“Monticello” by Sally Cabot Gunning is a fascinating historical novel about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter, Martha. Because the author based this book on actual correspondence between father and daughter, it is immersed in reality.
The book begins with a letter from Martha to her father at the age of 14.
“I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed,” she wrote. “It grieves my heart when I think that these our fellow creatures should be treated so terribly as they are by many of our country men.”
This sets the tone for the rest of the book, where readers see the struggle throughout their life with family, relationships and issues of the day, including being a good wife, a good mother, honoring her father and shaping his legacy.
“I poured through her letters to her father and his to her and realized that she and I had embarked on a similar mission, to figure out her father,” Gunning said. “I read all the letters they wrote each other, letters to other people, and numerous biographies. I searched through endless Jefferson documents online. I learned that as Martha matured, she came to spend many evenings at her father’s dinner table in the company of Europe’s greatest men of arts, letters, politics and science, enhancing her education still further. I took many trips to Monticello and discovered something new with each trip, not just about the people who lived there, black and white, but also about the significance Monticello held for them.”
Martha idolized and admired her father and considered him a renaissance man with his greatest accomplishments as the author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and an advocate for religious freedom as well as an end to slavery. Telling the story from her point of view, Gunning is able to make the characters come alive and takes readers back in time to the early days of America where Jefferson is viewed in a different light, that of father and grandfather.
There is a scene in the book where he sends Martha and her children gifts, “books and toys for the children, chinaware, a Turkey carpet, and a pair of chairs…When Martha’s father realized she had no horse to ride, he lent her a gentle bay and paid the overdue mortgage bill.”
Monticello is also a character that played a significant role in their lives, the family’s beloved Virginia plantation among lush mountains. It was a place where Jefferson escaped his political worries and thrived, and Martha sought security, as it became her haven. Both yearned for it when they are absent, and it became the soul of the family with its seasonal beauty, treasured gardens, walking and riding paths, as well as the Palladian house designed by Jefferson.
But it was also the family’s Achilles heel. Their increasing financial strain forced them to continue to own slaves, even as their conscience and beliefs told them slavery was wrong. It became a necessary evil where they needed to have slaves to manage the plantation. He did try to find a way to turn his slaves into tenant farmers, but the Virginia laws did not accept it.
“It definitely was a character in the book,” Gunning said. “The place itself became so significant in their lives, especially if you think what they did to preserve it. They were hell-bent on holding on to it. It was their sanctuary. She actually moved back during her troubled marriage. It explained many things including slavery, the relationship with each other, and the extreme debt of Jefferson. This is just my observation, but I believe had he not inherited slaves from his father and an enormous debt from his father-in-law, he would not have been a slave owner. I also think had he not been in such financial trouble he would have freed his slaves after he died. Although he thought slavery was wrong, it became a necessary evil, a way to manage the plantation.”
Furthermore, she points out, “Jefferson did what he could to end slavery, but was stifled by others and the law. While in France, he had decided to set up tenant farming for those of his slaves who he felt were ready to take on the responsibility. He also believed legislation was needed to do away with slavery in its entirety. In 1769 he had someone file an emancipation bill because he was only a junior legislator. He had an elder respected legislator put it forth, but it was instantly tabled and not put up for a vote. He wrote this into the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, calling slavery ‘a cruel war against human nature itself,’ but others in the Congress had it deleted. He also said, ‘There is no God that would side with us in this conflict.’
This brings up the question of the relationship between Sally Hemings, his 16-year-old slave, and Thomas Jefferson. No one has a crystal ball and can only speculate on it. Beginning while he was the Minister to France, Hemings could have chosen to be free, but instead chose to come back to America with Jefferson. She was able to negotiate freedom for her children at the age of 21 and privileges for herself, including not doing the work of enslaved women. Her brothers were granted freedom of movement, paid for work, sometimes given spending money, and were taught to read and write. Whether the relationship was fondness or love between them cannot be determined, but regardless she was a slave and he was the master even though he never supposedly forced himself on her.
“When she was 14 she accompanied Jefferson, the American envoy to France, to take care of his youngest daughter Maria,” Gunning said. “I do think she had some agency in it, although not total agency. She could have remained free if she stayed in France so she did have some decision making power in agreeing to return to America. Hemings negotiated freedom for her children and privileges: their children would be set free once they reached 21, and Hemings would never again do the work of the other enslaved women at Monticello.”
This book takes readers on a fantastic journey about one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers and his daughter. Through her life, starting with her return from France to a mother of eleven children people get a glimpse of the complicated and complex era.