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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
Dumas Malone devotes a whole appendix in his recent volume, Jefferson the President, First Term 1801-1805 , to a refutation of the charge. He writes: — it is virtually inconceivable that this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife’s memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on the excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect.
And Professor Malone suggests that Sally Hemings may have told her children that Jefferson was their father out of “vanity.”
Certain black historians, on the other hand, including Lerone Bennett, believe that the miscegenation was real and that Jefferson’s descendants dot the country from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to San Francisco. 5 Any defense of this thesis causes anguish and outrage among Jefferson admirers. Why does this story nevertheless persist? Does it touch some chord in fantasy life? Or do people feel that the scholars protest too much? Jefferson, after all, was a widower at thirty-nine. Defenders of Jefferson assure us again and again that miscegenation was out of character for him. But the first duty of a historian is to ask not “Is it out of character?” but “Is it true?”
5 Lerone Bennett in “Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren,” Ebony , Nov., 1954, published photographs of elderly blacks who traced their ancestry back to Jefferson through Joe Fosset, who was one of the five slaves freed in Jefferson’s will. Joe Fosset was the son of Sally Hemings’ older sister Mary. See Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book , Edwin M. Betts, ed. (Princeton, 1953), p. 31 [all page numbers for Betts edition of Farm Book are to the facsimile section, except those in brackets]. The late John Cook Wyilie, expert on the Monticello slaves, believed that Joe Fosset’s father was an apprentice white man employed at Monticello named William Fosset. Jefferson’s account book for Sept. 1, 1779, shows that William was working at Monticello at that date and that Joe Fosset was born in 1780 ( Farm Book , pp. 31, 130). Martha Jefferson was still alive in 1780, and it is therefore most unlikely that Joe Fosset was Jefferson’s son. The fact that he was given this last name, unlike most slaves listed in the Farm Book , is further evidence that William Fosset was the father. Joe Fosset, who became the Monticello blacksmith, ran away to Washington in 1806 because of his affection for Edy, whom Jefferson had taken to Washington as a servant. The President’s hostler, Joseph Daugherty, alerted by Jefferson, caught him in the “yard” of the President’s House on Aug. 3, 1806, and returned him to Monticello (“Slaves and Slavery,” Farm Book , pp. [22-23]). It is important to note, in this connection, that the children of Sally Hemings who ran away were permitted to go without being pursued.
What one might call “the family’s official denial,” begun by Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, holds, first, that Jefferson was not at Monticello when Sally Hemings’ children were conceived and, second, that they were fathered by Jefferson’s nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr. This denial has been gratefully accepted by Jefferson biographers, his admirers, and his heirs. 6 Still, one must note the fact, as Winthrop Jordan has done in his White Over Black, American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 —and he was the first to say it in print—that Jefferson actually was at Monticello nine months before the births of each of Sally Hemings’ children that are recorded in the Farm Book . And there is no evidence that she ever conceived a child when he was not there. Moreover, it takes very little research in the enormous file of family letters at the University of Virginia to demonstrate that Peter and Samuel Carr were elsewhere, managing plantations with slaves of their own, during most of the years that Sally Hemings was bearing children at Monticello. 7
6 Henry Randall, Jefferson’s early biographer, described an interview with Thomas Jefferson Randolph in which the Sally Hemings story was freely discussed in these terms. See Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868, in Milton E. Flower, James Parton, the Father of Modern Biography (Durham, N.C., 1951), pp. 236-42.
7 Numerous letters between Peter Carr and Jefferson show that in 1791, 1792, and part of 1793 young Carr alternated between Spring Forest, where his mother lived, and Monticello. He then left and began practicing law. Bv 1799 he was married and had at least one son. Samuel Carr, who corresponded very little with Jefferson and spent far less time at Monticello than Peter, was married in 1795. In 1802 he and his wife were living in Dunlora with his mother; afterward he moved to the South Fork of the Rivanna River, a few miles north of Charlottesville. The 1830 census of Albemarle County lists him as having six children and forty-four slaves.