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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
10 For a white man to admit publicly to miscegenation was, however, considered a violation of one of the strongest taboos in the South. Even evidence in letters and diaries is extremely rare. James Hugo Johnston, in his excellently researched Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1176-1860 (Amherst, Mass., 1970), found most of his material in petitions to the Virginia governors and legislature arising out of court trials. For statistical evidence of the widespread practice one must go to the u.s. Census, which until 1860 listed mulattos separately from Negroes. There were over 70,000 mulattos in Virginia in 1850, and over 500,000 mulattos in all the slave states in 1860. The 1860 census shows also that there were only 385,000 slave owners, which gives a rough indication of the ratio.
Jefferson was greatly blessed in his marriage. He loved his wife passionately, and described their union in his Autobiography as. “ten years of unchecquered happiness.” Still, it was full of tragedy. Three of their six children died in infancy. After the birth of their sixth child, on May 8, 1782, Martha Jefferson hovered between life and death for months. When she finally died, on September 6, 1782, Jefferson fainted and, according to his oldest daughter, who was then ten, “remained so long insensible that they feared he never would revive.” He kept his room for three weeks and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly night and day only lying down occasionally when nature was completely exhausted on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. My Aunts remained constantly with him for some weeks, I do not remember how many. When at last he left his room he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods; in those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief. … 11
11 Account of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Julian P. Boyd, ed. (Princeton, 1950-72, 18 vols.), Vol. VI, p. 200
Most Jefferson biographers believe that he never again felt any deep or lasting affection for any woman. Gilbert Chinard wrote in 1928 that “there is no indication that he ever fell in love again,” and in one fashion or another Jefferson scholars have adhered to the tradition that he became essentially passionless, monastic, and ascetic. Yet this view has had to be reconciled with the fact that Jefferson had a romance in Paris in the i78o’s with an Englishwoman, Maria Cosway. One solution has been to describe it as “superficially frantic,” temporary, and playful rather than passionate. But the episode resulted in what are certainly the greatest love letters in the history of the American Presidency—letters whose copies were carefully preserved by Jefferson (and mostly kept hidden by his heirs until 1945), despite the fact that he is thought to have destroyed all his correspondence with both his wife and his mother. 12 Moreover, passion does not usually disappear in a man’s life unless his capacity for passion is constricted and warped from the beginning. When at forty-three, four years after his wife’s death, he met the enchanting artist-musician and sensed at once the unhappiness of her marriage to the decadent and foppish Richard Cosway, he fell in love in a single afternoon. They saw each other alone many times during five happy weeks in the autumn of 1786, and in August, 1787, she returned to Paris for a second visit, without her husband. She remained four months. The story of this romance, told in A MERICAN H ERITAGE in August, 1971, need not be repeated here, except as it relates in a subtle fashion to the Sally Hemings story.
12 Helen Duprey Bullock, My Head and My Heart, a Little History of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway (N.Y., 1945)
Jefferson had taken his eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) with him to Paris, leaving Maria (Polly) and baby Lucy with his wife’s sister. When Lucy died of whooping cough, Jefferson in a frenzy of anxiety insisted that Polly be sent to Paris. He ordered that a middle-aged slave woman accompany her, one who had had the smallpox. But when Abigail Adams met the ship in London, she saw with some consternation that the maid accompanying the eight-year-old Polly was a young slave girl of striking beauty. It was Sally Hemings. Though Sally was only fourteen, Abigail believed her to be “about 15 or 16” and described her unhappily in a letter to Jefferson as “quite a child … wanting even more care” than Polly, and “wholly incapable” of looking after her young charge properly by herself.
It had been a lively voyage, with no other females on the ship, and Captain John Ramsay had quite won Polly’s affection. She had become, Abigail reported grimly, “rough as a little sailor.” The captain readily agreed with Abigail that Sally Hemings would be of “little Service” to Jefferson and suggested that “he had better carry her back with him.” 13 It takes no special imagination to see why, for quite different reasons, Abigail Adams and Captain Ramsay agreed that it would be better if Sally Hemings did not go on to Paris. But Jefferson sent his trusted French servant Petit to fetch them, and they arrived in July, 1787.