The Great Jefferson Taboo

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Did Thomas Jefferson, widowed at thirty-nine, take as a mistress Sally Hemings, the beautiful quadroon half sister of his late wife? This careful study of the known facts and of the long, bitter argument on the subject is the work of a seasoned scholar. Fawn Brodie, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, has published widely acclaimed biographies of Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, and Sir Richard Burton. The material she presents here is the basis, in part, of a forthcoming longer study. Although AMERICAN HERITAGE rarely prints all the scholarly apparatus supporting a story, in this inevitably controversial case we have included Mrs. Brodie’s noted, beginning on page 98.

--The Editors

Thomas Jefferson spent his earliest years on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Virginia, where the blacks outnumbered the whites ten to one. Here he learned about the hierarchies of power and saw early that a white child could tyrannize over a black adult. Here his basic sympathy with emancipation, which we see in him as a young man, had its roots in what he called, in his Notes on the State of Virginia , the “daily exercise in tyranny.” 1 But along with a pervasive anger at slavery, there also developed in Jefferson at some period a conviction he could never wholly escape, that blacks and whites must be carefully kept separate. Emancipation of the blacks, he said in his Notes , should be accompanied by colonization, whether in Africa, in the West Indies, or in a separate state in the West.

1 Notes on the State of Virginia , Wm. Peden, ed. (Chapel Hill, 1955), p. 162

At age seventy-one he wrote privately, and with some bitterness, that “amalgamation” of blacks and whites “produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.” 2 And at seventy-seven, in his unfinished Autobiography , he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” 3

2 Jefferson to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814, Writings of Thomas Jefferson , Paul L. Ford, ed. (N.Y., 1892-99, 10 vols.), Vol. IX, p. 478

3 Autobiography , Dumas Malone, ed. (N.Y., 1966), p. 62

Yet, ironically, one of the stories that clings tenaciously to Jefferson is that he actually had a family by a slave woman. The so-called Sally Hemings story broke into the press in great detail in 1802; public scoldings and bawdy ballads humiliated President Jefferson well into 1805. Throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s abolitionists elaborated the story to suggest that Jefferson had had a whole seraglio of black women and that one of his black mistresses and two of his daughters had been sold at a slave auction in New Orleans. 4 Jefferson biographers, on the other hand, have almost unanimously denounced the stories as libelous.

4 W. Edward Farrison believes that the story of Jefferson’s daughters and mistress being sold at auction grew out of the Sally Hemings story as described by James T. Callender in the Richmond Recorder of 1802 and was gradually combined with other miscegenation stories, resulting finally in William Wells Brown’s novel, Clotel: or the President’s Daughter (London, 1853). See Farrison’s “Origin of Brown’s Clotel,” Phylon , XV:347- 54 (Dec., 1954).

On March 13, 1873, there appeared in an obscure Ohio newspaper, the Pike County Republican , a memoir by one of Sally Hemings’ sons, Madison. The account was lucidly written, suggesting considerable education; when checked with Jefferson’s Farm Book , the details were remarkably but not totally accurate. Madison Hemings wrote simply, even drily, that his mother had indeed borne Jefferson several children of whom he was his only “concubine.” This revelation caused a shudder among Jefferson scholars. Since its publication the memoir has been cited often for various details of life at Monticello, but its basic claim of paternity has been totally rejected almost without exception. Curiously, the piece itself has never been reprinted.

Although today’s biographers still repudiate the Sally Hemings story, comment on the great Jefferson taboo does not disappear. Instead, we have the spectacle of ever-increasing numbers of pages devoted to its refutation. Merill Peterson, in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind , looked at the documentation with some care, and in his recent biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation , he writes: The evidence, highly circumstantial, is far from conclusive, however, and unless Jefferson was capable of slipping badly out of character in hidden moments at Monticello, it is difficult to imagine him caught up in a miscegenous relationship. Such a mixture of the races, such a ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship, revolted his whole being.