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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
This is all very tender, and suggests that he was thinking not at all of the splendidly dressed Maria Cosway when he wrote it.
Upon his return to Paris, Jefferson found a letter from Maria Cosway reproaching him for not writing, which he had not done for three months. His reply was affectionate; he described his trip to Germany, and in mentioning the art gallery at Düsseldorf, he made what would seem to be a wholly unconscious confession of his new love: At Dusseldorpf I wished for you much. I surely never saw so precious a collection of paintings. Above all things those of Van der Werff affected me the most. His picture of Sarah delivering Agar to Abraham is delicious. I would have agreed to have been Abraham though the consequence would have been that I should have been dead five or six thousand years. 23
23 Ibid. , Vol. XIII, p. 103, Jefferson to Maria Cosway, April 24, 1788
Hagar the Egyptian, it will be remembered, was Abraham’s concubine, given to him by his wife Sarah when she could not bear a child. Known through legend as mother of the Ishmaelites, she was depicted by artists as having a dark skin.
Jefferson continued in this letter to Maria Cosway: “I am but a son of nature, loving what I see & feel, without being able to give a reason, nor caring much whether there be one.” Shortly afterward he formulated what became the most provocative of all his moral directives to society: “The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.” He wrote this in a famous letter to James Madison on September 6, 1789, repeating it in slightly different fashion: “The earth belongs always to the living generation.… They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.” 24
24 Ibid. , Vol. XV, p. 396. Obviously this letter can be read on several levels: political, social, and personal.
In another fascinating letter, written to Maria Cosway on January 14, 1789, he described himself as “an animal of a warm climate, a mere Oran-ootan.” 25 In 1789 the word orang-utan meant for most people not one of the great apes but “wild man of the woods,” the literal translation of the Malay words from which it is derived. There was much confusion about the relation of the great apes to man; even the gorilla was as yet unknown in Europe and America. In his Notes on the State of Virginia , published only a few months before Sally Hemings’ arrival, Jefferson had indiscreetly written that blacks preferred white women, just as “the Oran-ootan” preferred “the black woman over those of his own species.” 26 We do not know exactly what Jefferson conceived an “Oran-ootan” to be in 1787, but we do know that in Paris on October 2, 1788, he sent away to his London bookseller for a list of books which included E. Tyson’s Oran-outang, or an anatomy of a pigmy (1699), 27 a work that tried to clarify the problem of whether an orang-utan was an ape or a man. All of this would indicate that Jefferson was suddenly uncomfortable about what he had written in his book. And well he might be. For when the Federalist press in America later heard rumors about his slave paramour, it needled Jefferson mercilessly on this very passage. For example, on September 29, 1802, the editor of the Frederick-Town, Virginia, Herald quoted from Jefferson’s Notes, adding that “by the same criterion he might be making himself out to be an ‘Oranootan.’ … there is merriment on the subject. …”
25 Ibid. , Vol. XIV, p. 446
26 Notes on the State of Virginia , p. 138. G. L. Buflbn, whose Histoire Naturelle (1781-85) Jefferson much admired, had written a chapter in which he described the scholarly debate over the nature of the orangutan. Buffbn cites several authors who wrote that the “Orang-Outang” was fond of native women and frequently ravished them. Buffon himself confused the orang-utan, which he had never seen, with the chimpanzee of Africa. See his Natural History (London, 1792, 10 vols.), Vol. IX, pp. 149-77.
27 Jefferson to Thomas Payne, Oct. 2, 1788, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, p. 651. Tyson also confused the orang-utan with the chimpanzee and believed African pygmies to be apes.
There is also what one might call “hard,” as well as psychological, evidence that Jefferson was treating Sally Hemings with special consideration. A curious item for April 29, 1789, in Jefferson’s Paris account book reads as follows: