Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning is a fascinating historical novel about the relationship between one of America’s Founding Fathers’ Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter
Martha. Because the author based this book on actual correspondence between father and daughter it is immersed in reality. Readers see the struggle throughout their life with family, relationships, and issues of the day, including being a good wife, a good mother, honoring her father, and shaping his legacy. His greatest accomplishments included authoring the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and an advocate for religious freedom as well as an end to slavery. The author explores the complicated life of both father and daughter.
Also a character in the book is Monticello. This home played a significant role in their lives, the family’s beloved Virginia plantation among lush mountains. It was a place where Jefferson escaped his political worries and thrived, while Martha sought security, as it became her haven. This soul of the family was also its Achilles heel. It became a necessary evil where they needed to have slaves to manage the plantation. Through Jefferson and his daughter’s life readers will get a glimpse of the complex era.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Sally Cabot Gunning: In doing research for my previous book, Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, I found this letter written by Martha to her father when she was fourteen. It read, ‘I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed. It grieves my heart when I think that these, our fellow creatures should be treated so terribly as they are by many of our country men.’ I knew I had to learn more about her and the relationship with her father. As his oldest daughter she was much more involved in Jefferson’s life and with their property at Monticello than I ever could have imagined. I hope readers love this novel as much as I loved writing it.
EC: What research did you do?
SCG: I poured through her letters to her father and his to her and realized that she and I had embarked on a similar mission, to figure out her father. I read all the letters they wrote each other, letters to other people, and numerous biographies. I searched through endless Jefferson documents online. I learned that as Martha matured she came to spend many evenings at her father’s dinner table in the company of Europe’s greatest men of arts, letters, politics, and science, enhancing her education still further. I took many trips to Monticello and discovered something new with each trip, not just about the people who lived there, black and white, but also about the significance Monticello held for them.
EC: How would you describe Martha?
SCG: She looked more like her father and was tall at 5 feet 11 inches. Martha was energetic and feisty. She and her sister were told by their father that they were the most important people in his life. I don’t think she lived in a secure world having lost her mother when she was young, a father who was here, there, and everywhere, and a marriage that was unstable. I think Jefferson might have favored her because why else would he write long letters to his other daughter saying Martha was not the darling of his eyes, almost defending himself.
EC: How did she view her father?
SCG: I read letters where she wrote her father that no one would be more important to her than he. She put her father on a pedestal that no one else could live up to. She always wanted to earn his respect. Her emotional and financial security was her father.
EC: What about her education?
SCG: She was one of the most highly educated women of her time. The point of her education was for her to converse intelligently, teach her children, and to be a good companion. Most women did not receive that type of education, and I think Jefferson saw in her an intellect that should be nurtured. According to what I read she was fascinating to listen to and was a draw, someone cultivated, even by Presidents.
EC: Why did she marry Tom Randolph?
SCG: Her decision to marry Tom Randolph was done impulsively, on the rebound, and turned out to be a bad one. William Short, Thomas Jefferson’s advisor when he was the Minister to France, wanted her to stay but she was persuaded by her father to return to America with him. He was very good at talking people into things. After her return she married someone who wallowed in self-pity. Both Jefferson and she went to great lengths to convince Randolph that he was not in the shadow of her famous father, had equal sway as the other son-in-law, and was beloved. The phrase in the book written by Jefferson is true, ‘I hold you with greater esteem than you hold for yourself.’ Yet, he turned to alcoholism, forcing Martha to take her children and live at Monticello.
EC: When I heard you describe Martha and Thomas Jefferson’s feelings for Monticello I thought of how Scarlett O’Hara felt about Tara from the Gone With The Wind story?
SCG: It definitely was a character in the book. The place itself became so significant in their lives, especially if you think what they did to preserve it. They were hell bent on holding on to it. It was their sanctuary. She actually moved back during her troubled marriage. Also, after Jefferson died, when it was being sold, the family appealed to William Short to influence Martha to not be present.
EC: Monticello was also their Achilles heel?
SCG: It explained many things including slavery, the relationship with each other, and the extreme debt of Jefferson. This is just my observation, but I believe had he not inherited slaves from his father and an enormous debt from his father-in-law he would not have been a slave owner. I also think had he not been in such financial trouble he would have freed his slaves after he died. Although he thought slavery was wrong, it became a necessary evil, a way to manage the plantation.
EC: I think in understanding Jefferson we need to understand the times and not have tunnel vision?
SCG: Yes. A single slave was worth $500. The banks allowed him to keep taking money because he had this ‘valuable commodity.’ Plantation owners were land rich and cash poor. They did not know how to get out from under this vile system. I think that he as a slave owner and his slaves were both victimized by slavery. Many people call him a hypocrite. But until someone learns about the conditions of the day, what was going on, and his beliefs, they should not be making this statement. They need to get the whole paragraph and not the headline.
EC: This book quote shows how both were conflicted over the issue of slavery: “He caused intentional harm to no living creature; that he’d done what he could to ease the plight of those in his care; that he was trapped, as they all were, in a vile system that could not be righted in this life.” Please explain.
SCG: At the beginning of the book I have this quote by Jefferson at the end of his life, ‘on the subject of emancipation I have ceased to think because [it is] not to be a work of my day.’ He did what he could to end it, but was stifled by others and the law. While in France, he had decided to set up tenant farming for those of his slaves who he felt were ready to take on the responsibility. He also believed legislation was needed to do away with slavery in its entirety. In 1769 he had someone file an emancipation bill because he was only a junior legislator. He had an elder respected legislator put it forth, but it was instantly tabled and not put up for a vote. He wrote this into the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, calling slavery ‘a cruel war against human nature itself,’ but others in the Congress had it deleted. He also said, ‘There is no G-d that would side with us in this conflict.’
EC: There is no good slave owner, but with that said how did he treat his slaves?
SCG: He had a paternalistic view of the master/slave relationship with the feeling he needed to care and feed them. He did free five slaves after his death because he knew they could support themselves. He never beat his slaves, and when they went to him with a complaint about the overseers he always sided with the slaves. Remember George Washington gets credit for freeing his slaves, but he did it only after he died when he did not need them anymore. Also, Washington did not free any of the slaves owned by his wife.
EC: Let’s talk about Sally Hemings, the slave Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with. What is your take?
SCG: When she was fourteen she accompanied Jefferson, the American envoy to France, to take care of his youngest daughter Maria. She could have remained free if she stayed in France. She did agree to return to America with Jefferson. I do think she had some agency in it although not total agency. She could have remained free if she stayed in France so she did have some decision making power. Hemings negotiated freedom for her children and privileges: their children would be set free once they reached 21, and Hemings would never again do the work of the other enslaved women at Monticello. An African-American historian who I greatly respect truly believes there was some feeling between the pair. I do not think he physically forced himself upon her; yet, we have to emphasize that if a person owns another person there is the question of mutual consent.
EC: How did Martha feel about the relationship?
SCG: She resented Sally. For example, Sally or Thomas named the child they had together James Madison, and shortly thereafter Martha named her next child by the same name. Martha’s son Jeff stated after she died that his mother had a difficult time with the Sally situation. She made a concerted effort to keep Sally out of her father’s story.
EC: Is your next book going to be about another Founding Father?
SCG: I am leaning to getting back to writing about early 1800s New England.