- 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
13 Abigail Adams to Jefferson, June 26, 27, July 6, 1787, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XI, pp. 501-3, 550-52
Sally Hemings was later described by a Monticello slave as “very handsome” and “mighty near white” with “long straight hair down her back.” Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, said she was “light colored and decidedly good looking,” and at Monticello she was described as “Dashing Sally.” 14 If she resembled her half sister Martha Wayles Jefferson in any fashion, there is no record of it. But certainly she brought to Paris the fresh, untainted aura of Jefferson’s past, the whole untrammeled childhood with the quantities of slave children, the memory of the easy, apparently guiltless miscegenation of his father-in-law, the many-faceted reality of black and white in Virginia.
14 “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4. Randolph’s description, as reported to Henry Randall, was published in James Parton , pp. 236-42
Sally Hemings arrived in Paris shortly before Maria Cosway returned for her second visit, without her husband. There are some indications that Maria was troubled and guilt-ridden, and there were many reasons why such an affair could not continue. She was a devout Catholic, and besides, divorce was virtually impossible for an Englishwoman, even a Protestant. Her husband, increasingly restive in London, became nastier in his letters. She went back to England in December, 1787, and Jefferson was again left lonely and bereft. Earlier he had written to her, “I am born to lose everything I love.” 15
15 Jefferson to Maria Cosway, July 1, 1787, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XI, p. 520
Sally Hemings was now fifteen. She was learning French, as was her older brother James, who was in Paris as Jefferson’s personal servant. 16 We know from Jefferson’s account books that he paid 240 francs to a Dr. Sutton on November 6, 1787, for Sally’s smallpox inoculation, and that by January, 1788, he had begun for the first time to pay wages to both James and Sally Hemings, thirty-six francs a month to James and twenty-four to his sister. The French servants received fifty and sixty francs. By French law both were free if they chose to make an issue of it, and they knew it. 17
16 Madison Hemings in his recollections wrote that his mother “was just beginning to understand the French language well” when Jefferson was called home. Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873.
17 That Jefferson knew even his diplomatic status did not give him the right to hold slaves against their will is clear from a letter he wrote to Paul Bentalou, Aug. 25, 1786: “I have made enquiries on the subject of the negro boy you have brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it. … Nevertheless I have known an instance where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession.” Julian Boyd, publishing this letter ( Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. X, p. 296), states that Jefferson here was clearly writing about James Hemings. At some point Jefferson promised to free James in America as soon as he would teach another slave to cook French style at Monticello, and he made good his word Feb. 5, 1796. He freed James’s older brother, Robert Hemings, Dec. 24, 1794. See “Slaves and Slavery,” Farm Book , p. .
The circumstances were propitious for an attachment. Sally Hemings must certainly have been lonely in Paris, as well as supremely ready for the first great love of her life. She was thrown daily into the presence of a man who was by nature tender and gallant with women. He was, moreover, the man whom all the children at Monticello, whether white or black, had looked upon as a kind of deity. What is more, if Jefferson had a model in the person of his father-in-law, who had turned to a slave woman after the death of his third wife, Sally Hemings, too, had a model in her mother, that Betty Hemings who had apparently dominated the private life and passions of John Wayles until his death.