- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Although he married only once, Thomas Jefferson had two families. The first was by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson; the second, after her death, was by her young half sister, Jefferson’s quadroon slave Sally Hemings. This was known and eagerly publicized by the anti-Jefferson press during his first term as President. Despite pleas of Republican editors to deny the liaison, Jefferson maintained then, and thereafter to his death, a tight-lipped silence.
In any President’s life the silences can reverberate as loudly as his speeches. Some have held that Jefferson’s silence reflected only disdain for the chief accuser, James Callender, who though a notorious defamer of the great was also a talented writer, a generally accurate reporter, and Jefferson’s former friend. Others have written that Jefferson had a necessity for privacy, which is true enough. But where a private silence is characteristic of a silence indulged in by a whole society, and where admission of guilt can result in oppressive social punishment, the silence can be a matter worth special study.
The enforced secrecy, the guilty pleasures, the implicit denial of paternity of mulatto children—all were common during Jefferson’s day and have not yet disappeared. The joys and tragedies in Jefferson’s own liaison—evidence of which is available not only in the press expose but also in Jefferson’s own Farm Book , account books, and correspondence—were a reflection of the joys and tragedies in the lives of countless others, so much so that it can be said that Jefferson in his intimate life reflected the psychosexual dilemma of the whole South.
The stories of what happened to Jefferson’s slave children and their descendants, long shrouded in mystery, are now emerging as a flood of information is being released by these long-silent heirs. Jefferson’s treatment of his “black” children now appears as typical among those slave owners who detested the slave system. He never publicly acknowledged paternity; to do so in defiance of the omnipresent racial taboo would have meant social ostracism and political annihilation. But he educated his children privately, if casually (two became musicians); he allowed those who came of age during his lifetime to “run away,” aiding them with money; and he freed the two youngest sons in his will. Those of his children who “passed” and married whites were protected by a mantle of silence at least as essential to their welfare as to his own.
Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings lasted thirtyeight years and resulted in seven children, two of whom died in infancy.1 For a detailed account of the entire “Sally Hemings story” and an analysis of the evidence see Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York, 1974). For a condensation of the major evidence see Brodie, “The Great Jefferson Taboo,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , Vol. XXIII , June, 1972, pp. 49–57, 97–100. It began in 1787 in Paris, where Sally at age fourteen or fifteen had been sent as a maid, accompanying Jefferson’s youngest motherless daughter, Mary (called Polly). But Sally Hemings, though a slave, was also Polly’s aunt. She was the slave daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Her mother, Betty Hemings, the mulatto daughter of a British sea captain named Hemings and an African slave woman, had become Wayles’s concubine after the death of his third wife. She bore him six children, and after Wayles’s death they were brought to Monticello as a part of Martha Wayles Jefferson’s inheritance.
All of Betty Hemings’ children were house slaves and thus accorded special treatment. James Hemings, a few years older than Sally, accompanied Jefferson to Paris in 1785, and when Sally arrived with Polly in 1787 he was studying to be a chef. Both James and Sally were tutored in French and paid wages. At a crucial point in 1789 Jefferson’s account books show him beginning to spend almost as much money on clothes for sixteen-year-old Sally as for his eldest daughter, Martha. We know from a memoir written by Sally’s third son, Madison, that she became pregnant by Jefferson in Paris in 1789, that she wanted to remain in France, where she was free, but that Jefferson persuaded her to return with him to America, promising that all her children would be freed at age twenty-one. The son born shortly after the return to Monticello in December, 1789, was called Tom. When the “Dusky Sally” story broke into the Virginia press in 1802, Tom was described as ten or twelve years old and as having “features bearing a striking though sable resemblance to the president himself.”2 Richmond Recorder , September 1, 1802.