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The Great Jefferson Taboo

May 2024
39min read

A seasoned scholar examines in detail evidence that the widowed Thomas Jefferson took as his mistress Sally Hemings, the beautiful quadroon half sister of his late wife

Did Thomas Jefferson, widowed at thirty-nine, take as a mistress Sally Hemings, the beautiful quadroon half sister of his late wife? This careful study of the known facts and of the long, bitter argument on the subject is the work of a seasoned scholar. Fawn Brodie, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, has published widely acclaimed biographies of Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, and Sir Richard Burton. The material she presents here is the basis, in part, of a forthcoming longer study. Although AMERICAN HERITAGE rarely prints all the scholarly apparatus supporting a story, in this inevitably controversial case we have included Mrs. Brodie’s notes.

--The Editors

Thomas Jefferson spent his earliest years on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Virginia, where the blacks outnumbered the whites ten to one. Here he learned about the hierarchies of power and saw early that a white child could tyrannize over a black adult. Here his basic sympathy with emancipation, which we see in him as a young man, had its roots in what he called, in his Notes on the State of Virginia , the “daily exercise in tyranny.” 1 But along with a pervasive anger at slavery, there also developed in Jefferson at some period a conviction he could never wholly escape, that blacks and whites must be carefully kept separate. Emancipation of the blacks, he said in his Notes , should be accompanied by colonization, whether in Africa, in the West Indies, or in a separate state in the West.

1 Notes on the State of Virginia , Wm. Peden, ed. (Chapel Hill, 1955), p. 162

At age seventy-one he wrote privately, and with some bitterness, that “amalgamation” of blacks and whites “produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.” 2 And at seventy-seven, in his unfinished Autobiography , he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” 3

2 Jefferson to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814, Writings of Thomas Jefferson , Paul L. Ford, ed. (N.Y., 1892-99, 10 vols.), Vol. IX, p. 478

3 Autobiography , Dumas Malone, ed. (N.Y., 1966), p. 62

Yet, ironically, one of the stories that clings tenaciously to Jefferson is that he actually had a family by a slave woman. The so-called Sally Hemings story broke into the press in great detail in 1802; public scoldings and bawdy ballads humiliated President Jefferson well into 1805. Throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s abolitionists elaborated the story to suggest that Jefferson had had a whole seraglio of black women and that one of his black mistresses and two of his daughters had been sold at a slave auction in New Orleans. 4 Jefferson biographers, on the other hand, have almost unanimously denounced the stories as libelous.

4 W. Edward Farrison believes that the story of Jefferson’s daughters and mistress being sold at auction grew out of the Sally Hemings story as described by James T. Callender in the Richmond Recorder of 1802 and was gradually combined with other miscegenation stories, resulting finally in William Wells Brown’s novel, Clotel: or the President’s Daughter (London, 1853). See Farrison’s “Origin of Brown’s Clotel,” Phylon , XV:347- 54 (Dec., 1954).

On March 13, 1873, there appeared in an obscure Ohio newspaper, the Pike County Republican , a memoir by one of Sally Hemings’ sons, Madison. The account was lucidly written, suggesting considerable education; when checked with Jefferson’s Farm Book , the details were remarkably but not totally accurate. Madison Hemings wrote simply, even drily, that his mother had indeed borne Jefferson several children of whom he was his only “concubine.” This revelation caused a shudder among Jefferson scholars. Since its publication the memoir has been cited often for various details of life at Monticello, but its basic claim of paternity has been totally rejected almost without exception. Curiously, the piece itself has never been reprinted.

Although today’s biographers still repudiate the Sally Hemings story, comment on the great Jefferson taboo does not disappear. Instead, we have the spectacle of ever-increasing numbers of pages devoted to its refutation. Merill Peterson, in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind , looked at the documentation with some care, and in his recent biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation , he writes: The evidence, highly circumstantial, is far from conclusive, however, and unless Jefferson was capable of slipping badly out of character in hidden moments at Monticello, it is difficult to imagine him caught up in a miscegenous relationship. Such a mixture of the races, such a ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship, revolted his whole being.

Dumas Malone devotes a whole appendix in his recent volume, Jefferson the President, First Term 1801-1805 , to a refutation of the charge. He writes: — it is virtually inconceivable that this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife’s memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on the excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect.

And Professor Malone suggests that Sally Hemings may have told her children that Jefferson was their father out of “vanity.”

