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Why the possible liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings matters to us
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
Most of these simply say we can never know, which is the only sure truth, but I believe they then protest Jefferson’s innocence too much. They don’t always specify the blood relationship between Sally and Mrs. Jefferson or give much weight to Madison Hemings’s testimony. Jefferson in his lifetime chose neither to rebut nor to affirm, but his legitimate daughters by Martha Wayles Jefferson and their children in turn were strenuous in denial. They explained the uncontested fact of a Jefferson look-alike among Sally’s sons by saying that the father must have been one of the President’s cousins. What we are left with, then, is the word of her black family against his white family. Who can be surprised that the almost universal judgment of white male historians is in favor of the latter?
Black historians of both sexes are more likely to think otherwise. This is not, I think, a mere matter of closing racial ranks. It’s simply that African-Americans are not unfamiliar with such happenings. That John Wayles would keep his black daughter as a slave, that she should upon his death become the slave of his white daughter and thereafter the property of that daughter’s husband, who might sleep with her—well, what would be so surprising about that? Dozens, hundreds of such sagas are recorded, not merely in abolitionist propaganda but in legal documents and black family memories.
Like it or not, we have to recognize that some things are refracted differently through the prisms of different collective experiences. Race does matter in how we see “our” past as well as the present. I am in no way suggesting that we can’t have some form of shared and unifying American history, and I decidedly reject the proposition that there are only “identity group” histories, each one “true” for members exclusively. All historians can find common ground in respect for rules of evidence and for the egalitarian strivings as well as failures of the American people. But the case of Sally Hemings reminds me that in some areas historians of differing ethnic backgrounds are likely to have differing but equally sustainable viewpoints. We need to recognize, not fight, that reality.
The storm over Brodie’s book led me to other thoughts on the nature of history that have stayed with me. She made free use of the techniques of so-called psychobiography, which accepts a key premise of modern psychoanalysis—to wit, that within all of us are unconscious impulses and feelings that we repress when they are painful or problematic but that betray themselves in our words and behavior, to which they furnish a hidden key. For example, Brodie studied Jefferson’s journals and letters for the summer of 1788 and found “evidence” of a burgeoning forbidden attraction for the adolescent slave girl in his household both in his frequent use of the word mulatto to describe the color of certain soils and in his burst of envious admiration for the patriarch Abraham in a painting of him and his concubine, Hagar, who was also his wife’s servant. Critics insisted that one cannot put dead people on the couch so cavalierly.
With that last point I agree. Nonetheless, I question the wisdom of any historians too quick to discard what twentieth-century psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology have taught us about the intricate workings of human consciousness. The question is not whether to use psychological insights but how. Otherwise we seem to say that people of the past must be assessed entirely on their own terms as “rational beings.” I, for one, find it perfectly plausible that a fortyfive-year-old Jefferson in Paris had sexual feelings even if he did not express them with the openness of a Benjamin Franklin, nor am I outraged by attempts to know the whole complex man better by searching for them. In fact he himself left a charming record of a clearly romantic Parisian involvement with Maria Cosway, the wife of an English painter.
Of course it was a different matter with Sally. If the story is true, he unambiguously exploited her dependent status. That brings up the general question of how to deal with the moral failings of our heroes, and here I can only offer my individual judgment and invite you to consult yours. Jefferson remains heroic to me for his superb utterances on freedom. Would I be dismayed if positive proof surfaced that Callender was right? No more so than I already am by Jefferson’s slaveholding. Exploitation was what slavery was all about; you can’t prettify it, and Jefferson himself knew that. Do I then reject his ideas? Of course not. Inspiring works of the mind do not, alas, always come from spotless beings. They may actually owe their existence to the inner conflicts and outer circumstances of their creators. But once born, they soar on wings of their own. Slaveholder Jefferson’s hymns to liberty belong in the long run to all of us —to Sally Hemings’s descendants as much as to Martha Jefferson’s, and to yours and mine too.