A new examination of Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home reveals the forces that shaped the third president. Author Susan Kern talks about her new book, “The Jeffersons at Shadwell.”
Harmony Hunter: Hi welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. When you think of Thomas Jefferson, you probably remember him best as he appears on the back of the nickel—a wise, proper, and somber founding father.
But a new book from our guest, Susan Kern, The Jeffersons at Shadwell examines the great man's childhood and family home. It's a perspective that brings some surprising insights about the character of the man who would become our third president. Susan, thank you for being here today.
Susan Kern: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: Well let's talk first about Shadwell. What is Shadwell to Thomas Jefferson?
Susan: Well, Shadwell was the place he was born. It was his parents' plantation, and it was named for the parish in London where his mother was baptized.
Harmony: And in this book, you've examined that plantation where Thomas Jefferson grew up, his childhood, his parental influences, and the archaeological record that exists there to shed some light on Jefferson. Why did you feel that this book needed to be written, that this perspective needed to be brought out?
Susan: That's a great question. When we started really working with what we'd excavated at Shadwell, it didn't fit the existing histories of that part of Virginia which had to do with the frontier and settlement of Virginia in the middle of the 18th century.
It didn't really fit the biographical information about Thomas Jefferson—the character of his childhood, and so there were too many opportunities there for something that was new. It was unusual to have something new to say about Thomas Jefferson.
Harmony: It is, and I think one of the things that you uncovered is that some of things we thought we understood about Jefferson for so along and the sort of culture he was brought up within, we might have misunderstood those from previous biographies that were written and just accepted as truth.
Susan: Certainly, and Jefferson comes with a lot of myths. He's, he's served a lot of different purposes for the United States since his death. And that's one of the fun parts about it. In fact, one of these very useful myths comes from a 1907 address by a man named William Thornton, where he characterized Jane Jefferson as being the blue-blooded Randolph family and Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's father, as being the red-blooded, backwoods frontier American male.
So this dichotomy of talking, ways to talk about Thomas Jefferson became part of the package. And in fact, this opposition took form that became stronger than it actually, historically was. So that's, that was a very interesting myth to take on. And one of things I did in my research was look for the origins of these myths. So to find the origin of that one, of sort of the frontier Peter Jefferson and the aristocratic Jane Jefferson, dates to 1907. It didn't come from Thomas Jefferson's own time.
Harmony: What do we find at Shadwell? What kind of house was that?
Susan: There is this large brick cellar there that that's the largest artifact in the ground at Shadwell. It's still there. It's back under the earth today. When Fiske Kimball first uncovered that in 1943, he could not explain it in terms of a gentry house.
One of things that's made it possible for me to explain it is that the last generation of social historians and architectural historians and material culture historians has created an understanding of the entire range of the material and built landscape of early America.
So we understand that some very important gentry lived in houses that look small compared to the standing structures such as Westover and Shirley Plantation and Rosewell and that those in fact are the statistical outliers.
If we change the scale of how we understand how the gentry lived, that a very good house is one with five heated rooms and a dining room, it is a very, very good house in mid-century Virginia. And, and so to sort of readjust that scale and then find physical evidence that, that told us that the building was in fact larger than that cellar, enabled me to understand that in terms of a gentry house.
Harmony: So you found a grander house than you expected.
Harmony: And in the size of those rooms and in the furnishings that you understand that they held from the inventories that you saw from the Jeffersons, we understand now that they maintained a standard of living that was very fashionable and they had very elite accessories and household items that really show you something about family life of this household.
Susan: That was a surprise also. Because then that leads into question -- you know one of my favorite examples as a way to explain this is there's a dining room at Shadwell that can seat 20 people for dinner. They've got dining equipage—plates, knives, forks, spoons. They've got a fair investment in silver dining implements.
And, so, so who is that for? Is it simply to train children on how to use these implements, or is it a display for other people who pass by Shadwell? Who, who sees it if they're out on the perimeter of, of Virginia? That was an important question. And then, and I haven't fully answered that. Is it simply to train them for when they participate in, in the broader, broader Virginia society?
Then one of the other important components of that household is understanding that at times it's not just the eight Jefferson children but there are also at least eight slave children learning how to be the personal attendants of those children. So this house is very much about teaching a whole group of people roles in Virginia society.
Harmony: You mentioned the eight slaves who are personal servants to the children. In the context of thinking about status symbols at the house at this time, a slave workforce is a important status symbol and the Jeffersons are so far outnumbered by their slaves. What is their staff of enslaved people vs. the actual people who live in the house?
Susan: The, on the home quarter itself there are 31 enslaved Africans and there are 10 Jeffersons—so three to one. In the entire collection of Peter Jefferson's holdings he has sixty slaves at his death and 10 Jeffersons—so six to one.
But on that very plantation, it's three to one. Peter Jefferson, before he died, he wrote his will and left a slave child by name to each of his children, with one exception which was Thomas Jefferson, who inherited an adult male who had been Peter Jefferson's body servant. So two-year-olds own other two-year-olds at Shadwell.
