Jefferson’s reputation has lately taken a beating. Even Joseph Ellis, a relatively sympathetic biographer, portrayed the Oracle of American Democracy as an “American Sphinx” whose compartmentalized behavior led to a life of contradictions and hypocrisy. That the Jefferson who wrote of “unalienable rights” also owned slaves is an obvious, long-recognized paradox. But recent researchers, backed by DNA testing, revealed that he almost surely had children by one of them, Sally Hemings. Nowadays, the Sage of Monticello is often seen as just one more exploitive Southern plantation owner.
Now historian Jon Kukla tells us that Jefferson’s attitudes and behavior towards all women were deplorable. Kukla’s bottom line: “Thomas Jefferson’s personal relationships—his rejected proposal of marriage to Rebecca Burwell, his adulterous pursuit of Elizabeth Moore Walker, his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, his infatuation with Maria Cosway, and his ownership of Sally Hemings—all reinforced his conventional patriarchal attitudes toward women.”
Well, maybe. And then again, not so fast. Upon further review, it turns out that Kukla doesn’t have enough evidence to prove his indictment. And even if he is right, he can’t fully explain how Jefferson got that way. For instance, he can’t pin Jefferson’s “misogyny” on his relationship with his mother and sisters: Kukla himself admits there is “scarcely any evidence” about that. And we know almost nothing about his marriage, which lasted only a decade before his wife died (Jefferson burned their correspondence), or his relationship with Sally Hemings.
Kukla often discusses the problems posed by skimpiness of evidence quite carefully, then states his conclusions heavy-handedly. Consider, for instance, Jefferson’s most famous statement, “all men are created equal.” Kukla says that, although Abigail Adams and others might have hoped that “men” included women, too, “Thomas Jefferson meant every word he had written, and he meant MEN.”
So, at best, what does Kukla prove? That the Jefferson, a man of his time and place, had many of the values and attitudes typical of an aristocratic 18th-century Southerner? Should we be surprised that he doesn’t share our 21st-century ideas about race and gender?
That Kukla delivers his debunking conclusions with such a self-satisfied thump may tell us more about his own disappointment with Jefferson than it does about Jefferson himself. After all, we might just as logically be surprised that a man like Jefferson could even imagine declaring that “all men are created equal.” Certainly he didn’t see the full implications of his statement. But should we be so sure that we do? If we hope that our posterity will see us in full and fair historical perspective, we should try to do the same, even when taking down marble men from their pedestals.
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