I began reading this America’s First Daughter at the start of November, as our own electoral madness came to its unhappy conclusion. Written by two historians, Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray, the novel is the story of Patsy Jefferson Randolph, the oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson. Crafted from letters and the very well-known history of Thomas Jefferson, this story brings Patsy to life. Patsy lived a long and rich life and her father was at the center of it all. A brilliant woman born into a world that valued women mostly as mothers and ornaments, she carved an important life for herself.
No story of Jefferson is complete without delving into the enmity between the Jeffersonians and the Federalists. The story of their conflict was a reminder that our republic has never been one to hold only thoughtful political discussions. We’ve withstood bitter name-calling and irrational arguments before, albeit without 24 hour cable news and Twitter, two features of modern political life that don’t seem to be helping us.
Patsy’s journey in life took her from Virginia society to Philadelphia and then London in Paris. In Paris, she received an education and was witness to her father’s politics and the start of the French Revolution. She returned to Virginia as a young woman and married into a prominent local family. Even then, she mostly lived in her father’s world, serving as the mistress of Monticello and as the first lady during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
Patsy saw many important events in our nation’s history and the novel tells them from her point of view. An educated and intelligent women at a time when women were confined to the world of home, Patsy understood the way in which women were limited in the 18th century. I started the novel expecting to be reading it in the triumphant moment when I saw the first woman elected to my nation’s highest office. I finished it aware that there remains a double standard for women in the 21st century. That modern life is not as restrictive as Patsy’s world is notable, of course, but little comfort.