Thomas Jefferson was a founding father, President, and author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also a very complicated man, husband, and father. Patsy (Martha) Jefferson, promises her mother on her deathbed that she will care for her father during his darkest moments. When she takes on this job as a child, she doesn’t realize where this will lead her life and how it might compromise her own chances for happiness.
After her mother’s death, Patsy and Thomas Jefferson travel to France where Jefferson serves as America’s minister to France right as France starts to rise for its own independence. Patsy comes of age in France, starting as a child and blossoming into a young woman who is full of ideas of her own. She also falls in love with her father’s secretary, William Short, a man set on a career in diplomacy and ending slavery. “Was there ever a time or place for love better than spring in Paris?”
Her father starts a scandalous affair with a married woman while in France, and Patsy is even more horrified to discover that her father afterwards starts a relationship with her mother’s half-sister, Sally Hemings, who is also their slave and the same age as Patsy.
“Of course, I’d also heard him say that a person ought to give up money, fame, and the earth itself, rather than do an immoral act.”
Patsy has to determine what is most important for her and her family and what kind of life she would like to have. As the years pass by, she loves her growing family more and more, but she wonders if she has made the best choices overall. After her father becomes President of the United States, she serves as her widowed father’s first lady and helps to make the politicians act in a more civilized manner.
I loved this book. I loved Patsy’s romance with both William Short and Thomas Randolph. I loved that the romance didn’t end even as Patsy grew older. I also loved the real life figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Dolley Madison as they appeared and were characters throughout the story. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Dolley Madison and it was wonderful to see her brought to life.
“Lafayette studied Papa and nodded, thoughtfully. ‘Tell me. How did you feel on that glorious day you took your own honest and manly stand and signed your name to the Declaration of Independence?’
Papa’s expression turned wry. ‘I felt a noose tightening around my neck.’”
There were many parts of the story that I admit, I thought were too fantastical to be true. There is an author’s note at the end of the novel which points out that these things did happen and that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. I also used the internet at various points to look up facts for myself during the middle of the book.
I still have the hardest time with Thomas Jefferson’ relationship with Sally Hemings. I realized I probably romanticized it in my own mind, but reading this book from his daughter’s prospective, I was even more horrified. Sally was the same age as his daughters and his wife’s half-sister. She was also owned by him. It was wrong on so many levels. There are points in the story where Thomas Jefferson could have made things right with Sally and he didn’t. I was horrified when basically all of the slaves were sold off at the end to pay for Thomas Jefferson’s debts. I felt like he liked to be the “father of freedom” when it suited his intellectual purposes, but not when it would not suit his wallet.
That was actually my other fascination with this book, how bad Jefferson’s finances were. Patsy’s were also throughout her marriage. A lot of it on all sides was inherited debt. I was baffled how someone could inherit debt and not the estate that accrued the debt (happened to Patsy’s husband). It seems so unfair. But unfair is also living a life of luxury and not thinking about the consequences for your children, grandchildren, and slaves such as Thomas Jefferson did.
I visited Monticello when I was ten years old and again when I was twenty-four. This book made me long to return with my children. Hopefully in a few years when my youngest (Penelope is five right now) is old enough to enjoy it. It’s hard to put together the full portrait of someone who could design a house so beautiful with someone who was just a contradiction to himself. No one is perfect. I also enjoyed that the book used Jefferson’s real letters.
Overall I greatly enjoyed America’s First Daughter. It had complicated real historical characters, a great setting in time, and a great love story. It was a story that really made me think about my perceptions of Thomas Jefferson. I highly recommend it.
Book Source: Review Copy from William Morrow. Thank-you!