- 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
53 “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4; Farm Book , p. 130. Jefferson’s fascination with balloon ascensions had begun in Paris.
54 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873
A second Harriet, named after the child that died in 1797, was born in May, 1801, and it must be noted that Jefferson was in Monticello from May 29 to November 24, 1800. 55 Harriet was listed as a runaway in the Farm Book in 1822. 56 Edmund Bacon, an overseer at Monticello, said later of this slave girl: He [Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter: she was ______’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early. When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since and don’t know what became of her. From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory. She never did any hard work. 57
55 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty , pp. xxix-xxx, and Farm Book , p. 128
56 p. 130
57 Jefferson at Monticello , p. 102. Jefferson does not list this gift of fifty dollars in his account book for that year, which suggests that he may have given generous gifts of money to both Sally Hemings and her children that could not be traced in any fashion. (It is believed that the name of Harriet’s father was stricken from Bacon’s memoir by Hamilton W. Pierson when he edited it for the original publication in 1862.)
Bacon, however, did not come to Monticello as overseer till 1806, after six of Sally’s seven children were born, and he never lived in the big house.
Madison Hemings wrote of his sister Harriet with a touch of irony: Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. 58
58 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873. Pearl N. Graham in 1948 interviewed four sisters in New Jersey and Massachusetts who claimed to be descendants of Sally Hemings. They said their grandmother Harriet ran away to Canada and married one Reuben Coles. Still, all four were born in Charlottesville and were members of Negro communities. Their stories are in obvious conflict with that of Madison Hemings concerning Harriet. A letter from one of these women, Lucy C. Williams, which Miss Graham was good enough to let me copy, speaks of “John Hemings my great Grand.” John Hemings, according to Madison Hemings, was the son of Betty Hemings and John Nelson, a white carpenter at Monticello. It is possible that these four women were his descendants rather than Harriet’s. See Pearl N. Graham, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” Journal of Negro History (1961), 44:89-103.
Madison Hemings, named after James Madison, was born January 19, 1805. Jefferson was not in Monticello at his birth, but had been there from April 4 to May 11, 1804. 59 Madison’s reminiscences, on the whole remarkable for their accuracy of detail concerning Monticello, show evidence of considerable education, though he insists he learned to read “by inducing the white children to teach me.” Of his relations with Jefferson he writes in his memoir: He was uniformly kind to all about him. He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood.
59 Farm Book , p. 128; Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson the President, First Term , pp. xxviii-xxix
The slave Isaac in his reminiscences reported that “Sally had a son named Madison, who learned to be a great fiddler,” 60 but we do not know whether it was Jefferson, himself an able violinist, who taught the young slave who claimed to be his son. Freed by Jefferson in his will, Madison lived for a time with his mother (by then also free) in Albemarle County, Virginia, married a free black woman in 1834, and after his mother’s death in 1835 went west to Ohio, where he made his living as a carpenter. 61