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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
30 Reprinted in the Richmond Recorder , Nov. 3, 1802
31 Reprinted in the Richmond Recorder , Dec. 8, 1802
This description of Sally’s position is very like that given by Madison Hemings: We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, and look after us children and do such light work as sewing &c. 32
32 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873
Jefferson’s staunch editor friend, Meriwether Jones, in defending the President in the Richmond Examiner on September 25, 1802, made a rare and astonishing public admission that mulatto children were born by the thousands on southern plantations. He admitted also that there-was a “mulatto child” at Monticello but denied that Jefferson was the father: That this servant woman has a child is very true. But that it is M. Jefferson’s, or that the connection exists, which Callender mentions, is false —I call upon him for his evidence. … In gentlemen’s houses everywhere, we know that the virtue of the unfortunate slaves is assailed with impunity. … Is it strange therefore, that a servant of Mr. Jefferson’s at a house where so many strangers resort, who is daily engaged in the ordinary vocations of the family, like thousands of others, should have a mulatto child? Certainly not. …
John Adams, one of the few statesmen of the time who could testify firsthand about Sally Hemings’ beauty, fully believed the Callender story. He said, privately, that it was “a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character—Negro slavery.” 33 But he found circulation of the story saddening. It is said that young John Quincy Adams wrote a ballad about the President and Sally, as did a great many other bad poets at the time.
33 Page Smith, John Adams (N.Y., 1962, 2 vols.), Vol. II, p. 1094
Jefferson, despite enormous public and private pressure, made no public denial of either the Sally Hemings or the Mrs. Walker story. He insisted that he would not dignify calumny by answering it in the press, though actually he did delegate friends, to whom he supplied material, quietly, to write defenses on his behalf. We know he wrote at least one article during the crisis of these scandals and published it under the pseudonym Timoleon, but curiously it answered only one charge, both obscure and false, namely, that he had paid one Gabriel Jones a debt of £50 in depreciated currency. 34
34 See the Richmond Examiner, June 25, 1803. For the discovery that this was actually Jefferson’s article see Noble E. Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power, Party Operations, 1801-1809 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963), p. 257.
There were other defenses made, however, that touched on Sally Hemings. William Burwell, Jefferson’s private secretary in 1805, in an unpublished memoir now in the Library of Congress, tells us that at Jefferson’s request he wrote a series of articles for the Richmond Enquirer in 1805 in reply to accusations of a Virginia plantation owner, Tom Turner, in the Boston Repertory . Turner had accused Jefferson of a whole list of misdemeanors, including the favorite Federalist canard that he had acted as a coward when, during the Revolution, the British invaded Virginia while he was governor of the state. Turner had also insisted that the Sally Hemings story was “unquestionably true.” The Burwell articles, called “Vindication of Mr. Jefferson,” appeared serially in the Richmond Enquirer in August and September of 1805. They consisted chiefly of a vigorous defense of Jefferson’s wartime governorship. But of the slave-paramour charge Burwell, on September 27, 1805, said only that it was “below the dignity of a man of understanding.”
Finally, in 1805, apparently under great pressure, Jefferson wrote a private letter, now missing, to his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln. In it, presumably, he answered more, possibly all, of the many charges being heaped upon him in the venomous Federalist press. He sent a copy to Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, on July i, 1805, with a covering letter, part of which we have already quoted, in which he acknowledged offering love to Betsey Walker. But he then added that this story was “the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me.” Because of that statement, some Jefferson scholars believe that this covering letter is “a categorical denial” by Jefferson of the Sally Hemings story. 35
35 See especially Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President, First Term 1801-1805 (Boston, 1970), p. 498n. For the complete covering letter to Robert Smith see Thomas Jefferson Correspondence , p. 115. Robert Smith’s sister was married to Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr.