I have always been puzzled by the paradox of Thomas Jefferson. How the man who penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” could also be a slaveholder simply boggles my mind. Bradley tackles that conundrum in this outstanding work of historical fiction for middle school readers.
Most historians now agree that Jefferson probably began a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, who was thirty years his junior, several years after his wife’s death, when he was the ambassador to France. Sally was the teenage slave/servant of his oldest daughter, Marth, and the relationship continued for decades until his death. Jefferson was almost certainly the father of all Hemings’ children. Bradley focuses on Hemings’ sons Beverly and Madison to weave a well-research imagining of the lives and thoughts of the Monticello slaves. The tale also offers possible explanations for Jefferson’s blind eye to the irony of his written words in opposition to his lifestyle, his financial irresponsibility, and his failure to free Sally and her children during his lifetime. Hemings accepts her life as it is, but longs for more for her children. Her children struggle with the injustice and inequality between their lives and Jefferson’s other children and grandchildren. Beverly and Maddy despise the slaveholder yet love their father and long for his approval. Theirs is a story both heartbreaking and heartwarming; a tale of love, family, and longing; a story of opposites, hidden truths masked by propriety and property; and a story of secrets, injustice, and pain. It is a story our children need to know.