Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren

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Sally bore two daughters, Harriet and Edy, in 1795 and 1796, when Jefferson was in temporary political retirement at Monticello following his resignation as Washington’s Secretary of State. Edy died in 1796 and Harriet in 1797. A second son, Beverly, was born in 1798, and another daughter, also named Harriet, in 1801. Two sons, Madison and Eston, were born in 1805 and 1808, respectively, after the crisis of exposure. There is documentary evidence that all these children save Tom, fathered in Paris, were conceived when Jefferson was at Monticello. We know from Jefferson’s own Farm Book that Sally conceived no children when Jefferson was not there. And there is subtle evidence in many of Jefferson’s letters attesting to the continuing warmth and satisfactions of his life at Monticello, where, he wrote, “all is love and peace.”

Sally Flemings was in charge of his “chamber and wardrobe” and was recognized among Jefferson’s neighbors, according to several Virginia editors who researched the story, as the virtual mistress of Monticello. This lasted until Jefferson’s only surviving white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, moved to Monticello permanently with her husband and family in 1809. Sally remained, however, in “the big house” until after Jefferson’s death in 1826, when Mrs. Randolph quietly freed her. Then about fifty-three, she left and moved in with her son Eston. The census taker of Albemarle County in 1830 listed both her and her son as “whites,” thus inadvertently underlining the irony and tragedy in their lives.

Sally Flemings died in obscurity in 1836, aged sixty-three or sixty-four. What had happened to her children? Tom had disappeared early from Monticello, apparently after the scandal of disclosure, which was sporadically aired in the Federalist press from 1802 to 1805. In 1805 he would have been fifteen. Beverly and Harriet had been permitted to “run away” in 1822, and the fact was noted in Jefferson’s Farm Book . Madison and Eston had been freed in 1826 by the terms of Jefferson’s will. All of these children then disappeared into the “historical silence” that was engulfing hundreds and thousands of other slave children fathered by white men.

Though the practice was decried and denied, miscegenation was common during Jefferson’s lifetime. The Richmond Examiner on September 25, 1802, in a rare admission, stated that “thousands” of mulatto children were then being born in the South. The United States Census, which before the Civil War distinguished among whites, blacks, and mulattos, revealed in 1860 that there were by then over 500,000 mulattos in the slave states, though the number of slave owners was only 385,000. But the penalties for public acknowledgement of paternity for any mulatto child were often savage. In 1806 a grandnephew of Jefferson’s law teacher, George Wythe, enraged because Wythe had willed one third of his estate to his mulatto mistress and another third to their “yellow” son, poisoned all three. Only the woman survived. The murderer escaped altogether because the testimony of blacks was deemed inadmissible at his trial.3 See Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 389–91.

Some years after Jefferson’s death, when Richard Johnson, Vice President under Martin Van Buren, tried to make a place for his almost-white daughters on a public platform in Kentucky, where he was speaking, they were forcibly removed in an embarrassing and brutal confrontation. The daughters, according to the New York Morning Herald of June 17, 1835, “possess a fine, clear even complexion—dark to be sure, but not darker than many pure white bloods in every part of the country.”4 Quoted in John M. McFaul, “Expediency us. Morality: Jacksonian Politics and Slavery,” Journal of American History , Vol. LXII , June, 1975, pp. 24–39.

During Jefferson’s Presidency ballads about “Long Tom” and “Dusky Sally” appearing in print varied from bawdy to pornographic. Had Jefferson admitted the liaison, he would have risked losing the election of 1804 and suffered social ostracism in his own community. The example of the murder of George Wythe, who in his will had named Jefferson as executor in charge of the education of his “yellow” son, served in 1806 as the grimmest kind of warning against a lessening of Jefferson’s determination to maintain his public silence. To have denied everything by public lying would have affronted his deepest nature. To have acknowledged his octoroon children would have meant special suffering for them, since they would have been singled out publicly thereafter and denied the advantages of secret admission into the white society. The only way he could save his surviving slave children was to lose them.