Fairly Recently: Must- and Should-Reads, and Writings... (March 17, 2019)
Weekend Reading: William Freehling: Secessionists at Bay

Weekend Reading: Garry Wills (1974): Uncle Thomas’s Cabin

Weekend Reading: Garry Wills (1974): Uncle Thomas’s Cabin: "It should be clear, by now, what fuels the tremendous industry [Fawn Brodie] 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...

...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....

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...

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