Jefferson and the Ladies

With the explosive success of Hamilton: An American Musical, the founding fathers are still on the minds of many people three years after the show’s premiere at The Public Theater. There has been an undoubted surge of interest in a story of this nation’s beginning -- just not necessarily a truthful story. This show is far from the first retelling of America’s start; 1776 is another beloved musical that tells a story from the Revolutionary Era. Neither of these shows are entirely truthful to what we know about the people who founded the United States.

When fictionalizing historic figures, there is an effort to humanize them. That is a necessary part of storytelling; an audience should be able to empathize with the characters. However, it is possible that this may come at a cost. By either ignoring or romanticizing particular aspects of a person, their role in history can and will be perceived differently. Let’s take, for example, Thomas Jefferson, who plays a large role in both Hamilton and 1776. Since these pieces cover different events, I will forgo the timelines (go ahead and let out that sigh of relief). 

    When Jefferson returns stateside in Hamilton, his wife Martha has been dead for several years. There is no mention of her in Hamilton; his daughter, also named Martha, also receives no mention despite the fact that she served the duties of First Lady while her father was in office. However, another woman, Sally Hemings, does get a suave shout-out in “What Did I Miss.” Beyond a name drop, the rather infamous relationship between the third president and his slave goes unmentioned. Despite some other reference to Jefferson’s slaves, that entire aspect of his character is ignored. Thomas Jefferson remains a suave ladies man who’s pompous attitude creates rifts within the early political system.

    Sally Hemings is perhaps most famous for being the mother of six children fathered by Jefferson and is a mysterious but important part of the life of said founding father. The fact that Hemings gave birth to Jefferson’s children is not odd; it was common for female slaves to be impregnated by their masters. That appears to be the case for Hemings’ birth -- she was the child of John Wayles (father of Martha, Jefferson’s wife) and his slave Elizabeth.
When Hemings was fourteen, she moved from Virginia to Paris to work in the Jefferson home abroad. While there, she received occasional wages, learned to speak French, and was trained to be a lady’s maid. She was also reunited with her brother, who had been brought to France by Jefferson to study French cuisine. While in France, according to Madison Hemings (son of Thomas and Sally), Sally Hemings “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine.”

Two years later, Thomas Jefferson returned to America; Sally Hemings accompanied him. At first, she refused to return. She agreed to do so only after Jefferson promised that she would receive “extraordinary privileges” and that her future offspring would be free. At the time, she was pregnant with one of Jefferson’s children. Her children were only freed in the 1820s, almost forty years after Jefferson agreed to do so. Sally Hemings was only ever unofficially given her freedom after Jefferson’s death in 1826.

    In the musical 1776, there is no mention of Sally Hemings; this makes sense, considering she was three years old at the time. This musical takes a more in-depth look into Thomas’ relationship with his wife Martha. In reality, Martha never visited Thomas in Philadelphia, but nevertheless -- the show portrays the couple as deeply in love. Regardless of the personal feelings between their real life counterparts, this show paints Thomas Jefferson as a doting husband. 

True or not, this implies that Jefferson’s view of women is warm. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Thomas Jefferson seemed to prize (white) women for their minds rather than their bodies. Despite his intimate feelings, he did not believe women should be a part of the political sphere. In an 1807 letter to Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin, Jefferson wrote, “The appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I.” Beyond just positions of power, his view of women is far from seeing them as equal. In regards to the education of his own daughters, he wrote, “I thought it essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, be incapable, or inattentive.” Women belong in the domestic sphere, according to Jefferson; important aspects of life, such as education, rely solely on how women can use these abilities to help fulfill their roles as mothers.

    While I understand that Thomas Jefferson is not the main character of either of these shows, I think more stage time should be used to explore the darker aspects of the men we are taught to respect and turn to for guidance as to what to do in the future. Theater is a chance to make the dry pages of history rich and interesting; what are the responsibilities that come with that?

(Photo credit J. David Ake)