“The man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.”
James Callendar in 1802
It is the political scandal of all political scandals (yes, bigger even than a certain beret wearing intern). The third president of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of Virginia had jungle fever! The intimation that Thomas Jefferson had a long standing sexual relationship with one of his slaves has divided historians ever since James Callendar wrote about it during the election of 1802. Even today, despite DNA evidence linking Sally Hemings’ descendants to Jefferson, there are still people who refuse to believe the story.
Fawn Brodie deserves a certain amount of credit for reviving the story with her biography of Thomas Jefferson that was published in 1974. Before this the rumors had been dismissed as just ugly campaign propaganda. One of Sally Hemingses sons Madison Hemings gave an interview to a reporter for the Pike County Reporter in Ohio in 1873 in which he stated that his mother, was in his words, Thomas Jefferson’s concubine. Critics and non-believers state that it would have been impossible for Jefferson to have slept with Sally Hemings given his feelings about blacks, he considered them to be inferior in everyway. And although he hated the idea of slavery, the only slaves that he freed upon his death were his two youngest sons by Sally, Eston and Madison, Sally’s nephew, Burton Corbett, who had worked as his valet, and two other nephews of Hemings. He also petitioned the courts to allow Eston and Madison Hemings to continue to live in Virginia despite a law that freed slaves had to leave the state.
They also site Maria Cosway, the wife of painter Richard Cosway, whom Jefferson had met during his stay in France when he was minister to the Court of Louis XIV. While Jefferson may have been infatuated with Cosway, their initial acquaintance lasted all of two weeks, and he didn’t see her again for another year. When they did meet again, Jefferson quickly realized that he was just one of many among Cosway’s admirers. Their relationship seems to have been platonic. Surely if Jefferson didn’t sleep with her, why would he sleep with a slave?
Sally Hemings wasn’t just any slave. She was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife Martha Wayles Jefferson. Sally’s mother Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hemings was the daughter of a British sea captain and a slave on Francis Eppes plantation. The sea captain had wanted to buy the mother of his child but Eppes refused to sell her. It appears that after the death of the third wife of John Wayles, Martha’s father, he took Betty as his concubine. Betty gave birth to at least eight children of which Sally was the last.
Sally was a quadroon meaning that she was one-quarter white. The few descriptions that we have of her describe her as ‘looking white’ with long straight silky hair. There are also some descriptions of her resembling Jefferson’s late wife. Get the picture? It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that by sleeping with Sally, it is possible that Jefferson considered it a way to be close to his beloved wife. All his life, Jefferson was uncomfortable when it came to strong and independent women. Who could be more dependent than one of his slaves?
And there would have been nothing unusual or strange if Jefferson had decided to sleep with one of his slaves. It was a common feature of plantation life, slaves had no legal rights. More than one wife of a plantation owner was confronted with slaves that resembled the master’s family. Foreign visitors to southern plantations often remarked on seeing slaves that were either practically white or whiter than they were. It was the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. Everyone knew but nobody talked about it. In Jefferson’s case, visitors to Monticello were often taken aback by being served by slaves that looked a great deal like the future President of the United States. What fun dinner parties those must have been!
Jefferson had also promised Martha that he would never remarry. So what was a healthy middle-aged man to do? One who still had needs? Jefferson had already lived longer than his father. Jefferson was a devotee of a Swiss medical theorist named Samuel Auguste David Tissot, who believed that regular sexual relations were the key to good health for a man. There are no other rumors of Jefferson being involved with anyone other than Sally Hemings during this time. It is possible to believe, but not likely, that Jefferson was celibate for the rest of his life.
So if one accepts that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had some sort of relationship that involved sex, when did it start? Madison Hemings believed that his mother became pregnant when she was in France, and that was the reason that she didn’t stay behind when Jefferson returned to America, even though she was considered free since slavery was illegal in France (although not in the French colonies). Jon Kukla argues that the relationship didn’t start until Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793. Her first child, a daughter named Harriet, was born in 1795. Over the next fourteen years, Sally gave birth to six children, Beverly (born in 1798), a daughter born in 1799, Harriet Hemings (born in 1801), James Madison Hemings (born in 1805), and Thomas Eston Hemings (born in 1808). All the dates of conception coincide with times that Jefferson was at Monticello. Although there is no evidence that Sally lived in the big house at Monticello, there is evidence that she had living quarters in a masonry of rooms that were conveniently located and easily accessible to Jefferson’s bedroom.
Was it a love relationship? There is no way definitively to say yes or no. How could love exist between a man and the woman that he owned? It is clear that Jefferson treated not only Sally and her children well (for slaves), but also the rest of the Hemings family who lived at Monticello. None of them worked in the fields, they either worked in the house, or they were taught trades. Sally’s brother James was trained as a chef while they were in Paris, and others of her relatives were taught carpentry and wood-work. Sally also named all her children after people that were important to Jefferson, including James Madison and Thomas Randolph.
