- 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
60 Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4
61 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873
Jefferson was in Monticello from August 4 to October 1, 1807. Eston Hemings was born May 21, 1808. 62 As with Beverly, Harriet, and Madison, his name appears many times in the Farm Book under the name of Sally Hemings. He was one of the five slaves freed in Jefferson’s will, all of whom were members of the Hemings family. Madison Hemings wrote that Eston married a free black woman, immigrated to Ohio, and then went on to Wisconsin.
62 Farm Book , p. 128. Jefferson’s Garden Book , Edwin Morris Betts, ed. (Philadelphia, 1944), p. 330, has the evidence for Jefferson’s presence at Monticello through the summer of 1807.
Jefferson’s will contained the request that the Virginia J legislature be petitioned to permit Madison and Eston Hemings to stay in the state if they so chose. Otherwise, by Virginia law, which barred free Negroes, they would automatically have been banished. Still, it must be noted, by Jefferson’s own reckoning, based on Virginia’s legal definitions of the time, these youths were white. When a friend wrote to him in 1815 asking at what point a black man officially changes into a white man, Jefferson replied explicitly, “Our canon considères two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of negro blood. …” 63
63 Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, Mar. 4, 1815, Writings of Thomas Jefferson , Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., Vol. XIV, p. 270
And what, in the end, was “the condition” of Sally Hemings? Jefferson did not free her in his will, but left this service for his daughter Martha to perform, which she did two years after Jefferson’s death in 1826. Had Jefferson freed her during his lifetime and made the necessary request from the Virginia legislature that she be allowed to remain in the state, the news would have been trumpeted over the nation. This publicity he was probably unwilling to subject himself to, and it is conceivable that Sally Hemings never requested it. Still, it is a melancholy discovery to find her listed on the official inventory of Jefferson’s estate, made after his death, as an “old woman” worth thirty dollars. 64 She was then fifty-three.
64 A copy may be seen at the Univ. of Virginia library.
Madison Hemings wrote that his mother lived with him and Eston Hemings in a rented house until her death in 1835. The U.S. Census of Albemarle County in 1830 listed Eston Hemings as head of a family, and as a white man. The other members of this family are listed under his name by age and sex only, as was traditional at the time. There is a listing of a woman—fifty to sixty years of age—described as white. This is Sally Hemings. 65 So the census taker, in making this small descriptive decision, underlined the irony and tragedy of her life.
65 A film of this census may be seen at the Univ. of Virginia. Eston is listed as having in his household two whites (ages 20-30) (doubtless himself and Madison], one white (50-60) [his mother), three colored males under ten, one colored male (35-36), one colored female under ten, and one colored female (35-36). Since Eston married a free black woman, something of the family relationships can be worked out, especially when checked with Madison Hemings’ reminiscences.
As for Jefferson, he had watched with increasing despair over the years as Virginia permitted slavery to expand and as the laws controlling slaves became ever more repressive. He had seen the social degradation imposed upon Sally Hemings’ five living children by the taboos and rituals of the slave society in which he was inextricably enmeshed. So rigid were these taboos that he could not admit these children to be his own, even when they passed into white society, without social ostracism and political annihilation. Whether one believes they were his children or not, one cannot deny that he paid dearly for their presence on that enchanted hill. He could not abandon the slave society in Virginia if he would, and he would not if he could. Overwhelmed at the end with a crushing burden of debt—$107,000—he could not find his way to free in his will more than five of his hundred-odd slaves. He had lived almost half of his life, in the phrase he used to describe himself to Maria Cosway at age seventy-seven, “like a patriarch of old.” 66 And so his ambivalence—which may well have served to lessen for him the sense of the tragedy of it all—was continually compounded.
66 My Head and My Heart , p. 176