America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray

America's First DaughterThomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy – Martha Jefferson Randolph – lived through the American revolution, the French revolution, wealth, poverty, passionate love, pragmatic love, thwarted love, patriotic love, mother love, and absolute misery. The author’s historical note in the back tells us that all of this is based on diaries and extensive letters, and ‘you can’t make this stuff up!’

If not for the historical note, one might think this is a Gothic novel full of secrets, ruined castles, ruined plantations, drunk/delusional characters, multiple rags-to-riches & riches-to-rags tales, honor used to commit dishonor, and more. One serious complaint I have about the times (not the story) is that when the governor’s own women-folk are beaten by a drunk husband, and its legal, why does he threaten to horse-whip the drunk instead of trying to change the beat-a-wife law?

It is interesting (read, horrifying) to see how the slavery laws in Virginia grew harsher in Patsy’s lifetime, and how it grew harder for an owner to set a slave free. Instead of setting an aged slave free, legislative permission had to be granted to allow a freed person to remain in Virginia. So, did a slave want to be free if it meant never seeing their family again? Tough call. Sally Hemming had to make that choice at 17, to stay free in France or return to her family.

Sally Hemming never has a chapter of her own, but her personality and point of view is acknowledged throughout. This look from the women’s point of view does not paint Jefferson in the most glorious light, even though Patsy loves her father dearly.

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