A historian tackles one of American history’s thorniest questions
In the nearly 11 years since the publication of my book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, I have traveled throughout the United States and overseas talking about them—and life and slavery at Monticello. Writers are, in the main, solitary creatures. Or, at least, the process of writing forces us into solitude for long stretches of time; I find it refreshing and gratifying to meet people who have read one’s work (or plan to) and have questions, observations, and opinions about it. In all the venues I have visited, from Houston to Stockholm, one question always arises: Did they love each other?
To call this a loaded question does not begin to do justice to the matter, given America’s tortured racial history and its haunting legacy. To be on the receiving end of that question is to be thrown into a large minefield. It is even worse for someone who is considered an expert on Hemings and Jefferson. You wrote the book about them, didn’t you?
Part of a historian’s job is to try to navigate the gap stretching between those who lived in the past and those who live today, especially pointing out the important differences. At the same time, it remains equally important to recognize and give due consideration to those points of commonality that the past the present share. While there’s truth in the old saying that the past is a foreign country, anyone visiting a foreign land also encounters many familiar sights, rituals, and behaviors, because the basic realities of the human condition remain the same.
What does this mean for Sally and Thomas, the enslaved woman and the man who owned her? Their legal relationship to one another—and the world they shared—is strange to us today. Certainly people suffer oppression today: many work for little or no pay, while countless women and children are forced into prostitution. Yet this cannot match the horrific nature of America’s racially-based chattel slavery, in which a person’s children were enslaved in perpetuity unless an owner decided to give up his or her ownership of that person. What love could exist between a man and a woman enmeshed in—and negotiation the rules of—that world? And what difference does it make if they “loved” each other? Why are members of my audience so intent on knowing that?
The question about Hemings and Jefferson, of course, does not arise from a vacuum. We modern people have a history, so to speak, with love, especially of the romantic kind. Not other human emotion excites such passionate interest and longing or gives rise to such high expectations at all levels of society. Songs tell us that “love” is “the answer” to almost everything that ails us: war, famine, disease, and racial prejudice. Love is all we need.
Indeed, I suspect that love’s supposed capacity to heal lies at the heart of people’s interest in Hemings and Jefferson. And he is the prime focus of the inquiry. My impression from talking with people and reading the letters they writing to me, not to mention the many operas, plays, screenplays, and proposals for novels they send, is that Jefferson’s love for Hemings could somehow redeem and heal him. Thomas Jefferson—in need of redemption?
As much as we admire the author of the Declaration of Independence and the two-term U.S. president, a man who doubled the size of the nation, sent Lewis and Clark west, founded the University of Virginia, championed religious freedom, and acted as an all-around renaissance man, Jefferson the slaveholder poses a great challenge. He publicly aired his suspicions that the mental capacity of blacks was inferior to whites’, not exactly as a popular believe in a society that claims (note the operative word “claims”) to find such notions completely abhorrent. For some, the knowledge that Jefferson had loved the enslaved African American woman with whom he had seven children would rescue him from the depravity of having been a slave owner who made disparaging comments about blacks—perhaps not totally exonerating him, but in some small but important way moderating the disturbing facts. That much-longed for human connection would have worked its magic.
Some believe that Jefferson’s love for Hemings could redeem him
Love, which remains extremely difficult to capture and define today or in the past, poses a major hurdle in sorting out the nature of their relationship. Speaking of love in the context of a master-slave relationship is even more difficult, given the moral and political implications. After all, the idea of “love” was used during the antebellum period and afterward as a defense of slavery. Apologists for the peculiar institution claimed that a genuine “love” existed between the races during slavery, putting the lie to northern abolitionists’ claim that the institution was evil and exploitative. Southern slaveholders often pointed to their affection for their individual “mammies” and the supposedly deep ties they formed with their enslaved playmates (of the same sex, of course) on the plantation. Significantly, they never spoke about the possibility of love and regular heterosexual relationships between males and females of mixed races. That type of love was taboo then, and it has remained discomfiting to many Americans even into the 21st century.