Certain black historians, on the other hand, including Lerone Bennett, believe that the miscegenation was real and that Jefferson’s descendants dot the country from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to San Francisco. 5 Any defense of this thesis causes anguish and outrage among Jefferson admirers. Why does this story nevertheless persist? Does it touch some chord in fantasy life? Or do people feel that the scholars protest too much? Jefferson, after all, was a widower at thirty-nine. Defenders of Jefferson assure us again and again that miscegenation was out of character for him. But the first duty of a historian is to ask not “Is it out of character?” but “Is it true?”

5 Lerone Bennett in “Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren,” Ebony , Nov., 1954, published photographs of elderly blacks who traced their ancestry back to Jefferson through Joe Fosset, who was one of the five slaves freed in Jefferson’s will. Joe Fosset was the son of Sally Hemings’ older sister Mary. See Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book , Edwin M. Betts, ed. (Princeton, 1953), p. 31 [all page numbers for Betts edition of Farm Book are to the facsimile section, except those in brackets]. The late John Cook Wyilie, expert on the Monticello slaves, believed that Joe Fosset’s father was an apprentice white man employed at Monticello named William Fosset. Jefferson’s account book for Sept. 1, 1779, shows that William was working at Monticello at that date and that Joe Fosset was born in 1780 ( Farm Book , pp. 31, 130). Martha Jefferson was still alive in 1780, and it is therefore most unlikely that Joe Fosset was Jefferson’s son. The fact that he was given this last name, unlike most slaves listed in the Farm Book , is further evidence that William Fosset was the father. Joe Fosset, who became the Monticello blacksmith, ran away to Washington in 1806 because of his affection for Edy, whom Jefferson had taken to Washington as a servant. The President’s hostler, Joseph Daugherty, alerted by Jefferson, caught him in the “yard” of the President’s House on Aug. 3, 1806, and returned him to Monticello (“Slaves and Slavery,” Farm Book , pp. [22-23]). It is important to note, in this connection, that the children of Sally Hemings who ran away were permitted to go without being pursued.

What one might call “the family’s official denial,” begun by Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, holds, first, that Jefferson was not at Monticello when Sally Hemings’ children were conceived and, second, that they were fathered by Jefferson’s nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr. This denial has been gratefully accepted by Jefferson biographers, his admirers, and his heirs. 6 Still, one must note the fact, as Winthrop Jordan has done in his White Over Black, American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 —and he was the first to say it in print—that Jefferson actually was at Monticello nine months before the births of each of Sally Hemings’ children that are recorded in the Farm Book . And there is no evidence that she ever conceived a child when he was not there. Moreover, it takes very little research in the enormous file of family letters at the University of Virginia to demonstrate that Peter and Samuel Carr were elsewhere, managing plantations with slaves of their own, during most of the years that Sally Hemings was bearing children at Monticello. 7

6 Henry Randall, Jefferson’s early biographer, described an interview with Thomas Jefferson Randolph in which the Sally Hemings story was freely discussed in these terms. See Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868, in Milton E. Flower, James Parton, the Father of Modern Biography (Durham, N.C., 1951), pp. 236-42.

7 Numerous letters between Peter Carr and Jefferson show that in 1791, 1792, and part of 1793 young Carr alternated between Spring Forest, where his mother lived, and Monticello. He then left and began practicing law. Bv 1799 he was married and had at least one son. Samuel Carr, who corresponded very little with Jefferson and spent far less time at Monticello than Peter, was married in 1795. In 1802 he and his wife were living in Dunlora with his mother; afterward he moved to the South Fork of the Rivanna River, a few miles north of Charlottesville. The 1830 census of Albemarle County lists him as having six children and forty-four slaves.

Professor Jordan is the first white historian in our own time to describe dispassionately evidence for the Sally Hemings liaison, as well as the case against it, writing on the one hand that it was unlikely, a “lapse from character unique in his mature life,” but noting on the other that it could have been evidence of deep ambivalence and that Jefferson’s “repulsion” toward blacks may have hidden a powerful attraction. Jordan finds the story distasteful, however, and regrets that the charge is “dragged after Jefferson like a dead cat through the pages of formal and informal history. …” Still, he calls for an “unexcited” discussion of the facts.

