Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America | Newberry

Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America

Catherine Kerrison

Catherine Kerrison

Meet the Author: Catherine Kerrison
Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Author Talk 6 pm, Book Signing 7 pm

Ruggles Hall

Free and open to the public. Registration required.
Open to the Public
Meet the Author

In this talk, Catherine Kerrison, a scholar of early American and women’s history, will explore the ways in which Thomas Jefferson reveals himself, in sometimes unintentional ways, when we look at him as a father. We are often puzzled by disparities between Jefferson’s words—particularly those he uttered in public—and his actions. But his words and actions as a father—not self-edited for public presentation—help us see him, and our founding period, more clearly.

Kerrison’s new book, Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, tells the remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters—two white and free, one black and enslaved—and the divergent paths they forged in a newly independent America

Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings. Kerrison recounts the journeys of these three women—and how their struggle to define themselves reflects both the possibilities and the limitations that resulted from the American Revolution. Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha and Maria received a fine convent school education while they lived with their father during his diplomatic posting in Paris—a hothouse of intellectual ferment whose celebrated salonnières are vividly brought to life in Kerrison’s narrative. Once they returned home, however, the sisters found their options limited by the laws and customs of early America.

Harriet Hemings followed a different path. She escaped slavery—apparently with the assistance of Jefferson himself. Leaving Monticello behind, she boarded a coach and set off for a decidedly uncertain future.

For this groundbreaking triple biography, Kerrison has uncovered never-before-published documents written by the Jefferson sisters when they were in their teens, as well as letters written by members of the Jefferson and Hemings families. She has interviewed Hemings family descendants (and, with their cooperation, initiated DNA testing) and searched for descendants of Harriet Hemings. The eventful lives of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters provide a unique vantage point from which to examine the complicated patrimony of the American Revolution itself. The richly interwoven story of these three strong women and their fight to shape their own destinies sheds new light on the ongoing movement toward human rights in America—and on the personal and political legacy of one of our most controversial Founding Fathers.

After her talk, Dr. Kerrison will sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase.

Download a PDF flyer for this event to post and distribute, and explore a Quick Guide of related Newberry collection materials.

Catherine Kerrison, associate professor of history at Villanova University, teaches courses in Colonial and Revolutionary America and women’s and gender history. She holds a PhD in American history from the College of William and Mary. Her first book, Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South, won the Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society.

Cosponsored with the Jack Miller Center, as part of a series of four programs on Thomas Jefferson.

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Excuse our dust!!!

Beginning January 2018 the Newberry is undertaking renovation of much of the ground floor. Ruggles Hall will not be affected, but please check this link frequently for the latest conditions - which exterior doors are open or closed, where to find an accessible entrance, which restrooms are available, etc.

Cost and Registration Information 

Free and open to the public; registration required. Register online using this form by 3 pm Wednesday, June 6.

Doors open half an hour before the program begins, with first-come, first-served seating for registered attendees. If seats remain available, non-registered individuals will be permitted to enter about ten minutes before the event’s start. Questions? Contact us at publicprograms@newberry.org or 312-255-3610.