News: Presidents Day and A Jefferson Deep Dive

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Happy belated Presidents Day! I had the brainstorm for this post on Presidents Day and unfortunately, as happens all too often in my life, I just didn’t get the chance to sit down and put fingers to keyboard. Today is a snow day however, and I am taking the opportunity to write and to let you all know that I am still here!

A quick word on Presidents Day: So I went looking for a generic, non-Washington or Lincoln, vintage-y image to use for this post and didn’t really have much to choose from. It made me wonder exactly how old Presidents Day is and when it became a holiday. The answer is that it had been debated since 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, moving a bunch of federal holidays to occur on Mondays so that workers could have long weekends throughout the year. The idea was opposed by those who maintained that days celebrating historical events should be celebrated on the actual dates they commemorated. It was during these debates that the idea of Presidents Day was raised, but Congress rejected it. In 1971 when the Bill went into effect, Presidents Day became the commonly accepted name, partly due to retailers’ use of it to promote sales. Commercialism. It’ll get ya every time.

Coincidentally, during this President Day I found myself beginning a deep dive into Thomas Jefferson, or more accurately, the women surrounding him. I began reading America’s First Daughter, a fiction book based on the letters and other original sources of Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Patsy, a few weeks ago and am enjoying this intimate look at Jefferson and his family. Of course I knew of his relationship with Sally Hemings, but what caught me off guard and started me down the rabbit hole was the revelation that Sally is believed to have been half-sisters with Jefferson’s wife, Martha. While it was common practice for slave owners to have sexual relations with their slaves, to me this bit of family history is important. Jefferson had made a deathbed promise to Martha that he was to never have another wife. He was devastated by Martha’s death, and suffered from such a deep depression that it seems he even contemplated suicide.He did have at least one affair after Martha’s death, Maria Cosway, but as she was married and Jefferson had vowed to never remarry, they eventually drifted apart. Sally eventually arrived in Paris from Virginia with his youngest daughter Polly, and it is suggested that Sally looked very much like Martha, so I can see where he would be drawn to her.

At this point, it would be easy for me to say that this was still a totally inappropriate relationship as he not only was her employer, but actually “owned” her and you would assume held all of the power in the relationship. However, Sally seems to have had an extraordinary amount of power for someone of her position in that time. I do know that at the time owning slaves was illegal in France, and while they were living in Paris if Sally had made her situation known to the authorities, she could have been released. So why didn’t she? This is where I begin my dive.

I want to know more about Sally and Jefferson’s relationship, and what the nature of it might truly have been. Focusing on the females, I want to know more about Patsy, Polly, and their half-sister. So I’m doing some research into the whole family and hope to have some really interesting findings when I post about Monticello in the coming months. I’ll be reading Jefferson’s Sons, Jefferson’s Daughters, and Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings is another fiction based on cited primary sources. Jefferson’s Daughters is classified as a biography, and Jefferson’s Sons is fiction written by a history professor.

Before I do that post though, I’m planning on visiting Monticello again this summer as they’ve now added the story of Sally to their narrative. I think this is amazing, and long overdue, especially after denying the existence of the relationship for so long. I’m anxious to see how they present the story, and I hope that they do Sally and her family justice.

In other news, I’m planning that beginning in early April, I will finally starting posting regularly and start on the many houses I’ve visited so far. First up will be George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I’ll focus on his wife Martha, and also how the preservation of Mount Vernon, the first historical house museum in the country, came to be. Hint: It was women!

So stay tuned, and if you’re not already, make sure to follow me on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. While not everywhere I travel will become a post, I do post there about the places I go and things I do. I also try to post interesting articles and discussions I find about women’s history.




P.S. One of my photos was recently featured as the event cover photo a heart bombing event the Haverford Township Historical Society had this past Valentine’s Day!

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2 Responses

  1. Guinevere Janes

    No. There is no way you can make Sally and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship okay. Thomas Jefferson was the master raping his enslaved servant. It was not a relationship of equals when they were in France. Thomas Jefferson was BELOVED in France. He was considered a hero by the French people. Even if Sally had made herself known to authorities, she would not have been set free from the hero of France.
    I find it disturbing that you would seek evidence for a master/enslaved relationship, even if it is Jefferson and Sally’s relationship, to be one of equals.

  2. Emily

    You are correct, and my words were poorly chosen in this regard. No, it is NEVER okay for someone in a position of power to take advantage of someone else. I won’t normalize or give a pass to Jefferson for this relationship. Their relationship could never have been of equals since he literally owned her. It was horribly wrong, and should be recognized as such. Thank you for your input, and I will keep this more strongly in my mind going forward.

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