It is possible to keep such a discussion “unexcited,” though the material is dramatic and, at times, tragic. There are many facts that Jefferson scholars have overlooked, and some that have been ignored, apparently because they were too painful to consider. This is not uncommon with biographers, especially those whose sense of identification with their subject is almost total. In all fairness to Sally Hemings, as well as to Jefferson, whether one believes the story or not, phrases like “vulgar liaison,” “ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship,” and even “dragged after Jefferson like a dead cat” simply do not apply.

As everyone knows, Jefferson was a man of very great gifts and special sensibility. Yet we know little about Sally Hemings except that she was a quadroon of considerable beauty and that she was the half sister of his wife. Several of her brothers could read and write, and one may assume that this was true also of Sally. But no letter from her has been preserved, nor any by Jefferson to her.

Still, if it is true that Sally’s seven children were also his children, this already illuminates the length and steadiness of their affection for each other and suggests that there may have been much suffering because it could not publicly be honored. A careful marshalling of the facts surely helps to throw light on Jefferson’s life and character, and discovering a liaison does not degrade him or her. It may help explain some mysteries, such as why he never married again, and why he lapsed in his later years into ever-increasing apathy toward emancipation of slaves. For it may well be that this special involvement peculiarly incapacitated him for action in helping to change the national pattern of white over black. In any case, the facts may serve to illuminate his general ambivalence—his mixture of love and hate—concerning race.

Jefferson knew and revered two men who had children by slave women. One was his law teacher, George Wythe, whom he called his second father. Wythe, having no children of his own by two white wives, took a black mistress, Lydia Broadnax, whom he had freed. She bore a son, whom he raised with affection, teaching him Greek and Latin and promising him an inheritance in his will. Wythe even named Jefferson in his will as trustee in charge of the boy’s education. But this provision was never to be fulfilled. An envious grandnephew of Wythe’s named Sweney forged Wythe’s name on several checks; seeking to avoid prosecution and also to win the total inheritance, Sweney put arsenic in the coffee and on some strawberries at Wythe’s house. The mulatto child died quickly; Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweney. Lydia Broadnax, though very ill, survived. But because the only people who could testify against the murderer were blacks, he was acquitted. 8

8 He was found guilty of forging checks, but even this charge was dropped on appeal. See Julian Boyd, “The Murder of George Wythe,” William and Mary Quarterly , 3rd Series, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 513-74 (Oct., 1955); Judicial Cases Concerning Slavery and the Negro , Helen T. Caterall, ed. (Washington, 1926 37, 5 vols.), Vol. i, pp. 108-9. Jefferson wrote of Wythc’s death in 1806 that “such an instance of depravity has been hitherto known to us only in the fables of the poets.” Nathan Schachner, Thomas Jefferson (N.Y., 1951), p. 33.

Almost as close to Jefferson as George Wythe, at least for a time, was Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Wayles had had three white wives, who bore him four daughters. When his third wife died, he turned to Elizabeth Hemings, a slave on his plantation and the daughter of an English sea captain and an African slave woman. “Betty” Hemings bore Wayles six children, the youngest a girl named Sally, all of whom came to Monticello with their mother in the inheritance of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. 9 So it can be seen that although Jefferson may have been intellectually opposed to miscegenation, he grew up seeing it close at hand, and in his adult life he had two important models. He could hardly have believed it to be a grave sin. 10

9 Madison Hemings’ reminiscences, Pike County Republican, Mar. 13, 1873. Betty Hemings had had six children by a slave before becoming Wayles’s mistress and later bore two children at Monticello, one by a white carpenter, John Nelson, the other by a slave. For a complete genealogy of the Hemings family see Jefferson at Monticello, James A. Bear, Jr., ed. (Charlottesville, 1967), pp. 25-26. Most of this genealogy is derived from entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book .

10 For a white man to admit publicly to miscegenation was, however, considered a violation of one of the strongest taboos in the South. Even evidence in letters and diaries is extremely rare. James Hugo Johnston, in his excellently researched Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1176-1860 (Amherst, Mass., 1970), found most of his material in petitions to the Virginia governors and legislature arising out of court trials. For statistical evidence of the widespread practice one must go to the u.s. Census, which until 1860 listed mulattos separately from Negroes. There were over 70,000 mulattos in Virginia in 1850, and over 500,000 mulattos in all the slave states in 1860. The 1860 census shows also that there were only 385,000 slave owners, which gives a rough indication of the ratio.

