- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Some of their stories illuminate the dramatic but eversecret problems involved in “passing,” which have not notably changed since Jefferson’s day. They also illuminate the difficulties in the definition of white and black, and the white man’s arrogance in deciding when the “almost white” is white enough to be granted the enormous benefits accruing from the transition to the white world. Jefferson himself wrote about the problem of definition with much perplexity in 1815. When asked by Francis C. Gray at what point a black man becomes white, he replied by citing the Virginia law of his time: “Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of negro blood.” Then he went on to write a complicated chart of mathematical possibilities, which actually included a theoretical model of the genealogy of his own slave children. “The third cross,” he wrote, “clears the blood.” By his own computation his slave children were thus legally white. The slave status of such children, he noted, was determined legally not by color but by the status of the child’s mother.11 Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, March 4, 1815, Writings , Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., Vol. XIV , pp. 267–71.
Two of Jefferson’s five surviving slave children passed into the white world and established a white identity during his lifetime. Madison Hemings, who described their passing with some irony in his recollections, revealed the bitterness of the almost-white who does not pass. “Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City,” he wrote, “whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.”12 Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 473.
Edmund Bacon, a white overseer at Monticello, wrote of Harriet: “He [Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. … by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars.” Bacon insisted that someone other than Jefferson was the true father, but he did not come to work at Monticello until Harriet was five years old and never lived at the big house. Moreover, the name he gave as Sally Hemings’ alleged lover was blanked out of his reminiscences when they were published, and the original manuscript has disappeared.13 The original editor, Pierson, expunged the name; and since the manuscript has disappeared, it is impossible to discover what name was deleted. See Jefferson at Monticello , James A. Bear, Jr., ed. (Charlottesville, 1967), vi, 102.
Beverly Jefferson, according to his brother Madison, “went to Washington as a white man. He married a white woman in Maryland, and their only child, a daughter, was not known by the white folks to have any colored blood coursing in her veins. Beverly’s wife’s family were people in good circumstances.”14 Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 473. Such details indicate that Sally Hemings’ children were given some schooling at Monticello and special grooming for acceptance in the white world.
Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson’s white granddaughter, who had moved with her mother, Martha Randolph, and her father and brothers and sisters to Monticello in 1809, knew the Hemings children well. All of Sally’s children were “fair,” she wrote privately to her husband in 1858, and “all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.” She wrote further in this revealing letter:
It was his principle (I know that of my own knowledge) to allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed. I remember four instances of this, three young men and one girl, who walked away and staid away. Their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves—for they were white enough to pass for white.15 The complete letter, first printed in the New York Times on May 18, 1974, has been-reprinted in the latest printings of Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 494-5. The owner, Harold J. Coolidge, permitted me to publish this fragment in the first printing. See p. 292.