The Pursuit of Freedom—For Himself, Anyway: Children’s Books about Thomas Jefferson

Yesterday was my birthday. I mention this only because being born on April 13th gave me an obvious choice for “Favorite American President” growing up: Thomas Jefferson was also born on April 13th.

Not that I knew much else about Jefferson as a kid. I knew he signed the Declaration of Independence, was the second president of the United States, and had fiery red hair and a temper to match (something that I think I gleaned from an educational film about the American Revolution that we watched every single year of my elementary career). Later on I learned that he was a good gardener, and that he (like other people of his time with large tracts of land, I was told) had slaves. But of course, it was always quickly added, he treated them well. (This fact did not seem to accord with his fiery hair and temper, but then again, I never thought of a guy with 5000 acres of land as a “gardener” either.)

Like many Americans, I did not learn of Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, until Oprah Winfrey brought descendants of Jefferson’s two families (those who traced their matrilineal line to Jefferson’s wife, Martha, and those descended from Sally Hemings) together on her show in 1998. One of the long legacies of the slave system throughout the world is the “stain” of illegitimacy; women (wives and slaves both, though obviously it impacted enslaved women and their children more) suffered economically, socially, and emotionally from privileged white men in power fathering children with their slaves. In Jefferson’s case, the argument still continues today, as some of the descendants of Jefferson’s married relationship claim that Sally Hemings could have been raped by Jefferson’s (un-famous) brother (see Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman’s Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family for the wide variety of opinions held by the descendants of Jefferson). The more powerful the man in question, the more the controversy—at least in the adult world. But I wondered what (if anything) children’s books would say about Jefferson?

It is useful to look first at a newer, but still pre-Oprah, biography of Jefferson written for children. David Adler is well-known for writing simple, introductory picture-book biographies of famous people, and his Picture Book of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Holiday House), illustrated by John and Alexandra Wallner, appeared in 1990. Adler’s biography is generally positive (as are most of his biographies for children), but it does at least mention the contradiction between Jefferson’s revolutionary ideals and his ownership of slaves: “Thomas Jefferson said he hated slavery. He said that everyone had a right to be free. [. . .] But still, throughout his life, he had slaves of his own” (Picture Book of Thomas Jefferson, n.p.). The book, however, puts the ownership of his slaves down to an inheritance from his father, and all mention of slavery (including illustrations of slaves or free African-Americans) completely disappear after the book first introduces Jefferson’s wife, the “pretty, young widow” he married in 1772. Jefferson’s children with Martha are mentioned, but not the slaves who served and looked after them. There is no suggestion of Martha’s death, either, or that Jefferson may have taken up with his daughter’s maid, Sally Hemings, after his wife died.

The worst thing about slavery is you don't get shoes.  Illustration by John and Alexandra Wallner.

The worst thing about slavery is you don’t get shoes. Illustration by John and Alexandra Wallner.

Maira Kalman’s more recent Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (New York: Penguin, 2014) is also a picture book biography, but it discusses Jefferson’s contradictions in much more critical fashion. Kalman’s slaves are not the well-dressed, cheerful cooks of Adler’s biography, but people who “toiled and cooked and labored in the fields from dawn to dusk” (Kalman, n.p.). Of Jefferson, Kalman says, “The monumental man had monumental flaws” (n.p.). Kalman herself seems to be conflicted over how critical to be of Jefferson, suggesting that he probably had kind words to say to the cooks about their food, but also writing on a page with an illustration of Jefferson’s farm book list of slaves, “Our hearts are broken” (n.p.). To whom the signifier “our” refers is unclear: the author and illustrator? Jefferson’s slaves? The readers? It is certainly hard to imagine a picture book audience having their hearts broken over the contradictory nature of a long-dead president, even an important one. More likely, child readers will draw the lesson—probably not for the first time—that adults (whether authors or presidents) are puzzling creatures.

Kalman's portrayal of the kitchens are (only slightly) less cheerful than Adler's--must be those kind words from Jefferson.

Kalman’s portrayal of the kitchens are (only slightly) less cheerful than Adler’s–must be those kind words from Jefferson.

The puzzle continues with Kalman’s oblique discussion of Sally Hemings. She points out that one of the names on the list of slaves is Sally, and then on the next page writes, “It is strongly believed that after his wife died, Jefferson had children with the beautiful Sally Hemings” (n.p.). What a coincidence! Jefferson also had a slave named Sally! At least, this would have been my reaction as a child reader, especially since the illustration shows a smiling, very light-skinned woman, a great contrast with all the other illustrations of slaves in the book. I would have been confused by the discussion of some of his children being freed and some passing as white as well. But ultimately, I wouldn’t have to think too much about it, because, like Adler’s book, Kalman’s quickly leaves the subject and returns to important subjects, like Jefferson mending his clothes with old socks.

A happy Sally Hemings in Kalman's book.

A happy Sally Hemings in Kalman’s book.

Both Adler and Kalman attempt to show a picture-book audience the flawed nature of a man who fought for freedom only for people like himself. But both biographies also showcase how difficult it is for Americans to discuss the thorny and still-real legacy of slavery—especially as it pertains to one of our “Founding Fathers”.

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One thought on “The Pursuit of Freedom—For Himself, Anyway: Children’s Books about Thomas Jefferson

  1. Heather

    Have you ever read the YA book Wolf By The Ears by Ann Rinaldi? It is about Harriet, daughter of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, deciding whether she wants to try to pass for white after she is freed.

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