Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?
It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.
I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.
When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:
… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.
I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …
To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.
I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:
SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later, Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,
some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …
How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”
Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:
I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.
Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.
For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.
Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!
Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …
It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.
So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflicts and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.