Then there’s the question of consent and rape. While Martha Jefferson had given her perpetual consent to sexual relations with her husband by the act of marrying him—there was no such thing as marital rape—Jefferson owned his wife’s half sister, Sally, in a completely different way. Being a man’s wife was not the same thing as being a man’s slave, even if Sally and Thomas’s relationship had begun under unusual circumstances. They became involved while Jefferson was serving as the American minister to France. Under French law, Hemings would have had a clear route to freedom had she chosen it. Instead, she agreed to return to America with him, placing herself entirely under his power. At any time, Jefferson had the right to sell her and their children if he wanted to.
White males, not just slave owners—exercised inordinate power over black women during slavery. Rape and the threat of it blighted the lives of countless enslaved women. At the same time, some black women and white men did form bonds quite different in character than from those resulting from sexual coercion. No social system can ever stamp out all the constitutive aspects of the human character. Heterosexual men and women thrown together in intimate circumstances will become attracted to one another.
Consider how Hemings and Jefferson lived at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between 1787 and 1789. What parents would send their pretty teenaged daughter to live in a house with a lonely, middle-aged widower whose daughters spent all week away at boarding school—and place him in charge of her well-being? Jefferson would never have allowed his daughters Patsy and Polly to live under such a situation unless a female chaperone was present. The question of appropriateness never came up with Sally Hemings, because she was a slave. Her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, had no say in the matter, just another of the countless reasons why slavery was an inhumane institution.
Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion
So what do I say to people about Hemings, Jefferson, and love? I am ever mindful of the dangers of romanticizing the pair. Apologists for slavery have not all gone away, and they will fasten onto any story that appears to “soften” the harsh contours of that institution and mitigate southern slaveholder guilt. I believe, however, that saying that they may have loved each other is not romantic. Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion. I am not one who believes that “love” is the answer to everything. Strong emotions that two individuals may have had cannot mitigate the problem of slavery or Jefferson’s specific role as a slave owner.
Other factors make it difficult to determine the nature of their relationship. Neither spoke publicly about it, leaving us only to draw inferences. We do know that Jefferson bargained intensely with Hemings to return to America, promising her a good life at Monticello and freedom for her children when they became adults. Was that merely in-the-moment lust? While lust can last minutes, months, or even a few years, it cannot typically span the decades during which they were involved. It simply takes more than lust to sustain an interest in another person over such an extended time period.
In addition, Jefferson had access to many other women at Monticello who could have satisfied his carnal interests. Yet, so far as the record shows, he remained fixated on Sally Hemings, arranging her life at Monticello so that she interacted with him on a daily basis for almost four decades. Despite the brutal public attention focused on the pair after James Callender exposed their relationship in 1802, Jefferson continued to have children with Hemings. Their children—James Madison, Thomas Eston, William Beverly, and Harriet—were named for people important to him. His white daughter was said to have wanted Jefferson to send Hemings and their children away so as to spare him further embarrassment. He declined.
Judging Hemings’s feelings about Jefferson proves more difficult, because she exercised no legal power over him. While she did abandon her plan to stay in France and then came home to live and have children with him, Hemings may well have had second thoughts about leaving her large and intensely connected family back home. Several of their great-grandchildren explain that Hemings returned to America because Jefferson “loved her dearly,” as if that meant something to her. Upon their return, Hemings’s relatives, both enslaved and free, behaved as if Jefferson was an in-law of sorts. After he died in 1826, Hemings left Monticello with several of Jefferson’s personal items, including pairs of his glasses, an inkwell, and shoe buckles, which she gave to her children as mementos.
While marriage is generally taken as a proof of love between a given man and woman, the quality of the relationship between couples who are not married, or cannot marry because of legal restrictions, may be better than that of men and women whose unions are recognized by law.
The most that can be said is that Hemings and Jefferson lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Jefferson kept his promises to Hemings, and their offspring got a four-decade head start on emancipation, making the most of it by leading prosperous and stable lives. That, I think, is about as much as one can expect from love in the context of life during American slavery.