America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie (William Morrow, 2016)
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was a complicated man. The narrative of America’s First Daughter, told in the voice of Jefferson’s adoring daughter, Patsy, gives us Jefferson, the hero. However, as Patsy matures, she can’t deny that her great father is a flawed man. This realization confuses her as she continues to minister to his many ailments, including horrible migraines and weeks when he is weighed down by the darkest of depressions. Patsy stays at his side, no matter what the cost to her personal life.
Although Jefferson is one of the Revolutionary Period’s most renowned figures, a diplomat, a man of letters, and the owner of a vast Virginia plantation. Through the course of the novel we see that things, particularly of historical interest, are not always what they seem to be.
Thus, the overarching question of the novel is this: Was Thomas Jefferson a good man, or was he a bad man? For the reader to come to a satisfactory answer to that question, one must decide whether we should judge Jefferson by social mores of his time, or by what people in our modern world think about the mores of the 18th century. The way in which Patsy struggles with questions regarding her father’s morality is what keeps the argument (good man/bad man) consistently niggling at our minds as we read. It is so well woven into the text that as things happen which involve Jefferson’s decision-making, we waiver between hero/villain. The book provides an intellectual battle for us as we consume the text.
The opening scene of the novel presents one of the greatest tragedies that Jefferson had to face, the ramifications of which hover over the story as it unfolds. The Jefferson and Hemings families huddle over Martha Jefferson’ bed as her life is waning. A broken Thomas Jefferson had drawn his chair close to his wife’s bed so that he could hold her hand in her final moments. Her voice fading, Martha detailed everything that needed to be done by the family once she was gone.
Patsy confides in us, “She was letting go of life, giving everything away. Even the little bronze bell she used to ring for servants, she gave to Sally, who pressed a cheek against my mother’s hand.” Martha then casts her eyes on Patsy and begs her to “Watch over your father when I am gone,” a request that Patsy obeys emphatically, no matter how difficult it is to do, for the rest of Jefferson’s long life.
The Sally who is at Martha’s side, pressing her cheek to Mrs. Jefferson’s hand, feels the grief of losing a kind mistress. But, this slave girl is Sally Hemings, Mrs. Jefferson’s half sister, born of a liaison between their father, Mr. Wayles, and a slave woman on his farm. Ironically, Martha and Sally look so much alike that everyone could see the resemblance and understood its significance. So, Sally, receiving the sweet token from her mistress, bids farewell to a sister, whom she could never acknowledge.
After emerging from an immobilizing depression after his wife’s death, Jefferson drags himself off to France to serve as the American ambassador to bring peace, at last, to the new country of America, free of British rule. Patsy eventually joins her father in France where she attends a convent school, in which she finds some peace and happiness.
As Patsy comes of age, she develops a keen, inquisitive mind, as well as a fancy for her father’s secretary, William Short, a bright young man, who is also an abolitionist. Patsy is barely into her teens when a flirtation begins to flutter between them.
However, this is a liaison of which Jefferson cannot approve, and he goes so far as to dismiss Short from his employ. Short is much older than the 16-year-old Patsy, and he has nothing concrete to offer her. Short urges Patsy to run away with him, and turn her back on her father; but this she cannot do. She has made a deathbed promise to her mother, and she cannot break it, even for her own happiness. Like modern teenage girls, she argues, sulks, and weeps, but as the French Revolution breaks out, the Jeffersons escape a country on the cusp of a bloody war, home to Virginia.
Aside from struggling with her own affairs of the heart, it is in France that the patina of her father’s character begins to fade. While her father has forbidden her match to Short, he has been engaging secretly in a liaison with Sally Hemings, his slave, and sister-in-law. Over the years, Jefferson continues to love Sally, and she gives him many children.
Eventually scandal breaks, and as she has done so many times before, it is up to Patsy to shield her father from disgrace.
America’s First Daughter is an historical novel that is meant to savor like a gourmet meal when reading it. Author Stephanie Dray is a bestselling and award-nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Laura Kamoie has published two works of nonfiction on early American and recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full time career writing fiction under the name Laura Kaye. This wonderful team did impeccable research, including the vast collection of letters that Jefferson wrote and received, his papers, and historical documents that painted the historical picture that they needed to make America’s First Daughter a novel that is so good, it whets the reader’s appetite to learn more about Thomas Jefferson, his astonishing daughter Patsy, and their place in American history.