THOMAS JEFFERSON

by Jac Jemc

 

The first thing I remember: I was carried on a pillow to Tuckahoe by a slave. This woman so kind and gentle, and me just a child who would have put up with and forgotten most anything.

At 22, Jane died, and with Mary and Martha already married off, I was stuck with babies to talk to, and that was no good. I waited until I found a Martha of my own, and then I bowed away at my violin as she stomped her delicate fingers on the piano.

Martha from The Forest gave me six children, most of whom would never grow larger than wood nymphs. Martha had a love of honey and the sickness that comes from sweetness took her from me, and then I was left alone again with babies. I paced and took long rides to try to remember or forget – I was always trying to figure out which.

I had things to say about Liberty and Happiness, but was always confused about where to draw the lines. There was my head and my heart. It would be years before the law could make sense of it, and even after that, common sense would grow and bend in unthinkable ways.

I spent my life trying to pay down debt, building up resources and watching them burn. Moved the capital to Richmond: Arnold burnt it down. Sold the personal collection of literature I’d grown to the charred Library of Congress. Founded a university and burnt out a year later.

I lost the first Lucy Elizabeth, lost the second Lucy Elizabeth and took the third Martha, whom we called Patsy, to Paris. I sent for the second Mary, whom we called Polly, and Sally Hemings brought her to me.

I fell in love twice in France: both women that could never be mine: a married artist and a slave. Maria gave me six weeks and Sally gave me six children. Head and heart, back and forth.

I took a long ride to my inauguration alone on horseback. I counted every vote, some less than others. I was not ashamed. I was remembering and forgetting my morals, all at once.

Then Martha, whom we called Patsy: her husband started regretting her, and the dozen children followed their mother back to Monticello and I watched my obligations rise: lines on a ledger.

I proposed moving native people off their land, but it would be thirty years before that proposal was accepted and fewer years than that before it turned out to be the wrong choice, but still. I feel grateful that decision is not linked with me. I sent men out to learn stories about that new land and draw pictures that could be used to make decisions.

My good friend and good enemy, John, died only a few hours after me. My outstanding debts required that my slaves be sold, though several of the Hemings family were released in my will. Once I was dead and gone, I felt comfortable setting my blood free.

Martha, whom we called Patsy, sold Monticello several years later to an apothecary. Her husband had begun to regret his sanity. He was changing his mind or his mind was changing him, and Martha, whom we called Patsy, was footing the bill.

 

Newton was right: gravity causes everything to fall.  In our hearts, love is that gravity.  It holds us down. I was both thankful for and resentful of that love. I took long rides alone, even to my inauguration where I retired my own horse in plain clothes. That is the man I believed myself to be: independent. But still, to have a woman at home to calm my mind: that is a debt I was never repaid. I remember well.

 

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Jac Jemc is the author of My Only Wife, out from Dzanc Books. She is also the poetry editor for decomP and a new member of the editorial team at Hobart. She blogs her rejections at jacjemc.com. Read the next story, JAMES MADISON, here.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.

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