Book Review: America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

America’s first daughter is an impressive accomplishment. One may easily perceive the many painstaking hours of dedicated research that went into the creation of this novel, and the effort has paid off handsomely.
Thomas Jefferson, like the country he did so much to birth, was a great but flawed being. The major birth defect of the United States, one whose legacy plagues this country to this day, was slavery. It is the effects of slavery that mar the character and reputation of Thomas Jefferson and his family. Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie make this abundantly clear in their novel.
America’s First Daughter is told from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Martha, also known as Patsy. She tells of her early memory of having to flee her father’s estate at Monticello along with her frail mother and two younger sisters, accompanied by her father’s secretary William Short, in the wake of an onslaught by British soldiers. Her father, as rebel governor of Virginia, runs the risk of being hanged by the British if captured. The plight of the family was relieved by the coming of Lafayette who diverted the British.
Patsy’s early life is plagued by loss. Her mother, having recently endured a difficult child birth, falls ill and dies. Her father, Thomas Jefferson, descends into profound melancholy and becomes withdrawn and, quite possibly, suicidal. It falls on the shoulders of nine year old Patsy to bring him back to his senses. It is the beginning of a life-long devotion on the part of the daughter. Thomas Jefferson had promised on his wife’s death bed that he would never marry again, and, indeed, he didn’t. That did not prevent him from seeking solace in the bosom of Sally Hemmings, a mulatto servant.
At the age of twelve, Patsy accompanies her father to France where he is the ambassador for the fledgling American republic. She is sent to a convent school. Lonely at first she eventually forms close friendships with the other girls, and even decides to enter the convent, something her father vehemently opposes. Her friendship with her father’s secretary, William Short, grows, and eventually he becomes her suitor, something her father also discourages. After five years her father decides to return to America and join President Washington’s cabinet. Patsy is faced with the choice of accompanying her father, which he insists upon, or staying in France and marrying Short, who insists that he will not wait for her to return. Torn between love and devotion, she chooses to obey her father. She marries the man her father desires her to, a man who, unfortunately, is plagued by demons of his own.
America’s First Daughter paints a vivid picture of the first decades of our nation. It is a precarious world where women die in childbirth, children die of whooping cough and men, women and children die of Smallpox and other diseases. It is a world where women are nearly completely at the mercy of their husbands or fathers and have no legal rights of their own. It is a world in which slavery exists and enslaved families are broken up when they must be sold to pay their owner’s debts. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in which he extolled liberty, and a part of him abhorred slavery, yet he did not have the moral fortitude to do battle against the institution, but instead, decided to leave it for another generation. America’s First Daughter is an enlightening, warts and all, portrait of the new-born United States and its illustrious third President.

Comments

  1. This interesting review of First Daughter certainly got my attention, since it is an area of our history I have studied, more specifically Tom Jefferson and the Hemings family. Ms.’s Dray and Kamoie have accomplished some good research and I look forward to reading the story based on their conclusions. However I would disagree that TJ was suicidal, he was much too self-centered and fearful for that and was always intensely interested in his personal legacy, which he coveted. Though TJ did write the draft of the Declaration (he was asked to do it because he wrote beautifully) it was heavily edited, including the omission of those parts blaming George III for slavery in the Colonies.

    The history of those early times beats anything happening in politics these days, and the bravery of those who committed themselves to the task of forming a new country with laws unlike any others became a jungle of argument and accusation, and slavery became the most painful wart of all.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comment, John. The death of Thomas Jefferson’s wife occurred long before he became President and most of what became his legacy was well in the future. It would likely be impossible to discern his state of mind at the time and I don’t know what documents Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie may have used to ascertain Patsy’s fears for her father at that time. This book, while intensely researched, is a novel and not a history book so one may expect some “novelist’s license” to have been taken.

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