These children grow up together and learn how to be masters and servants, which is a really different image of what a household, what an elite household means.
Harmony: One of the insights from your book that has really stayed with me is the idea of slaves as a part of this society and as a part of this culture. You point out that slaves carry and perpetuate and preserve this gentry culture as much as the white people that they serve. They are the carriers of this knowledge when it comes to food preparation, when it comes to getting dressed and fashions for hair and clothing. Can you talk a little bit about how slaves are not just status symbols but carriers of culture?
Susan: Well certainly the, the knowledge that, you know, we have this idea that we've painted of young gentry women setting up housekeeping. That when they marry and they leave their parents' home and they go off to a new gentry house somewhere that they're setting up housekeeping. We've thought a fair amount historically about what challenges they must face.
But each of these young Jefferson women is taking with her a slave who has known her, her entire life — who knows how to dress her, who knows how the Jeffersons set their table, who knows how the Jeffersons decide what activities go on in which room of the house. And it means that the Jefferson women in fact are doing less of this, I'm sure they're just as busy paying attention to other, other details of what they have to do.
But to think of them as having an officer to carry out those basic household functions also gives us a very different image of what their roles are and who's doing that. And then to map out where each of these Jefferson children move to when they leave Shadwell and they marry, and, and move to new homes and to think that they're taking someone who grew up at Shadwell with them it, it creates this map, of sort of, you know two layers of, of people carrying on this culture.
And if we extend that to all of gentry Virginia, we've really got this knowledgeable class of servants who understand this culture just as much as their white owners. And they're obviously doing the work.
Harmony: Something that I think is so wonderful that you were able to draw out of the not only the record in the ground but the documentary record was the relationship among the Jeffersons, between the Jeffersons. It seems from all appearances that this was a very loving, very nurturing family and I love what the record reveals about how they relate to one another.
Susan: I certainly had this argument to make that materially the Jeffersons are very well off but giving children expensive things doesn't necessarily mean that you are loving them and caring for them in an affectionate way. So I was looking at them, the Jefferson children, as they age and what is their relationship with each other?
And in fact I found that almost all of them write letters to each other. There are two who died in early adulthood. But they, they write letters to each other and they talk about many of the things that are important to Thomas Jefferson. And of course Thomas Jefferson's mass of letters are, are the lens for all of this and sometimes the only record that we have of a letter from a sibling is a note in his book that he received a letter from one of his sisters: she talked about some seeds or she talked about . . . you know. So we don't have the full letters in every case.
But in fact almost all of the Jefferson siblings write letters talking about sharing information about plants and seeds; they share books with each other. To some degree there are political conversations that go on, more with more between Jefferson and his sister Martha who is married to his best friend Dabney Carr and, and between Jefferson and his brothers-in-law. And there are conversations about, about children and grandchildren.
They worry about each other when a spouse dies or a child dies. They take each other into their houses when these things happen and they really look out for each other in a way that, that I have to read as affection. It seems more than duty.
Harmony: With this examination of Thomas Jefferson's childhood home and the family that he grew up in we have a new standpoint, a new way to look at Thomas Jefferson, through a different lens. What do you think we can understand about the man that Jefferson becomes when we think about his formative years?
Susan: Clearly one of the issues that, that is already part of Jefferson but that will change how we talk about it somewhat is this relationship with slavery. And historians have said that his relationship with slavery was lifelong, but they don't really challenge him, his ways of dealing with it until he's at Monticello.
And in fact, he is responsible for how he chooses to deal with slavery well before that. It's not that he inherits an archaic system that he has to figure out how to, to sort of move around -- it allows him to be who he is, you know. And you know because his personal servant Jupiter is carrying his books and brushing his coat and buying his wig powder here in Williamsburg, it's why he can go to meetings and read books and study law and do all the things that he did. So there is that.
The other is, is his relationship with, with gentry Virginia. There was a storyline a hundred years ago that Jefferson was you know of the independent frontier spirit like his father and that he really wasn't gentry. In fact he was, and historians have been comfortable talking about him like that for the last half-century.
But a hundred years ago there were other historians who didn't want that to be part of this story. But to understand that, that he was very much Virginian, and that he when they moved to Shadwell they were not trying to move away from British Virginia, they were not trying to move away from colonial rule, for instance, they were very much part of it.
One of the big challenges is understanding then how he understood his place in the world to challenge that, to change that. How did he understand ideas about natural right based on the system of British law that he knew so well? How did he understand the rights of a subject versus a citizen based on his active participation in, in the colonial political culture? And these will add to the discussions we can have about Thomas Jefferson.
Harmony: Susan thanks so much for being here today.
Susan: Thank you Harmony. Harmony: Where can people find your book if they'd like to read it?
Susan: It's online available from Yale University Press, and of course from Colonial Williamsburg booksellers.