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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
There are three runaways listed in Jefferson’s Farm Book . Jamy, son of Critta Hemings, born in 1787 when Jefferson was still in Paris, ran away in April, 1804. Beverly and Harriet, two children of Sally Hemings, ran away in 1822. 40 It is possible that the fourth runaway referred to by Ellen Coolidge was the oldest son of Sally Hemings, the one Callender derisively called “president Tom.” Though he is described in the newspapers of 1802 as resembling Jefferson, in one respect he remains the most mysterious of all Sally Hemings’ children because he is not listed in the Farm Book under the name of his mother, as are the others. Since there are at least six different slaves named Tom recorded at various times in the Farm Book , only one listed with a birth year, absolute identification of “Tom Hemings” in this old record is not possible.
40 pp. 60, 130
Jefferson listed his slaves first in 1774, again in 1783, but not again till 1794. During his Presidency, 1801 through March, 1809, he neglected his Farm Book altogether. Almost all his slaves are listed by first name only except Betty, Peter, and John Hemings and two or three others, including an old slave, Tom Shackleford. Sally Hemings is easily identified, both by her birth year, 1773, and by the names of her children, listed and indented under her own, at least when they were small. Of the several slaves in the Farm Book named Tom, one appears frequently among the Hemings family slaves, which are usually listed together. He does not appear on the official inventories of 1794, 1798, and 1810, 41 but shows up consistently on the food and clothing distribution lists from 1794 to 1801. It can be argued that this “Tom” represents Tom Shackleford without his last name. If true, then it would seem that Jefferson did not choose to list Sally Flemings’ oldest son regularly among his slaves and may have considered him free from birth.
41 P.30, 57, 128
Martha Jefferson Randolph mentions a “Tom” in a letter to her father on January 22, 1798, describing an epidemic of sickness in the neighborhood: Our intercourse with Monticello has been almost daily . They have generally been well there except Tom and Goliah who are both about again and poor little Harriot who died a few days after you left us. 42
42 Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson , Edwin M. Betts and James M. Bear, Jr., eds. (Columbia, Mo., 1966), p. 153
This “Harriot,” we know from Farm Book entries, was Sally Hemings’ daughter, and the “Tom” may have been her son. There were two slaves named Goliah at Monticello, one an old man and the other a child of seven. 43
43 Goliah, son of Molly, born in 1791, is mentioned in the Farm Book on p. 30.
There are no listings in the Farm Book between 1801 and 1810. By this time Tom Shackleford had died, but there are several listings of a “hired” Tom in 1810 and 1811. One can speculate that this was “Tom Hemings,” and that he was by then old enough for regular wages. Since no slave named Tom appears after 1811 in the Farm Book , it is possible that Sally Hemings’ son left Monticello in that year, when he was twenty-one. This would have been a fulfillment of Jefferson’s promise to Sally, as described by her son Madison. 44
44 A “Tom” is listed separately from Tom Shackleford on the blanket distribution list on p. 39 of the Farm Book . Two slaves named Tom appear on the bread list of 1796, p. 50. Tom Shackleford’s death in 1801 is noted on p. 60 and in Family Letters , p. 215. Three slaves, “Tom,” “Tom Lee,” and “Tom Buck,” appear under the heading “hired” in the 1810 listing, p. 136. A single “Tom” appears under the “Farm” list of 1810 and under the summer clothing distribution list of 1811, pp. 135-36. An 1810 listing, p. 135, shows Sally Hemings with one “grown” child, and three “children.” However, a “Tom” appears separately in this same listing, and perhaps significantly is not counted in the total figure of “23.” (There is no Arabic numeral after his name, as with the others, which may be additional evidence that Jefferson considered him free.) In this connection it should be noted that this list includes several slaves—Laravia, Shepherd, Indridge, Thruston, and Sukey, who are listed separately from their parents, and not counted among the “grown” children. To interpret these lists accurately one must match the two listings on pp. 134, 135.