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Susan Kern's book shows the young Jefferson as he actually was


All the reviewers who saw the manuscript asked the same question: Does the world really need another book about Thomas Jefferson?

“Obviously, it does!,” says Susan Kern, author of The Jeffersons at Shadwell, an examination of the third president's boyhood home. Shadwell, on land adjacent to Monticello, was the tobacco plantation of Peter Jefferson and his wife Jane Randolph Jefferson. The culmination of more than a decade of archaeology and scholarship on the Jefferson family, The Jeffersons at Shadwell is an outgrowth of Kern's Ph.D. dissertation at William & Mary.

Kern, visiting assistant professor in William & Mary's Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, was a member of a team from Monticello's Department of Archaeology who conducted a five-year excavation of Shadwell. The main house burned to the ground in 1770, the fire depositing a rich bed of artifacts. Interpretation of Shadwell’s material culture helped Kern to depict the household life of the family that produced a man who was the author of the Declaration of Independence as well as the most distinguished alumnus of the College of William and Mary.

“The book's about the Jeffersons—plural,” Kern said. “It's about the whole family and their plantation and all of the slaves they owned. There are eight Jefferson children; Thomas is the third of that eight. There are the parents, and about 60 slaves at any one time.”

The Jeffersons at Shadwell, published by Yale University Press, corrects a number of scholarly misconceptions about the young Jefferson. For example, Kern says many Jefferson scholars have accepted and passed along a narrative that depicts a yeomanly, even backwoods, Shadwell only slightly tempered by the gentility of Jane Randolph Jefferson. Kern said her group began their archaeological work looking for corresponding material evidence of humble origins.

“When we went out there in 1990, a generation of archaeologists had refined how we look for the common man. We understood how to work with poor folks’ sites. We understood slave quarters. So we went back to Shadwell, not looking for a mansion,” she said. “In fact, what we found was a very high-style house.”

After excavating the big house and cataloging its contents—tailored clothing, fine dishes, stylish furnishings and other household goods—Kern's book makes the case that the family of Peter and Jane Jefferson were the social and economic equal of almost any in Virginia. The Jeffersons at Shadwell not only corrects the origins myth, but also identifies the origin of the myth itself.

Origins of the origins myth

“It began with a 1909 address from a man named William Thornton, who was a professor at the University of Virginia,” Kern said. “The political environment of 1909 wanted an aristocratic heritage for Americans, but at the same time honored this idea of the Everyman. So Thornton came up with this sort of metaphor of Jefferson as mixing the red blood of his father, the lusty backwoodsman, with the blue blood of his mother, the English aristocrat.”

Historians of the mid-20th Century embraced another narrative strain, she said, based on a perceived lasting conflict between Thomas Jefferson and his mother. No less a figure than John Dos Passos used the word “frigid” to describe the mother-son relationship.

The Jeffersons at Shadwell takes on this myth, as well, which Kern says was based on misinterpretation of documents relating to a set of family account books. Peter Jefferson's estate provided for a closely detailed set of charges to be applied for the upbringing of the younger Jefferson children, she explained.

“Jane was just carrying out Peter Jefferson’s wishes in protecting the inheritance,” Kern explained. “But in the 1950s, this kind of accounting was seen as evidence of a very cold relationship between Thomas and Jane Jefferson, when in fact I think it really shows a very capable woman taking care of this estate.”

No Oliver Twist

Another myth addressed in The Jeffersons at Shadwell was started by Thomas himself. “Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was 14," Kern explained. “Thomas makes this claim in a letter to a grandson that he was thrown almost entirely on his own and had to make his way in life all by himself.”

In fact, young Thomas inherited Shadwell (and the land upon which he would later build Monticello). Kern cites documents showing that the heir’s affairs were in the hands of a set of capable and caring executors of the estate, who for one thing made sure that Thomas received the financial and educational wherewithal to attend William & Mary. Moreover, Peter’s will instructed that each of his children was provided with a slave bodyservant.

As eldest son, Thomas inherited Sawney, Peter Jefferson's own personal manservant. Kern points out that as the valet of a man of consequence, Sawney would have had experience in making sure Peter Jefferson was properly kitted out for receiving important visitors and especially for representing Albemarle County at meetings of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. Sawney, she said, would have transferred his skills to the service of the son, and he may have accompanied young Jefferson to William & Mary.

“In the 1760s, Sawney was replaced by a man named Jupiter who was born the same year as Jefferson. They grew up together,” she said. “So Jefferson has these people around him his whole life, doing things for him; he is no more self-made than my children.”

A child inherits a child

With a set of eight Jefferson children ranging from ages 2 to 16, there weren't enough Sawneys to go around. Kern says Peter Jefferson’s will identifies, by name, a bodyservant to be bequeathed to each of the other seven.

“I sat down one night with various documents to figure out how old these people are at the moment when they are passed from the estate to their new owners. Each one, except for the one Thomas inherited, was roughly the same age as the child they’re going to," she explained. “So the two-year-old twins inherit two-year-olds. The four-year-old inherits a four-year-old.

“When I realized that two-year-olds owned other two-year-olds, and grew up understanding either that ‘I'm the boss of this person’ or ‘I have to be subservient to this person,’ well, it was chilling,” she said.

The Jeffersons at Shadwell is rich with descriptions, illustrations and interpretations of the material culture uncovered at Shadwell. Kern deals deftly with a wide variety of historic and historical documents to separate the young man from the old myths.

“With Jefferson, there are always the myths that you have to take on in order to get to the story you feel responsible about telling,” she said.