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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
In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson had described blacks as more “ardent” than whites, a preconception that could have served only to heighten an interest in Sally at this moment, whatever dilemma it might produce. Moreover, he liked warmly domestic women. Though he took pleasure in intellectual female companions, enjoying the sharp, witty, and inquiring minds of Abigail Adams and several talented Frenchwomen, he did not fall in love with them. In this respect he resembled Goethe and Rousseau, both of whom loved and lived with unlettered women for many years before marrying them. Furthermore, during this Paris sojourn, Jefferson wrote to an American friend, the beautiful Anne Bingham, deploring the new preoccupation of Frenchwomen with politics: Society is spoilt by it. … You too, have had your political fever. But our good ladies, I trust have been too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics. They are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate. … Recollect the women of this capital, some on foot, some on horses, and some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs and assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries; compare them with our own countrywomen occupied in the tender and tranquil amusements of domestic life, and confess that it is a comparison of Amazons and Angels. 18
18 Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, pp. 151-52
Maria Cosway was no Amazon. Nor, it can be assumed, was Sally Hemings. Her son Madison tells us nothing of his mother’s education or temperament. But he does write of what happened to her in Paris: Their stay (my mother and Maria’s) was about eighteen months. But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enceinte by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. In France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. 19
19 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873. In 1789, when Jefferson returned to Virginia, Sally Hemings was sixteen. She had been in Paris not eighteen but twenty-six months.
Is there any evidence other than Madison Hemings’ memoir that a liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings began in Paris? If a man is in love, in however clandestine an affair, he must tell someone, if only unconsciously and with inadvertence. This is what happened to Jefferson. In March, 1788, he went to Holland on a diplomatic mission and then continued as a tourist into Germany. Not usually a diary keeper, he did write an almost daily journal of this seven-week trip. It is a matter of great curiosity that in this twenty-five-page document he uses the word mulatto eight times: “The road goes thro’ the plains of the Maine, which are mulatto and very fine. …” “It has a good Southern aspect, the soil a barren mulatto clay. …” “It is of South Western aspect, very poor, sometimes grey, sometimes mulatto. …” “These plains are sometimes black, sometimes mulatto, always rich. …” ”… the plains are generally mulatto. …” ”… the valley of the Rhine … varies in quality, sometimes a rich mulatto loam, sometimes a poor sand. …” ”… the hills are mulatto but also whitish. …” “Meagre mulatto clay mixt with small broken stones. …” 20
20 Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, pp. 8-33
This appears to be evidence of both a preoccupation and a problem. If, moreover, one contrasts this journal with another he kept when touring southern France in the spring of 1787, before Sally Hemings’ disturbing mulatto presence had come to trouble him, one will see that in that account, numbering forty-eight pages, he uses the word mulatto only once. The rest of the time he describes the hills, plains, and earth as dark, reddish-brown, gray, dark-brown, and black. 21
21 Ibid. , Vol. XI, pp. 415-63
There is another quotation, too, in Jefferson’s Holland journal that bears repeating: The women here [in Holland], as in Germany, do all sorts of work. While one considers them as useful and rational companions, one cannot forget that they are also objects of our pleasures. Nor can they ever forget it. While employed in dirt and drudgery some tag of ribbon, some ring or bit of bracelet, earbob or necklace, or something of that kind will shew that the desire of pleasing is never suspended in them. … They are formed by nature for attentions and not for hard labour. 22
22 Ibid. , p. 27. This is in marked contrast with his straightforward, almost sociological treatment of women at work in the fields in France in Mar., 1787. See Vol. XI, p. 415.