The Jeffersons at Shawell by Susan Kern

R.T. Smith Click to

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


reviewed by R. T. Smith

Although I’m not a trained historian, I’m often as interested in the methods of that discipline as I am its findings, and Susan Kerns’ explorations of Shadwell have tapped into that interest.  Less familiar than Monticello, the Shadwell plantation on the banks of the Rivanna River is a crucial site for the understanding of Thomas Jefferson’s circumstances and the role they play in his formation.  In The Jeffersons at Shadwell (Yale), Kerns has produced a readable, intriguing and provocative account of the lives of both privileged masters and slaves in Virginia during the first half of the eighteenth century.  Many will be drawn to the volume’s revelations concerning slave-holding, and Kerns offers many insights and questions concerning this topic.  Two other engaging and frequently overlooked considerations, however, underlie her investigations and sustain my attention: what was Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his mother, and how accurate is the conventional portrayal of Jefferson as an omnivorous autodidact who arose from a yeoman father and blue-blooded mother to become the luminary of his time like a sturdy but unremarkable tree suddenly blazing from a lightning strike.  In fact — not to deny his great gifts — he was raised as an aristocrat to be exactly what he became.

Many historians have suggested that Jefferson’s mother was difficult and stubborn and that his relationship with her was strained, suggested by his burning of his letters to her.  Kerns argues that the opposite was true, and that physical and textual evidence testifies to the value he placed on family privacy and his statements that he found communication about those he loved most to be more difficult as he grew older.  He burned the letters because they were not for other eyes.

Kerns pieces together the documentary and archeological evidence to conjure the daily life and goals of the Jeffersons in their time at Shadwell like an expert physical anthropologist reconstructing an ancient kylix from the shapes and ornamentation of a handful of sherds.  Working from the foundation of the house, which burned in 1770 (“making the recovery of his formative years an exercise in guesswork,” according to Joseph E. Ellis), then from the distribution of artifacts and outbuilding remnants, Kerns amplifies the written evidence concerning Peter and Jane Jefferson, their mission and motives, their methods, protocols and influences.  How Shadwell worked as a farm, as a model of culture and taste, as a training ground for the next generation – all these are woven into commentary about the material and social world of the time.

Some scholars have been vigorous in their construction of Peter Jefferson – and to some extent his son – as the yeoman type whose lack of a grand manor house and activity as surveyor and lawyer identify their means as modest, but Kerns reveals in a thorough but graceful prose how a central Palladian structure was not necessary for extensive quarters and belongings.  Nor did the Jeffersons migrate west from the Tidewater region to flee the constraints of Euro-centric society.  They planned and administered Shadwell, as she says “to replicate culture and expand empire,” not to escape it.  In casting himself as a modest farmer not dominated by tobacco culture, Jefferson sought to distance himself from the substantial slave labor required by tobacco cultivation.  By this and truth, Kerns musters convincing evidence that Jefferson was as much engaged in the crafting of his family identity, and his own, as in recording it.

That the Jeffersons owned half a dozen different kinds of hoes, Batavian porcelain, walnut chairs, apothecary supplies and stemmed wineglasses may not draw a general reader’s interest as quickly as information about slave deployment and assignments, sales and punishment, but the artifacts, inventories and accounts reveal the material culture and provide substantial evidence for constructing the daily practices of Shadwell’s owners and chattel.

No doubt Kerns’ thoroughness and imagination will influence Jefferson scholarship, but for the amateur, the book is filled with intriguing information and descriptions that humanize its subjects, detailing how life (including everything from dress, tips from visitors, recreation and access to implements and foodstuff) for a house quarter slave would be different from the experiences of a field hand.  This book reveals the complexity of relationships between house servants and the Jeffersons beyond common knowledge.  For instance, when Peter Jefferson died, his bequest to Thomas included his manservant Sawney, who knew all the signs and permutations of gentlemanship.  Due to Sawney’s role in teaching young Thomas the extent and methods of ownership and society, Thomas became, in some respects, “Sawney’s ward as well as his master.”  How Jefferson children came by design to own child slaves of their gender and approximate age is another of the book’s eye-openers.

Because the most common popular question about Jefferson concerns his willingness to keep slaves while championing ideas of freedom and equality, Kerns never lets this issue quite fade from consideration.  Although he could scarcely imagine his own life and community different from how it was, Jefferson could still conceive of and desire a whole culture incompatible with his own actual existence.  This great enigma comes to life in surprising ways as Kerns explores the fashion in which white and black members of the community were woven together at Shadwell, though the owner-chattel relationship is always in evidence.

I recommend reading this book as a supplement to a Jefferson biography (maybe Ellis’s American Sphinx would do the trick), as Kerns doesn’t intend her work as a primer of the fifth president and assumes reader familiarity with many of the details of Jefferson’s public life.