Both Beverly and Harriet Hemings left Monticello when they were twenty-one. No attempt was made to find them. In fact, Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer, stated that when Harriet left, Jefferson instructed him to give her fifty-dollars and paid her stage fare to Philadelphia. They both slipped into the white world which was easy for them since they were one-eighth black. According to Virginia law, since they were 1/8 black, they were legally white, although also legally slaves. Which makes no sense, but sometimes the law never does. Only one of Sally’s children, Madison Hemings, didn’t pass for white. The only person not freed by Jefferson’s will was Sally herself. However, Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph allowed Sally to live with her sons in Charlottesville where she died in 1835. After Jefferson's death, Sally collected mementoes of Jefferson, including pairs of his glasses, an inkwell, and shoe buckles, which she passed on to Madison and Eston.
In 1802, James Callendar, a disgruntled journalist, and former supporter of Jefferson was the first person to put the rumors in print. Some historians have dismissed Callendar because he was bitter that Jefferson did not appoint him Postmaster General during his administration, but who better to know where the bodies were buried so to speak than a former associate? Martha Jefferson Randolph apparently pleaded with her father to get rid of Sally and her children but he refused.
In 1998, the scientific journal Nature published an article stating that from the DNA evidence collected, it seemed probable that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings. The study was conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired medical professor, who began investigating the possibility of a genetic link between living descendents of Thomas Jefferson and those of Sally Hemings. He compared the blood from five descendents of Field Jefferson, Thomas's paternal uncle, with the blood of the descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Woodson, and the Carrs. The DNA was extracted from the blood samples at the University of Virginia, then sent to Oxford, England where it was tested by three different laboratories. What the DNA evidence came up with was that male descendents of Eston Hemings (who changed his name to Jefferson when he passed for white) had the same Y chromosome as Field Jefferson who was the brother of Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's father. Jeffersonians cried foul, stating that the DNA tests were faulty, that other suspects were not considered. The DNA evidence had cleared the Carr brothers, Peter and Samuel, who were often thought to be possible fathers. The Jeffersonians claimed that Thomas Jefferson's brother Randolph and his sons had not been considered. However it appears that Randolph's sons would have been too young to father children with Hemings and Randolph himself was an infrequent and reluctant visitor to Monticello.
No one has yet tested the DNA from descendents of Randolph Jefferson but that still wouldn't prove definitively that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings' children because Randolph would share the same DNA chromosome as Jefferson. The Jeffersonians seem to reject the idea that Jefferson could have been as human as some of the other plantation owners in the South. If Jefferson was the father of Sally's children, it doesn't take away from his accomplishments as President, statesman, and inventor. It just makes him a living, breathing, human being, who had a secret relationship. He wouldn't be the first or the last politician to do so. Even Strom Thurmond, the great segregationist, fathered a black child (seriously was anyone suprised when that little newstory appeared? I was surprised that there was only one).
What of the lies that the white Jefferson family told over the years to explain the existence of at least six children who resembled Thomas Jefferson? Well that is where the stories about the Carr brothers come in. Anyone in the family but Jefferson had to be the culprit. And if it was one of them, it doesn't negate the fact that the descendants of Sally Hemings are related to Thomas Jefferson and as such should be acknowledged and accorded the dignity and respect of other relatives.
The notion that Jefferson and Sally Hemings brings up uncomfortable questions about race, slavery, and the notion of interracial relationships which some people still object to. Despite the public's appetite for political scandal and reading about the sex lives of famous people, when it comes to our founding fathers, we get a bit squeamish. We don't want to know or to talk about them, just the way people are uncomfortable talking about Abraham Lincoln, and whether he was gay or not. The Europeans are much more civilized when it comes to the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders. In France, no one cared when it came out that Francois Mitterand had a whole other family.
Thomas Jefferson, the man, was a bundle of contradictions, a slaveholder with egalitarian principles. There is a reason Joseph Ellis named his biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx. In his relationship with Maria Cosway, he wrote her a letter in which he examined his feelings as a dialogue between his head and his heart. We may never know for sure what the truth is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (it wasn't like Gilbert Stuart was under the bed with a paint brush), but it will continue to be a hot button for years to come. And some people will never be convinced, not even if Jefferson came down from Mount Rushmore and told them himself.
Mr. Jefferson’s Women - Jon Kukla, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family – Annette Gordon-Reed, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008
Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History – Fawn Brodie, Norton, 1974
Sally Hemings - Barbara Chase-Riboud, 1979 (to be republished by Chicago Review Press, 2009)
"Anatomy of a Mystery" Maura Singleton, University of Virginia Magazine, 2007 (an even handed look at both the pros and the cons concerning the controversy)
"Thomas Jefferson's Unknown Grandchildren," Fawn Brodie, American Heritage Magazine
"Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?" Annette Gordon-Reed, American Heritage Magazine, Fall 2008
The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society: An organization one of whose aims is to debunk the theory that TJ and Sally Hemings had children.
Monticello - Jefferson's home in Virginia
Jefferson in Paris: Merchant-Ivory films, 1995, starring Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson, and Thandie Newton as Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings: An American Scandal , a CBS television miniseries (Air dates: 2/13/00 and 2/16/00; Writer: Tina Andrews Director: Charles Haid; With Carmen Ejogo as Hemings, and Sam Neil as Thomas Jefferson)
American Experience: Thomas Jefferson
Frontline: Jefferson's Blood