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Letter to the Editor

The Great Jefferson Controversy

April 2021
5min read

Fawn M. Brodie’s article on the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (“The Great Jefferson Taboo,” June, 1372) elicited letters from many of our readers. Of special interest were two that took opposing sides m the argument over whether Jefferson had as his mistress the quadroon half sister of his late wife.

The first missive, in the form of an open letter to Mrs. Brodie entitled “Mr. Jefferson and Monticello Sally,” came from William Peden, a teacher of English at the University of Missouri who has written several articles as well as his doctoral dissertation on Jefferson. He writes:

I have read with mingled admiration and dismay your “Great Jefferson Taboo.” I admire your assembling such a considerable amount of material in connection with the facts, legends, gossip, and misinformation concerning Thomas Jefferson’s alleged “relations” with the Monticello slave Sally Hemings, apparently a quadroon of considerable beauty. I agree with your contention that most Jefferson biographers “have almost unanimously denounced the stories as libellous”; I respect your adjuration that the discussion of such a controversial subject be kept “unexcited”; and up to a point I cannot quarrel with your statement that “the first duty of a historian is to ask not ‘Is it out of character?’ but ‘Is it true?’ ”

But I am surprised, to put it mildly, that a historian of your reputation would base so much of your thesis on what seems to me the very flimsy foundation of what you call the “revelation” of Sally Hemings’ son Madison. In my opinion—an opinion that most historians I know tend to share —the most questionable sources of information about famous personages are the recollections, confessions, or “revelations” made by mediocrities years after the fact, in this case fortyseven years after Jefferson’s death, concerning events some of which had occurred almost twenty years before Madison Hemings was born. Perhaps Madison Hemings thought he was telling the truth when he related that his mother had become Mr. Jefferson’s “concubine” when Jefferson was minister to France, that she was “ enceinte ” when he returned to America to become Washington’s first Secretary of State, and that she had borne Jefferson seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Or perhaps he was telling the truth. … It really doesn’t matter. What does matter, in my opinion, is that until Madison Hemings’ commentaries can be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, I cannot understand your willingness to risk your reputation on their validity. …

I am similarly surprised that you accept as supporting “proof” of the Jefferson-Sally Hemings liaison James Callender’s notorious newspaper article of September 2, 1802. …

The worst that can be said about Callender is that he was a known liar, an alcoholic, a psychopath; the best, that he was a very bad newspaperman, whose testimony is virtually worthless. …

To reinforce your thesis that Jefferson had sexual relations with Sally Hemings you state that he was highly influenced by the examples of two men he greatly admired—”revered” is your verb—who had sexual relations with blacks, his father-in-law, John Wayles, and George Wythe. What is the source of your statement that Jefferson “revered” John Wayles? Since you use this as supportive evidence, and since your article is prefaced with the statement that because of its controversial nature all your footnotes are included, some evidence would be valuable. Frankly, I disagree with your statement about Wayles—though it’s certainly true in regard to Wythe—but even were I to agree with it I would be highly skeptical of your conclusion that “he [Jefferson] could hardly have believed it [miscegenation] to be a grave sin.” …

I question similarly your comments concerning the implications of the large amount of money Jefferson once recorded in his account book for clothes spent on Sally Hemings sometime after she had accompanied Jefferson’s younger daughter to Paris. Jefferson did, apparently, spend considerable money on Sally, but as a Jefferson specialist you are aware of how lavishly he lived while minister, in an elegant house designed by the king’s own architect, a house with magnificent gardens and courts, stables, and carriage house, and that Jefferson himself—as was expected of a man in his position—dressed in the height of fashion … embroidered waistcoats, the finest of lace ruffles, and the like. Would it have been becoming for the personal maid of the minister’s daughters to be dressed in the eighteenth-century equivalent of flour sacks and calico? …

In the final analysis it seems to me that there is simply not enough “hard” proof to substantiate your thesis. In this absence, historian and layman alike must rely upon their own interpretation of the kind of man Jefferson was, in spite of your comment about the “first duty of a historian.” Much of your evidence, if based upon a premise different from yours, would lead, I believe, unerringly to a conclusion opposite from yours. Rather than accept the direction your basic—and I think incorrect—premise points to, I’m convinced (in the absence of evidence more conclusive than yours) of the validity of a comment made by Professor Dumas Malone when we were discussing this matter about a year ago. It’s not so much a matter of ethics or morals, or right or wrong, good or bad; Jefferson just wasn’t a very sexy man.

A letter taking a very different viewpoint was submitted by John Maass, an author who specializes in American history and the arts. Mr. Maass comments:

Fawn M. Brodie’s study of Jefferson and Sally Hemings makes a superb contribution to American history.

Historians frequently ascribe their own current notions or prejudices to people of other times; American historians, in particular, have long been notoriously guilty in this respect. We can be proud of the early leaders of the nation; we should be ashamed of their biographers. Those mealymouthed disciples of Thomas Bowdler and Parson Weems have turned Thomas Jefferson and his intensely human associates and opponents into an assemblage of prissy plaster saints with powdered wigs. They are no longer men, but the “Founding Fathers,” a banal phrase appropriately coined by the trite Warren Gamaliel Harding. Independence Hall was only a three-block walk from the bawdy houses of Philadelphia’s Dock Street. We know from eighteenthcentury diaries that some delegates to the Constitutional Convention relaxed with the white and black prostitutes of Philadelphia. But you will not find these facts in the books by American historians. …

Fawn M. Brodie’s scholarship and integrity have brought a gust of fresh air into the American historians’ stifling pantheon of patrioteering propaganda and plain hypocrisy. … Her own documented study of Thomas Jefferson turns out to be true and “in character” as well. For this is the real Jefferson, not the pallid manikin which generations of ultragenteel American historians have dangled before captive audiences of students and trusting readers.

As a historian with a special interest in the arts, I was impressed by Mrs. Brodie’s perceptive noting of Jefferson’s extravagantly admiring description of a rather obscure Dutch painting at Düsseldorf in Germany: I surely never saw so precious a collection of paintings. Above all things those of Van der Werff affected me the most. His picture of Sarah delivering Agar to Abraham is delicious. I would have agreed to have been Abraham though the consequence would have been that I should have been dead five or six thousand years.

Hagar—the traditional mother of the Arabs—was sometimes represented as a dusky or exotic woman. I was curious to see the painting which evidently reminded Jefferson of Sally. In 1805 Maximilian i Joseph, of Bavaria, brought the painting to Munich. Adriaen van der Werff’s Sarah, Abraham and Hagar is now owned by the Bavarian State Collections of Art.

I was surprised to find that the Dutch artist had painted a fair-haired Hagar. She does not look like the stereotype of a mulatto girl—and Sally probably didn’t either. But the demure image which appealed to Jefferson does accord with the few existing word pictures of Sally Hemings: “light colored,” “mighty near white,” “decidedly good looking,” ”… hair down her back.”

I was even more surprised to see that the tall, broad-shouldered, vigorous Abraham in the painting bears a marked resemblance to the rugged Tom Jefferson. Abraham’s bed is curtained offlikeJefferson’s own bed, which can still be seen at his home in Virginia. High on the wall of Abraham’s chamber, above a cornice, is a round bull’s-eye window, strikingly similar to several round windows in the same location which Jefferson designed for his Monticello.

From many years of highly specialized research on the psychological roots of images, I knew that both artists and viewers of art put much of themselves into pictures. We already knew from the quoted letter that Jefferson “identified” with the Abraham in van der Werff’s painting, and the picture confirms the words.

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