Having it All: The Thomas Jefferson Edition

Earlier this summer, a lot of ink was spilled discussing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”. The article talked about the difficulty of maintaining a family life as a woman in an elite government role and set of a firestorm of controversy about whether women could, in fact, have it all and even what “having it all” really meant.

I was reminded of this debate last night while reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant book, The Hemingses of Monticello. The book is a through history of the Hemings family – the family of slaves who famously served Thomas Jefferson and others in his family during the American Revolutionary period. It also provides a fascinating portrait of Thomas Jefferson himself. as Jefferson himself.

The book talks in great detail about Jefferson’s own family life because in many ways he was atypical of his time period. For most high-class men of the era, career and success was expected to fulfill them completely. They all married but wives and children lived lives quite separate from the man of the house.

Jefferson, despite being one of the fathers of the country and arguably one of the top statesmen of his time, thought it was very important to attend to his family. Over the course of their 10 year marriage, Jefferson’s wife Martha was in increasingly poor health and had 6 children, only 2 of whom would survive to adulthood. During the same 10 year period, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, helped to lead the rebellion against the British, and served as Governor of Virginia.

He twice refused commissions to a diplomatic post in Paris negotiating the terms of the new nation because he was concerned for his wife’s health. When he did eventually go to Paris, it was after the death of his wife as a way to escape his grief and he was accompanied first by his oldest daughter, Patsy, and later joined by his other daughter, Polly.

Throughout his marriage, Jefferson frequently went home to visit his family or moved them around to stay near him as he travelled throughout Virginia. Most of his peers did not understand his devotion to his family and many judged his choices unfavorably. Most notably, after the death of one of his children, Jefferson returned home to grieve with and care for his ailing wife. However, as the death of children was somewhat commonplace this action was derided by other men who said that he was succumbing to the “simply pleasures of his family” instead of serving the country.

While these attitude may seem extreme in our era, when it is a rare tragedy to lose a child and fathers are expected to be more of a presence in their family’s life they do show that the battle to balance career and family, particularly when that career is so tied to the idea of the greater good of a nation, has been exceedingly hard for a long time. This even holds when at least some of the nitty gritty logistics of parenthood are taken care of by other people (in Jefferson’s case, his wife and a whole cadre of slaves, servants, and female relatives, in Slaughter’s case, the much more pared down support system of a husband and some good childcare).

One positive take-away from this look into Jefferson’s life is that, in many ways, he was able to accomplish his goals. He was able to maintain a close relationship with his wife during the 10 years they were married before her death and does not need to look back on that period with regret. At the same time, he accomplished his ultimate political goal of creating and leading the new nation of the United States and is looked back on as one of the greatest statesmen in history. For all the grumbling of his colleagues in Virginia, it is his name we remember, not theirs.

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