- Historic Sites
The Great Jefferson Taboo
A seasoned scholar examines in detail evidence that the widowed Thomas Jefferson took as his mistress Sally Hemings, the beautiful quadroon half sister of his late wife
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
And yet the original letter to Levi Lincoln, the copy to Robert Smith, and presumably the letterpress copy Jefferson almost always made of his letters have all inexplicably disappeared. One wonders why. If this letter contained the denial Jefferson’s friends had been hoping to see for almost three years, what became of it and the copies? The covering letter to Robert Smith is very ambiguous. Who knows exactly which “allegations against me” Jefferson had chosen to list in the missing letter? It is conceivable that this letter and its copies disappeared because there was something essentially and inadvertently damaging to Jefferson in them.
The story of the abuse heaped upon Jefferson during his Presidency in regard to his intimate life has never been told in full detail. Nor have the evidences of his anguished reaction to this abuse ever been pieced together in such a fashion that one can see the extent of his humiliation and his suffering. Nevertheless, despite the savagery of the attacks, despite the dozen or so published pornographic ballads, Jefferson kept Sally Hemings and her children at Monticello. In 1805 and 1808 she bore two more sons. 36
36 Farm Book , p. 128
Years later Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s favorite grandson, who was born in 1792 and spent many summers at Monticello, in effect growing up with Sally Hemings’ children, talked to biographer Henry Randall confidentially about the controversy. Randall reported privately that Randolph described one of the children as looking so much like Jefferson that “at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have been mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.” Since he was a house servant, Randall noted, “the likeness between master and slave was blazoned to all the multitudes who visited this political mecca.” When Randall asked Randolph why Jefferson did not send this family away from Monticello to another of his plantations, the grandson replied that though “he had no doubt his mother would have been very glad to have them thus removed,” still “all venerated Mr. Jefferson too deeply to broach such a topic to him,” and “he never betrayed the least consciousness of the resemblance.” 37
37 As reported by Henry Randall in a letter to James Parton , June 1, 1868. See James Parton, pp. 236-42.
One is reminded here of Tolstoi, also a great egalitarian, who had an illegitimate son by a serf on his estate before marrying the Countess Sophia. This son became Tolstoi’s coachman—similarly visible for everyone to see. But he was never educated like Tolstoi’s numerous legitimate children nor made part of the inner family.
Both Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his sister, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, blamed their uncles, Peter and Samuel Carr, instead of their grandfather, for the paternity of Sally Hemings’ children. Randolph told Randall in all seriousness that he himself had “slept within sound of his [Jefferson’s] breathing at night,” and “had never seen a motion, or a look, or a circumstance” that was suspicious. Still, in an article about his grandfather, he wrote that Jefferson’s bedroom-study was his sanctum sanctorum, and that even his own daughters never sat in it. 38
38 See Randolph’s broadside, “The Last Days of Jefferson,” quoted in Jefferson at Monticello , p. 135.
In the end, much evidence is contained in the history of Sally Hemings’ seven children. Despite the strenuous “family denial” and the secrecy Jefferson himself, not surprisingly, seems to have encouraged, a considerable amount of information is available about them. Ellen Randolph Coolidge, in discussing the “yellow children” at Monticello in an unpublished letter, wrote that she knew of her “own knowledge” that Jefferson permitted “each of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed.” “I remember,” she wrote, “four instances of this, three young men and a girl, who walked away and staid away—their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves—for they were white enough to pass for white.” 39
39 Ellen Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, Jr., Oct. 24, 1858. Harold J. Coolidge has kindly permitted me to quote one paragraph of this remarkable letter. One is reminded in reading it of what Mrs. Frances Trollope wrote in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1927 ed., p. 59) in 1832: “I once heard it stated by a democratical adorer of this great man, that when, as it sometimes happened, his children by Quadroon slaves were white enough to escape suspicion of their origin, he did not pursue them if they attempted to escape, saying laughingly: ‘Let the rogues get off, if they can; I will not hinder them.’ This was stated in a large party, as proof of his kind and noble nature, and was received by all with approving smiles.”