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Thomas Jefferson Was A Bit of a Tart and Other Trivia I Learned in Meacham’s New Bio

Amanda Nelson

Staff Writer

Amanda Nelson is an Executive Director of Book Riot. She lives in Richmond, VA.

thomas jeffersonJon Meacham’s new biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a detailed and fascinating account of the President’s life and early American politics. But of course, like a good 21st-century pop-culture kid, I found the scandalous and personal tidbits the most interesting. I recommend you read the book (especially if you’re not that familiar with the topic), but here are a few of trivial facts I’m happy to know now:

1. Thomas Jefferson was a bit tarty! It’s well known that he promised his young wife on her deathbed that he would never remarry, and he kept that promise, giving him an air of romantic fidelity that might be unearned–he also tried to steal his best friend’s wife as a young man, got embroiled with a married woman while in France, and probably carried on a lifelong affair with Sally Hemings, his wife’s enslaved half-sister who was 30 years his junior. (Meacham presents the affair with Sally Hemings as more matter-of-fact than most other historians.)

2. Alexander Hamilton, arguably Jefferson’s most hated political nemesis, was the centerpiece of the first large-scale sex scandal in American politics. He carried on an affair with a married woman over several years–an affair that was encouraged by the husband so he (with the help of his wife) could blackmail Hamilton. The woman eventually divorced her husband, and her divorce lawyer was Aaron Burr, who would go on to kill Hamilton in a duel.

3. In 1802, a newspaperman published a detailed account of Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings in an attempt to damage the then-President’s reputation. The newspaperman was an old friend of Jefferson’s who had lately turned against him because Jefferson refused him money. He eventually died while stumbling drunkenly around Richmond and drowning in a shallow part of the James River.

4. Several years after an acrimonious falling-out with John and Abigail Adams over politics, Abigail wrote to Jefferson when she heard about the death of his daughter Polly. The two secretly exchanged letters attempting to explain themselves, but ten years of bitterness could not be corrected. John only found out about the letters after the exchange proved fruitless (though the two former presidents eventually reconciled).

5. Jefferson’s “oldest mentor” George Wythe, who lived with a free African-American woman and a young man who was probably his son, was poisoned by a “disgruntled member of Wythe’s white family.”