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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 suggests the possibility that when Jefferson went to Holland and Germany he saw to it that Sally was properly chaperoned in a French home and not left as prey to the French servants in his ministry on the Champs Elysées. Jefferson’s account book shows, too, that in April, 1789, he spent a surprising amount of money on Sally Hemings’ clothes. His figures for that month include ninety-six francs for “clothes for Sally on April 6,” seventy-two more on the sixteenth, and an additional twenty-three francs on the twenty-sixth for “making clothes for servis,” which might also apply to her wardrobe. The total, including the last, was 191 francs, almost as much as the 215 francs he had spent on his daughter Martha the previous June.
The basic “proof” of the liaison, of course, would be Sally Hemings’ pregnancy in Paris at age sixteen. To support this, we have the statement of her son Madison, who could have learned it only from his mother and who, perhaps, learned from her at the same time the French word for pregnant, enceinte . But there is additional evidence, for which one must jump ahead almost thirteen years to 1802, when Jefferson was President. Madison Hemings tells us that the child was born “soon after” their arrival back in America, which was in late October, 1789. On September 2, 1802, James T. Callender, co-editor of the Richmond Recorder , published the following: It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor , keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY . The name of her oldest is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age.
Most Jefferson biographers give the impression that Callender was a lying renegade who was determined to destroy Jefferson politically. It is true that he was obsessively a defamer of the great, and that after calling Jefferson a hero for some years he had turned against him venomously. But while Callender repeated and exaggerated scandal, he did not invent it. He had been the first to publish the story of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds, which Hamilton later admitted. He was also the first to publish the ancient rumor that Jefferson before his own marriage had tried to seduce Betsey Walker, the wife of one of his best friends. Poor Jefferson, terribly besieged, and even threatened by Walker with a challenge to a duel in 1803, finally in 1805 admitted privately in a now-famous letter, “when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady; I acknolege its incorrectness.” 28
28 Thomas Jefferson Correspondence , printed from originals in the collections of Wm. K. Bixby; W. C. Ford, ed. (Boston, 1916), p. 115. For a detailed account of the Betsey Walker episode see Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, 1948), pp. 447-51.
Callender in 1802 was told by Jefferson’s neighbors that Sally Hemings by then had borne Jefferson five children, and he reported this additional scandal in the Recorder on September 15. Though Jefferson’s Farm Book records are scanty up to 1794, we know from scattered entries after that date that Sally Hemings bore four children from 1795 to 1802, and that two of them, both daughters, died in infancy. Once Callender broke the story, other newspapermen felt free to join the attack, and it soon became evident that some of them had been quietly circulating among themselves since 1800 the rumors that Jefferson had a slave mistress. 29 Now those who had not heard of it began checking on their own.
29 Callender himself had seen hints in a Virginia newspaper, Rind’s Federalist , in 1800, but then had indignantly refused to believe them. Bronfon, editor of the Gazette of the United States , wrote that he had heard the rumors “freely spoken of in Virginia, and by Virginian Gentlemen,” before Callender’s first article appeared. See the Richmond Recorder , Sept. 2, 1802, and the reprint of Bronfon’s article, Recorder , Sept. 22, 1802.
The editor of the Lynchburg, Virginia, Gazette , who scolded Jefferson like an indignant parish vicar for not marrying a nice white girl, said that he had waited two months for a Presidential denial of Callender’s charges, and then made inquiries and found “nothing but proofs of their authenticity.” 30 The Frederick-Town Herald editor wrote that he had waited three months before personally checking, and then concluded: Other information assures us that Mr. Jefferson’s Sally and their children are real persons, and that the woman herself has a room to herself at Monticello in the character of semstress to the family, if not as house-keeper, that she is an industrious and orderly creature in her behaviour, but that her intimacy with her master is well known, and that on this account she is treated by the rest of his house as one much above the level of his other servants. Her son, whom Callender calls president Tom, we are assured, bears a strong likeness to Mr. Jefferson. 31