Ties that Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz

Catherine Clinton admires an intimate portrayal of US presidents’ wives and those they subjugated

June 8, 2017
Mount Vernon plantation home of George Washington
Source: Alamy
Mount Vernon: George and Martha Washington kept slaves on their plantation, and they were publicly embarrassed when one escaped

The lively literature on presidents and founding fathers is a vibrant cottage industry in the US, with presidential wives a distinct sideline business. The former plantations of three Virginia presidents – George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier – remain sites of contested terrain and treacherous historiographical minefields that Marie Jenkins Schwartz’s book creatively braves. She pulls back the curtain to reveal the competing agendas behind white families’ struggles with money and mastery, as these founding families juggled racial and sexual dynamics in the early American Republic. Work in slavery studies, including Schwartz’s two previous books, has advanced our appreciation of the hegemonic interplay between masters and enslaved, as well as offering slaves as subjects rather than objects.

Schwartz may linger too long in the recipe books and too meticulously draw on account books, but she makes full use of the limited resources available for creating an inventive, integrated portrait of black and white. She outlines mortgaging slaves, “gifting slaves”, rotating them from slave to free states, and many other pernicious slaveholding practices. Her fierce research is distilled into engaging prose: Ties That Bound is a synthetic yet original work, a prosopography of a new order.

We are given interlinked biographical portraits of Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson and her daughter Patsy (a surrogate hostess in the White House), as well as Dolley Madison, along with the lives of the enslaved women who also inhabited these households. She teases out key divergences dependent upon status and colour, and delineates how childbirth and disease were shared – if not equally shared – ordeals in women’s worlds on the plantation.

She chronicles the sensational case of a popular figure in fiction and film, Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by Jefferson and thought to be the mother of six of his children. But irony abounds in Schwartz’s version of the tale: two of Jefferson’s descendants were given the name James Madison within months of one another – Hemings’ son and Patsy Jefferson Randolph’s.

Owing to Schwartz’s expertise, a new crop of African American characters come to life. She investigates Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s prized companion, whose escape led to a series of embarrassments for the First Family (expanded on in Erica Dunbar’s study Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge). Dolley Madison, raised a Yankee Quaker, adapted with alacrity to the role of planter’s wife: she required a lady’s maid for the move to Washington and drafted a 12-year-old girl, Sukey, who remained with her for decades. Schwartz assembles valuable material to underscore women’s domestic intimacy across the generations, from Ursula Granger and Martha Jefferson cooking together to their descendants jointly working on recipes decades later.

Patsy Jefferson was summoned to Washington by her father to serve as hostess when gossip over the president’s “harem” became politically radioactive during his first term; he continued to father children by Hemings even after it became well known outside of Monticello. But, as Schwartz suggests, the children stopped after Patsy moved to Monticello.

Martha Washington was no stranger to scandals: her son Jacky committed incest by fathering a child with his mixed-race half sister, Ann Dandridge. Secrets and lies ensnared these braided lives, and Ties That Bound offers vivid insight into these entangled stories.

Catherine Clinton is Denman endowed professor in American history, University of Texas at San Antonio.

Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves
By Marie Jenkins Schwartz
University of Chicago Press, 416pp, £26.50
ISBN 9780226147550 and 460727 (e-book)
Published 2 June 2017

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments


Print headline: Women beyond the White House

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments