The Man Behind the Myth

The life and times of Thomas Jefferson as seen through the eyes of his daughter.

As a college student, Sally Cabot Gunning worked in The Drummer Boy Museum in Brewster, Massachusetts, which focused on the American Revolution. A long-time resident of nearby Cape Cod, where her own family history stretches back 300 years, it was only natural for Gunning to grow curious about the Colonial Era. But the museum’s curator further fanned the flame by telling her the stories behind items in their collection. 

“He educated me on the stories that I never heard,” she says. “The fact that Paul Revere never finished his ride; he was captured, but you never hear about that. It fascinated me that there was this other hidden story to so much of the history that we read about in schoolbooks, and I got very interested in digging it out.”

In most of her three historical novels, which are set in New England before the American Revolution, Gunning portrays life in the era through the eyes of an invented character, a minor person that history would otherwise overlook. But when her historical research led her to correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Martha, Gunning became intrigued enough to consider writing about a well-known real-life character. 

“I found Martha particularly fascinating,” says Gunning. “When she turned 14, she wrote her father a letter: ‘I wish with all my heart the Negroes could be free.’ And that hooked me on the Jeffersons. So away I went.”

The result is her latest historical novel, Monticello, a slow-moving story that follows Martha from the age of 17 to almost 60. Throughout the book, Monticello itself is treated as a character. When Martha is away from the estate, her mood turns glum. And each time she returns, the grandeur of its architecture and the splendor of its fields are enough to make her feel bright again, to infuse her thoughts with hope.

Several storylines run through the book. Martha marries, has children of her own, and passes on her own childhood lessons—read everything, perfect the art of conversation, never flaunt and never cower. There are feuds within the extended family, problems with money, and even a few seamy peccadillos. But above all else, slavery and the question of how good men could allow it to continue lie at Monticello’s heart.

The story opens with Martha returning from a five-year stint in France, where black slaves are treated as free servants and Thomas Jefferson espouses his beliefs in freedom and equality for all. Gunning reveals how he advocated not only for emancipation, but also for enfranchisement of the slaves. And in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote that “slavery was a cruel war against human nature itself.” 

As soon as Thomas Jefferson returns from France, though, his discourses about equality disappear. Although the Jeffersons do what they can to be fair and kind, they still make rigid demands of their slaves and split families apart. This dichotomy is the central thematic strand of the book: that Martha and her presidential father professed desire to free their slaves, but never took any action to do so.

“I was really curious,” says Gunning, “if they didn’t like slavery, why couldn’t they do anything about it? Why do they spend all their lives enmeshed in the system of slavery? It took a little work on my part to look at the situation through Martha’s eyes and not put my own preconceived thoughts from the days we live in right now onto her thought process. It seems that as hard as a white Virginia planter might want to end slavery, it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Owning a plantation wrapped them up in all kinds of complications. I’m not trying to make excuses, but I gained understanding.”

While slaves continue to work the plantation as before, one drastic change does occur. After Martha’s mother grows ill and dies, we witness Sally Hemings transform from house slave to something akin to mistress of the house, passing work off to others and giving birth to children that bear striking resemblance to the Jeffersons.

Gunning writes about Martha’s laments later in life, as she contemplates her father’s legacy, “pondering the man who could write and live ideas so violently opposed until she’d looked around and seen her father’s mountain as it really was, for perhaps the first time. This little mountain, her father’s world, was not a real world at all but a world her father could see or not see as it suited him, a world he had managed to pretend he could create and control down to the last perfect bloom.”

By telling this story through the eyes of an adoring daughter, we see the power and majesty of Thomas Jefferson the man and the president. And by showing how Martha’s fervent hatred of slavery slowly takes a back seat to other concerns, such as crops and the mortgage, we see how human these mythological giants really were. William Morrow, $25.99

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Richmond Noir, by A. Blossom and others
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
The Mathews Men, by William Geroux
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