48 pages 1 hour read

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie

America's First Daughter

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2016, America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie is the fictionalized biography of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, known to her family as Patsy. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of Patsy and her relationship with her father, one of America’s Founding Fathers and earliest presidents.

In 1826, shortly after Jefferson’s death, Patsy begins the arduous task of sorting through her father’s papers—burning some and editing others. She wants to preserve her father’s legacy and destroy anything that could be damaging to his reputation. She has spent her whole life doing this—following, helping, and protecting her father.

The novel then transitions to Virginia in 1781, when the British are marching toward the Jefferson family home of Monticello, intent on capturing Jefferson as a traitor. Patsy is eight years old at the time. She recalls the harrowing experience as her family flees to safety under the protection of Jefferson’s secretary—William Short.

Soon afterward, Jefferson’s wife, Martha Jefferson, lies on her deathbed; she asks 10-year-old Patsy to promise to watch over Jefferson and protect the family. Patsy takes this promise seriously, and it guides her relationship with her father for the rest of his life. When Jefferson is suicidal after his wife’s death, Patsy and William help him return from the brink of despair.

A few years later, Jefferson is appointed minister to France and takes Patsy and William with him to Paris. Patsy is sent to a convent school while her father and William attend to affairs of state. It takes two more years before Patsy’s younger sister, Maria “Polly” Jefferson, is brought over to join them. Accompanying Polly is a slave named Sally Hemings, the unacknowledged half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.

In France, Patsy lives as a debutante, experiencing the sights and sounds of the city; she also witnesses the early stages of the French Revolution. It’s during this time that Patsy and William fall in love. He proposes to her, but she declines because she believes the marriage would prevent her from her duties in aiding her father’s career. However, Patsy and William are not the only ones with a burgeoning relationship: Patsy discovers that her father is having an affair with Sally.

The French Revolution forces the Jefferson family to flee back to Virginia. Jefferson discourages the relationship between William and Patsy until William can support a wife. The family returns to America while William remains in France.

Back at Monticello, Jefferson seems eager to promote a marriage between Patsy and her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. He is the heir to several plantations; because the Jefferson family is perpetually short of funds, Patsy feels it is her duty to save the family and marry for money.

Patsy and Tom try to raise crops at one of the Randolph plantations but meet with little success. Tom’s financial prospects are dashed when his father, Colonel Randolph, disinherits Tom on his deathbed. As a further act of spite, Colonel Randolph has willed his debts to his two sons. Tom is left with almost nothing.

Patsy and her family are forced to move back to Monticello, where Patsy continues to watch over her father. This puts a strain on the marriage because Tom believes that Patsy’s loyalties will always be with Jefferson. The couple also suffers more financial burdens as their family expands to encompass 11 children.

In 1824, William visits Monticello. He witnesses Tom’s violent behavior toward Patsy and begs her to leave her husband. Instead, Patsy sends William away; she’s still in love with William and is too tempted by his offer.

Although Tom becomes governor of Virginia, his financial problems increase to the point where his son assumes his debts and sells off all of Tom’s remaining properties. Tom’s alcoholism and violent temper finally precipitate a break with Patsy, and he separates from the family.

During his final years, Jefferson also suffers financial hardship. Monticello will have to be sold to cover debts, but he wills all his remaining assets to Patsy in her own right. Jefferson dies on the Fourth of July in 1826. Patsy honors his promise to free the many children he fathered with Sally. Sally herself is informally freed and goes to live with her remaining children in Charlottesville.

Patsy attempts to bring Tom back to Monticello. His temper has abated now that he’s terminally ill. He reconciles with his family shortly before his own death in 1828.

Patsy spends years completing the project of assembling her father’s papers for publication. Just as this task is done, William comes back into her life. He persuades her that there’s nothing left for her at Monticello. For the first time, she considers her own happiness and puts the past behind her. In her final years, Patsy achieves a measure of contentment acting as first lady for widower Andrew Jackson and rekindling her romance with William.