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The Women Jefferson Loved

Who were the women in the life of Thomas Jefferson, “arguably the most revered, vexing, contradictory, complicated figure in American history”?

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Thomas Jefferson, who crafted some of the most eternal words in American history, knew a thing or two about the “pursuit of happiness.” He did, after all, spend much of his life seeking something more.

The British Empire didn’t meet his needs, so he helped foment a revolution. The New Testament wasn’t up to his standards, so he edited out those pesky parts he didn’t like. And when he became a widower, he wasn’t satisfied to seek companionship among people of his own class. Instead, evidence suggests, he looked much closer to home.

Biographers are still wrestling with the question of what drove Jefferson, who is “arguably the most revered, vexing, contradictory, complicated figure in American history,” as historian Virginia Scharff puts it in The Women Jefferson Loved.

Arguably indeed. Jefferson as the most revered American? That’s a stretch. But it’s not unusual when it comes to this rebellious redhead: Biographers have long tried to pull the fabric of Jefferson’s life over inconvenient holes and irregularities in his story. While her book is a fine portrait of a place and time, Scharff too often falls into the same trap.

Jefferson loved plenty of women, and several of them get plenty of attention in the book – his mother, wife, daughters, and granddaughters. His most infamous and problematic relationship – make that “alleged relationship” – is here too. That, of course, is the one he may have had with a slave named Sally Hemings.

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