- Historic Sites
Why the possible liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings matters to us
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
When the Supreme ruled that President Clinton was not immune during his term of office from Paula Jones’s suit charging alleged sexual harassment, I thought at once of writing a column about the accusations of sexual misconduct brought against previous Presidents. But I discarded the idea largely because the major stories were probably overfamiliar to those even passingly acquainted with presidential history. They begin with Thomas Jefferson’s supposed fathering of children by his slave Sally Hemings and run on through various alleged or actual cases of bastardy and adultery involving some half-dozen other Chief Executives.
Instead I began a more sober essay on other cases in which the Supreme Court ruled on the extent of a sitting President’s immunity from the legal obligations of ordinary citizens. But Sally Hemings kept coming back into my mind and would not go away.
I think I know why. First of all, because a bit of my personal history and that of American Heritage is involved in this particular episode. Second, because the story was recently revived by a 1995 movie, Jefferson in Paris , which was justly criticized in these pages by Geoffrey C. Ward for presenting the affair as unchallenged fact rather than speculation. And, third, because a new book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy , by Annette Gordon-Reed, has just made its appearance and generated a fair amount of coverage. Gordon-Reed, an African-American professor of law, makes a very potent case for the genuineness of the story. Sally Hemings is indisputably “in the news” again, and what is more, I have for a long time felt (as does Gordon-Reed) that the whole episode is no mere racy footnote to a great life.
The charge that Jefferson “kept as a concubine one of his slaves,” by whom he had at least one son who resembled him, was first publicly made in 1802 by a hostile Richmond newspaperman (a renegade ex-Jefferson supporter) named James Callender. Callender is pretty generally agreed to have been a venal slanderer, and Jefferson’s biographers lumped this assertion with other campaign calumnies that they dismissed as unworthy of refutation. I hardly recall being aware of it before 1971.
That year, however, American Heritage sent me to a meeting of the Organization of American Historians to scout for likely articles. There I heard the late Fawn Brodie, then teaching at UCLA, deliver an eye-opening paper on the subject. I personally learned for the first time that Sally Hemings was not just any slave but the half-sister of Jefferson’s beloved dead wife, Martha. Martha’s father, John Wayles, was also Sally’s father, by Betty Hemings, whom he owned, and Betty was herself the daughter of a white man and a slave woman. Three of Sally’s grandparents, in short, were white. It came as news to me, too, that Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s own sons, had at least confirmed Calender’s essential point (but not his lurid details) in an interview in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. He said that Sally, then long dead, had told him that she had become Jefferson’s concubine (his exact wording) when Jefferson (a widower since 1782) was ambassador to France and she was the maidservant of his small daughter Polly. In 1789, when she was sixteen, she had become pregnant with a son. Madison Hemings said that Sally, who could have been free by French law, consented to come back only on Jefferson’s promise to grant her “extraordinary privileges” and to emancipate her children at the age of twenty-one. She went on to bear three more sons and a daughter to the master of Monticello and no children to anyone else.
Brodie believed this account and made a strong circumstantial (and plausible) case for it, which can be found in American Heritage for January 1972, for I brought the paperback with me and presented it to the editor in chief, Oliver Jensen. Jensen, no man to trifle with the reputation of a Thomas Jefferson, nonetheless saw it as a moving and attention-worthy piece of work and printed it, even departing from the magazine’s custom to include footnotes.
Brodie’s arguments are based on scrutiny of plantation records and rest essentially on three props: the special lifelong treatment accorded to Sally Hemings and her children, Jefferson’s presence at Monticello whenever those children were conceived, and no solid evidence of any other paternity. Brodie believed that Sally was Jefferson’s longtime secret mistress, that he could neither liberate nor acknowledge her and the children (as some slaveholders in such liaisons did) without destroying his career and lifework, and that his concealment of the connection compounded his guilt and ambivalence about his role as a slaveholder. You can find the thesis fully laid out in her 1974 book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait . That volume generated sharp rebuttals, which have been repeated in reviews of the movie and in recent studies of Jefferson.