May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Bernard A. Weisberger’s well-balanced look at the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings story (“In the News,” November 1997) led me to wonder anew at both the staying power and the meaning of this tale. Just what is it that is so scandalous here? What is it that Jefferson’s detractors have trumpeted and his supporters denied for nearly two centuries?
That Jefferson may have been attracted to a teenage girl can’t be the crucial issue. Such feelings are virtually universal. What of Jefferson’s having had sexual relations with a slave and even impregnating her? As Weisberger points out, such incidents were common, even in Jefferson’s own family.
The key issue here is that Thomas Jefferson may have had a real relationship with a black woman, one in which there was concern and commitment rather than lies and exploitation. If the Fawn Brodie version is true, Sally agreed to return from France with Jefferson, and he in turn made certain promises to her, which he kept . They continued their relationship and had more children; in essence they stayed together. In that era it would have been impossible for them to wed or for Jefferson to publicly acknowledge the liaison. Yet it appears they may have had a more successful relationship than a goodly proportion of today’s married couples.
If the Jefferson/Hemings story is true, neither Jefferson himself nor subsequent generations of his admirers have anything to be ashamed of.