- Historic Sites
Children Of Monticello
In Virginia, a quarrel is going on about who can be allowed to lie in a family graveyard. Because the family is Thomas Jefferson’s, the outcome of the dispute is important to every American.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Eventually we heard from V. R. (“Shack”) Shackelford III, the chairman of the membership advisory committee. He summarized the issues facing the membership committee and referred us to the written version of the interim report, which was made available after the meeting and can be read on the Web at
The room fell silent as he closed his remarks: “In designing what sort of association we want to be, I suggest that it might be helpful to stand back from all of the details and consider how Thomas Jefferson himself might feel about the current debate. In considering his own ancestry, some of which was unknown to him, Thomas Jefferson noted that his family ‘could trace their pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit as he chooses.’ Jefferson’s thoughts on his ancestry leave us with the question of whether it is possible to have an association whose members can trace their pedigree far back to Thomas Jefferson to which everyone can ascribe the faith and merit as he or she chooses. Please help our committee answer that question. Thank you very much.”
At the end of the 2000 reunion, there seemed little left to wonder about. While the arguments over the “facts” will doubtless continue forever, the issue confronted by the members of the Monticello Association was clear.
Shackelford’s quotation of Jefferson seemed remarkable to me until I read the full text of the membership committee’s interim report. It announced that a legal opinion had been sought the previous year by the outgoing Association president, Robert Gillespie. Gillespie had turned to Professor Denis J. Brion of the Washington and Lee University Law School. Brion, after 12 months’ work, had not yet issued his new opinion, but already the membership committee was moving forward, considering the issues.
The primary justification Gillespie had used for denying Hemings descendants membership in the Association had been that “they do not enjoy the same paper trail we do.” Which is to say, they cannot trace their heritage back to Thomas Jefferson because they cannot produce birth certificates naming him father of Thomas Woodson, Madison Hemings, or Eston Hemings, universally acknowledged as children of Sally Hemings. In addressing this issue, the membership committee recognized that there was a reason Thomas, Madison, and Eston did not “enjoy” that paper trail. Since the laws of slavery forbade slaves to learn to read or write, it was nearly impossible for them to record the births of their children. Although the membership committee has not yet announced its findings on this point, it seems unlikely that its members will make an argument that we are justified today in enforcing slavery laws in order to deny the descendants of slaves the ability to establish who they are.
And so, at the close of the 2000 Monticello Reunion, there seemed little left to wonder about. While the arguments over the “facts” and the “evidence” will doubtless go on for yet another two centuries, the issue confronted by the members of the Monticello Association was clear. In the absence of absolute “evidence”—incontrovertible DNA, or birth certificates, or a written admission of paternity by Jefferson—but in the presence of so much circumstantial and oral-history evidence, what is the right thing for us to do?
To me, it’s found in the gist of what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. If indeed all of us are “created equal,” then the only way to make judgments between us is by measuring what is fair and what is not. There is no disagreement that Jefferson’s wife, Martha, and Sally Hemings were half-sisters; both had the same father, John Wayles. So all the members of the Monticello Association are descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s halfsister, Martha. That means that the members of the Monticello Association are cousins of every descendant of Sally Hemings, because we share a maternal great-great-great (etc., etc.) grandfather, Mr. Wayles.
This much about us descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners is uncontested. Yet if we cannot agree absolutely about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, what is left for us to do? Two hundred years after the so-called controversy first raged, will we members of the Monticello Association act fairly and embrace our cousins, or won’t we?
I pray that we will be fair to our cousins and to ourselves and to our history and to the memory not only of Thomas Jefferson but of Sally Hemings, and that we will do the right thing. Standing together, we are ancient evidence of the lie at the heart of racism, because in the words of Thomas Jefferson, we were created equal.
We are Jefferson’s children. We are a family.