The Great Jefferson Taboo

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Professor Jordan is the first white historian in our own time to describe dispassionately evidence for the Sally Hemings liaison, as well as the case against it, writing on the one hand that it was unlikely, a “lapse from character unique in his mature life,” but noting on the other that it could have been evidence of deep ambivalence and that Jefferson’s “repulsion” toward blacks may have hidden a powerful attraction. Jordan finds the story distasteful, however, and regrets that the charge is “dragged after Jefferson like a dead cat through the pages of formal and informal history. …” Still, he calls for an “unexcited” discussion of the facts.

It is possible to keep such a discussion “unexcited,” though the material is dramatic and, at times, tragic. There are many facts that Jefferson scholars have overlooked, and some that have been ignored, apparently because they were too painful to consider. This is not uncommon with biographers, especially those whose sense of identification with their subject is almost total. In all fairness to Sally Hemings, as well as to Jefferson, whether one believes the story or not, phrases like “vulgar liaison,” “ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship,” and even “dragged after Jefferson like a dead cat” simply do not apply.

As everyone knows, Jefferson was a man of very great gifts and special sensibility. Yet we know little about Sally Hemings except that she was a quadroon of considerable beauty and that she was the half sister of his wife. Several of her brothers could read and write, and one may assume that this was true also of Sally. But no letter from her has been preserved, nor any by Jefferson to her.

Still, if it is true that Sally’s seven children were also his children, this already illuminates the length and steadiness of their affection for each other and suggests that there may have been much suffering because it could not publicly be honored. A careful marshalling of the facts surely helps to throw light on Jefferson’s life and character, and discovering a liaison does not degrade him or her. It may help explain some mysteries, such as why he never married again, and why he lapsed in his later years into ever-increasing apathy toward emancipation of slaves. For it may well be that this special involvement peculiarly incapacitated him for action in helping to change the national pattern of white over black. In any case, the facts may serve to illuminate his general ambivalence—his mixture of love and hate—concerning race.

Jefferson knew and revered two men who had children by slave women. One was his law teacher, George Wythe, whom he called his second father. Wythe, having no children of his own by two white wives, took a black mistress, Lydia Broadnax, whom he had freed. She bore a son, whom he raised with affection, teaching him Greek and Latin and promising him an inheritance in his will. Wythe even named Jefferson in his will as trustee in charge of the boy’s education. But this provision was never to be fulfilled. An envious grandnephew of Wythe’s named Sweney forged Wythe’s name on several checks; seeking to avoid prosecution and also to win the total inheritance, Sweney put arsenic in the coffee and on some strawberries at Wythe’s house. The mulatto child died quickly; Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweney. Lydia Broadnax, though very ill, survived. But because the only people who could testify against the murderer were blacks, he was acquitted. 8

8 He was found guilty of forging checks, but even this charge was dropped on appeal. See Julian Boyd, “The Murder of George Wythe,” William and Mary Quarterly , 3rd Series, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 513-74 (Oct., 1955); Judicial Cases Concerning Slavery and the Negro , Helen T. Caterall, ed. (Washington, 1926 37, 5 vols.), Vol. i, pp. 108-9. Jefferson wrote of Wythc’s death in 1806 that “such an instance of depravity has been hitherto known to us only in the fables of the poets.” Nathan Schachner, Thomas Jefferson (N.Y., 1951), p. 33.

Almost as close to Jefferson as George Wythe, at least for a time, was Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Wayles had had three white wives, who bore him four daughters. When his third wife died, he turned to Elizabeth Hemings, a slave on his plantation and the daughter of an English sea captain and an African slave woman. “Betty” Hemings bore Wayles six children, the youngest a girl named Sally, all of whom came to Monticello with their mother in the inheritance of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. 9 So it can be seen that although Jefferson may have been intellectually opposed to miscegenation, he grew up seeing it close at hand, and in his adult life he had two important models. He could hardly have believed it to be a grave sin. 10

9 Madison Hemings’ reminiscences, Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873. Betty Hemings had had six children by a slave before becoming Wayles’s mistress and later bore two children at Monticello, one by a white carpenter, John Nelson, the other by a slave. For a complete genealogy of the Hemings family see Jefferson at Monticello , James A. Bear, Jr., ed. (Charlottesville, 1967), pp. 25-26. Most of this genealogy is derived from entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book .