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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
Madison Hemings, who was born in 1805, makes no mention of an older brother Tom. It is possible that the “president Tom” who was the subject of all the ribald publicity from 1802 through 1805 was persuaded to leave the shelter of Monticello after he became old enough to make the transition into white society on his own. Even in 1805 he would have been fifteen, old enough to leave. He could have returned for the summers of 1810 and 1811, long enough to appear in various distribution lists. Madison Hemings wrote that the child his mother conceived in France “lived but a short time.” Here he is obviously confusing him with the two small daughters who died in 1796 and 1797. It is conceivable that Sally Hemings, burned by the scandal-mongering publicity of 1802-5, chose not to discuss this son with anyone after his departure and made every effort to protect his identity in the white society by a mantle of silence. Such behavior is common even today among relatives of a black who “passes.”
Jefferson was in political semiretirement at Monticello from January 16, 1794, to February 20, 1797. 45 He wrote to Edward Rutledge on November 30, 1795, “Your son … found me in a retirement I doat on, living like an Antediluvian patriarch among my children & grandchildren, and tilling my soil. …” 46 The celebrated French rationalist, Comte de Volney, a fugitive from the French Revolution, visited Jefferson in Monticello in 1796. He noted in his journal some astonishment at seeing slave children as white as himself: “ Mais je fus étonné de voir appeler noirs et traiter comme tels des enfants aussi blancs que moi. ” 47 They resulted, he said, from miscegenation between mulatto slave women and the white workmen Jefferson hired. But were some of these children in fact Jefferson’s?
45 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Boston, 1962), pp. xxiii-xxiv
46 Writings of Thomas Jefferson , A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh, eds. (Washington, D.C., 1903-4, 20 vols.), Vol. IX, p. 313
47 Jean Gaulmier, Un Grand Témoin de la Révolution et de L’Empire (Paris, 1959), p. 211
Two daughters were born to Sally Hemings during this temporary retirement: Harriet, on October 5, 1795, and Edy, whose name is listed twice in 1796 in the Farm Book under Sally’s name and then disappears. 48 Edy, it can be assumed, died in 1796, since she appears in no slave listings under her mother’s name thereafter. We know that Harriet died in 1797, not only because she disappears from Farm Book listings after that year 49 , but also by Martha Jefferson’s report in January, 1798, already quoted. If Jefferson wrote a letter of sympathy to Sally Hemings, there is no record of it. What has been preserved is his reply to Martha, a letter of such melancholy that it suggests something more than peripheral involvement. He said in part: Indeed I feel myself detaching very fast, perhaps too fast, from every thing but yourself, your sister, and those who are identified with you. These form the last hold the world will have on me, the cords which will be cut only when I am loosened from this state of being. I am looking forward to the spring with all the fondness of desire to meet you all once more. … 50
48 PP. 31,50-1
49 Harriet, the first of two daughters with this name, is listed only on pp. 31, 52-3 of the Farm Book .
50 Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Feb. 8, 1798, Family letters , PP- 155-50
Beverly, a son, was born to Sally Hemings on April i, 1798, 51 eight months and twenty days after Jefferson’s arrival in Monticello from Philadelphia on July 11, 1797. 52 We know nothing of Beverly’s youth except a tantalizing reference in the reminiscences of the Monticello slave named Isaac, who referred to “the balloon that Beverley sent off,” and the fact that he is listed as a runaway at age twenty-four. 53 Madison Hemings wrote that “Beverly left Monticello and went to Washington as a white man. He married a white woman in Maryland, and their only child, a daughter, was not known by the white folks to have any colored blood coursing in her veins. Beverly’s wife’s family were people in good circumstances.” 54 All of this suggests that Beverly had some schooling at Monticello and could have had some financial assistance from Jefferson, as did his sister Harriet.
51 Farm Book , pp. 57, 128
52 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty , p. xxvi