Thomas Jefferson had three daughters. The similarities end there. Two were white and free; one was black and enslaved. Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, gave birth to two, Martha and Maria. They had a privileged upbringing, and while living with their father during his diplomatic posting in Paris, they received a fine convent school education. However, once they returned home, the sisters found their options extremely limited by the laws and customs of early America. Harriet was the only surviving daughter of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave. While she grew up with her three brothers and a large extended family at Monticello, her life was not a mirror image of her sisters’. She worked as a wool spinner in the textile workshop at the plantation. When she was twenty-one years old, she “ran away” with Jefferson’s knowledge, moved to Washington, DC, and passed into white society as a free woman. This is the story of the sisters’ divergent paths in a time when gender and race dictated destinies. It is also the story of one of our most controversial Founding Fathers, who publicly stood for liberty and equality but whose personal life was full of contradictions.
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