So much is known about the life of President Jefferson, but there was a haunting tragedy about his past that history rarely mentions. He is remembered as a man of destiny. From his youth, most people recognized that he would go far. His political ideas were a stark contrast from the commonly-accepted politics of the day, but even so, it would be a stretch to say that anyone thought he would be a revolutionary – leading a revolt against the government and guiding a fledgling country in its earliest and most perilous days. Perhaps it was his experience having fought for, won, and lost the love of his life that he was driven to take on the bleak political challenges.
Yes, Jefferson was a man of political destiny, and history records that he won the hearts and minds of many of his countrymen. Like all great leaders, he was a polarizing figure. Loved or hated – rarely is anyone indifferent about his rightful place in history.
It is perhaps noteworthy that this polarizing influence did not end at home. The most divisive event of Jefferson’s life occurred right within his own family.
A man may have something to say about his destiny, but rarely can he control his heart. When Jefferson saw Sarah the first time, it was love at first sight. Soon he was head over heels in love with her. The woman who would capture this future president’s heart was a lovely young lady. Charming, sensitive, and intelligent, she possessed all the characteristics that young Jefferson admired.
Only one obstacle stood in the way of these young lovers: Sarah’s father. A hardened, determined military man, he did not take too kindly toward the young politician who was courting his daughter. He may have sported a gruff exterior, but his lovely daughter was the apple of his eye. He envisioned a better life for her than anything Jefferson could possibly offer. He was an army officer and stood for law and order. Perhaps he sensed the revolutionary leanings of Jefferson and instinctively resisted anyone who bore the potential of raising arms against his own country. Whatever the reason, Jefferson failed to win the old general’s approval. When the enamored young man asked the general for his daughter’s hand in marriage, the older man gave a flat, unequivocal refusal.
Jefferson was heart-broken. Throughout his life, he had grown accustomed to getting what he wanted. This denial of the most precious woman in the world was just too much for him. Faced with the unbearable prospect of life without the woman he loved, he persuaded Sarah to elope with him.
When the old general found out, he was beside himself. Rushing to the church, he grilled the presiding minister to see if the horrible rumors were true. When he found out that he was too late to prevent the marriage, he descended into depression, condemned his new son-in-law, and disowned his daughter. He vowed never to speak to her as long as she was married to that unworthy politician.
Years passed, and time began to soften the hardened heart of the general. It would take more than time, though, to heal the wounds that were caused by the marriage. The general was just too stubborn. Jefferson was stubborn, too. Sarah was despondent over the fractured relationship with her father, and she wanted to try to make amends, but Jefferson would not stand for it. Two men, worlds apart, used the most precious woman in their lives as a weapon in their own, personal civil war.
All of the emotional strain was just too much for Sarah. It wasn’t long before her health failed. After a short struggle with a raging fever, she succumbed, leaving Jefferson as a grieving widower and her father in shock and regret over the loss of his daughter.
Years would pass before Jefferson and his father-in-law would meet. When that day came, it was unplanned and took them both entirely by surprise. The two men happened to be at the same event. When their eyes fell upon each other, all of the bitterness and animosity fell away as they spontaneously embraced, weeping in mutual sorrow and loss.
That bittersweet meeting was one of the last times they would see each other. Their lives, careers, and politics took them in entirely different directions.
The old general overcame the heartbreak of Sarah’s death and went on to become a national hero. When his country went to war9, he was appointed as the commanding general. He presided over a great military victory, rising to national prominence and admiration. Despite his earlier misgivings about Jefferson’s chosen career, he found himself drawn into politics. The stubbornness and determination that hindered his relationship with his daughter and son-in-law served him very effectively on the battlefield and on the campaign trail. It even earned him a nickname: Old Rough and Ready. When the election of 1848 came along, this father-in-law became commander-in-chief. We remember him as President Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States.
Taylor died before his term of office ended. He did not, therefore, live long enough to see just how revolutionary his son-in-law became. Jefferson, of course, went on into politics in grandest way possible. He led a revolution and, like his father-in-law, became president — although of a different country. Perhaps we should have mentioned this earlier, be we hope you didn’t think we were talking about Thomas Jefferson. That’s an entirely different story.
This Jefferson — the young man who fought a future President for the hand of the woman he loved, whose actions tore a family apart, and who returned to the family only through great loss and tears, would go through the same experience with his own countrymen. We are talking about a young man named Jefferson Davis, who became the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.