Two 1850's Representations of Thomas Jefferson
In consecutive years in the 1850's, two very different novels were published. What draws them together is that they contained portrayals of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. The first was Clotel; or The President’s Daughter, written by William Wells Brown and published in London in 1853. The second, a year later, was The Youth of Jefferson: or A Chronicle of College Scrapes at Williamsburg in Virginia in A.D. 1764, written by the Virginian John Esten Cooke and published by Redfield of New York.
These two men could hardly have lived more different lives. Cooke was born on his family’s Virginia plantation and, through his mother, was connected to one of the First Families of Virginia, the Pendletons. He studied the law and chose to give up the security of his profession in order to make his living with his pen, which means that along with Edgar Allan Poe and William Gilmore Simms he was one of the South’s first genuinely professional writers, rather than belonging to the groups of ‘gentlemen authors’ or Hawthorne’s ‘mass of damned scribbling women’ that dominated Southern letters in the antebellum era. He was a young man at this point, in his early twenties and not too removed from the age in which he writes Jefferson in his novel.
Conversely, William Wells Brown had been enslaved. The young William had been sold many times by the time he was Cooke’s age in 1853, which took him from Kentucky to St. Louis, Missouri, where (after a failed attempt a year earlier) he was able to escape to the free state of Ohio. Once free, he took the name that he would be known by for the first of his life, married, and became a prominent abolitionist. He was lecturing against slavery in Britain when his autobiography, and Clotel, were published, and he stayed there for many years – partially in response to his vulnerability to the Fugitive Slave Act.
Predictably, the novels portray Jefferson in two very distinct ways. Brown’s novel is subtitled ‘The President’s Daughter’, but Jefferson himself plays a very small part in the text. Rather, he looms over the text, asserting a certain weight without ever really appearing himself. We learn early on that the title character, Clotel, is the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Currer. This might seem startlingly modern to a reader unfamiliar with the period, but the reports that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings were known at the time.
The novel is clearly informed by these reports. The focus, then, is on Jefferson’s black descendants (though the novel does take great pains, as with many other texts of the time, to paint these characters as white as possible to show the arbitrariness of Southern race laws), rather than on the former President himself. When Jefferson is invoked, it is usually to produce an effect, such as when Brown tells us that ‘thus closed a sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the president’s of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder!’, or adds that ‘the fact that they were the grand-daughters of Thomas Jefferson, no doubt, increased their value in the market.’ We are drawn into a web here, one in which the blood of one of the country's most famous citizens can be traded like so much horseflesh, while Brown's novel is explicit enough that it does not even allow the traders the meagre cover of ignorance. The kinship with Jefferson is a known commodity, one that even increases value.
By contrast, Cooke places Jefferson right at the heart of one of his plots, and the tone is completely different. As the title suggests, this is a light-hearted, almost knockabout comedy. The Virginia of the colonial period is turned into a pastoral fantasy – literally, as the novel borrows so much from its greatest inspiration, Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Here, politics interfere only occasionally, while Jefferson forms part of a love triangle with a character who is often called ‘Melancholy Jacques’ and ‘Bel-Bouche’ – almost certainly references to Jacquelin Ambler and Rebecca Burwell. Meanwhile, in another plot, a cross-dressing Virginian maid plays the role of Rosalind/Ganymede in a love story which still more closely resembles Shakespeare’s play.
This second novel looks at Jefferson as a younger man ostensibly - as with Cooke's later treatment of the young George Washington - as a way of looking past the 'marble man' and seeing the humanity beneath. While this is speculation, one doubts Brown would be particularly impressed with Cooke's attempt. Even allowing for that, Cooke tends to present a rather odd construction of Jefferson, one caught between a teenage type and the mind of the man that he would become. The future president is unfitted for romance, and whenever the novel turns to more political questions, he almost seems to petrify before our eyes: the revered Jefferson of the Democratic tradition forces his way back into the mix, irresistibly.
There is a lot that one can say about the relation of these two texts to each other – more than we could hope to say here. But there are a few preliminary conclusions that we can draw. Jefferson was obviously a figure of great significance, but also a contested figure, one whose conduct and opinions is open to different interpretations. It’s worth noting, too, that Cooke was politically fairly moderate by Southern standards. While he was no abolitionist and would go on to serve in the Confederate Army, he was no fire-eater or great lover of slavery in the manner of some of his peers. And yet, his instinct is to turn Virginia into a pastoral wonderland, free from the influences of contemporary politics, worries, and even of the passage of time. Brown’s text, by contrast, is rooted within the realities of the 1850s for African Americans. One confronts reality, while the other seeks to escape from it into an idealised past.
Dr Peter Templeton is Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University. His article on John Esten Cooke’s The Youth of Jefferson and its treatment of As You Like It is available in Symbiosis, 23.2, October 2019.