Jefferson was greatly blessed in his marriage. He loved his wife passionately, and described their union in his Autobiography as “ten years of unchecquered happiness.” Still, it was full of tragedy. Three of their six children died in infancy. After the birth of their sixth child, on May 8, 1782, Martha Jefferson hovered between life and death for months. When she finally died, on September 6, 1782, Jefferson fainted and, according to his oldest daughter, who was then ten, “remained so long insensible that they feared he never would revive.” He kept his room for three weeks and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly night and day only lying down occasionally when nature was completely exhausted on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. My Aunts remained constantly with him for some weeks, I do not remember how many. When at last he left his room he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods; in those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief. … 11

11 Account of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed. (Princeton, 1950-72, 18 vols.), Vol. VI, p. 200

Most Jefferson biographers believe that he never again felt any deep or lasting affection for any woman. Gilbert Chinard wrote in 1928 that “there is no indication that he ever fell in love again,” and in one fashion or another Jefferson scholars have adhered to the tradition that he became essentially passionless, monastic, and ascetic. Yet this view has had to be reconciled with the fact that Jefferson had a romance in Paris in the i78o’s with an Englishwoman, Maria Cosway. One solution has been to describe it as “superficially frantic,” temporary, and playful rather than passionate. But the episode resulted in what are certainly the greatest love letters in the history of the American Presidency—letters whose copies were carefully preserved by Jefferson (and mostly kept hidden by his heirs until 1945), despite the fact that he is thought to have destroyed all his correspondence with both his wife and his mother. 12 Moreover, passion does not usually disappear in a man’s life unless his capacity for passion is constricted and warped from the beginning. When at forty-three, four years after his wife’s death, he met the enchanting artist-musician and sensed at once the unhappiness of her marriage to the decadent and foppish Richard Cosway, he fell in love in a single afternoon. They saw each other alone many times during five happy weeks in the autumn of 1786, and in August, 1787, she returned to Paris for a second visit, without her husband. She remained four months. The story of this romance, told in AMERICAN HERITAGE in August, 1971, need not be repeated here, except as it relates in a subtle fashion to the Sally Hemings story.

12 Helen Duprey Bullock, My Head and My Heart, a Little History of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway (N.Y., 1945)

Jefferson had taken his eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) with him to Paris, leaving Maria (Polly) and baby Lucy with his wife’s sister. When Lucy died of whooping cough, Jefferson in a frenzy of anxiety insisted that Polly be sent to Paris. He ordered that a middle-aged slave woman accompany her, one who had had the smallpox. But when Abigail Adams met the ship in London, she saw with some consternation that the maid accompanying the eight-year-old Polly was a young slave girl of striking beauty. It was Sally Hemings. Though Sally was only fourteen, Abigail believed her to be “about 15 or 16” and described her unhappily in a letter to Jefferson as “quite a child … wanting even more care” than Polly, and “wholly incapable” of looking after her young charge properly by herself.

It had been a lively voyage, with no other females on the ship, and Captain John Ramsay had quite won Polly’s affection. She had become, Abigail reported grimly, “rough as a little sailor.” The captain readily agreed with Abigail that Sally Hemings would be of “little Service” to Jefferson and suggested that “he had better carry her back with him.” 13 It takes no special imagination to see why, for quite different reasons, Abigail Adams and Captain Ramsay agreed that it would be better if Sally Hemings did not go on to Paris. But Jefferson sent his trusted French servant Petit to fetch them, and they arrived in July, 1787.

13 Abigail Adams to Jefferson, June 26, 27, July 6, 1787, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. XI, pp. 501-3, 550-52

Sally Hemings was later described by a Monticello slave as “very handsome” and “mighty near white” with “long straight hair down her back.” Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, said she was “light colored and decidedly good looking,” and at Monticello she was described as “Dashing Sally.” 14 If she resembled her half sister Martha Wayles Jefferson in any fashion, there is no record of it. But certainly she brought to Paris the fresh, untainted aura of Jefferson’s past, the whole untrammeled childhood with the quantities of slave children, the memory of the easy, apparently guiltless miscegenation of his father-in-law, the many-faceted reality of black and white in Virginia.

14 “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4. Randolph’s description, as reported to Henry Randall, was published in James Parton , pp. 236-42


Sally Hemings arrived in Paris shortly before Maria Cosway returned for her second visit, without her husband. There are some indications that Maria was troubled and guilt-ridden, and there were many reasons why such an affair could not continue. She was a devout Catholic, and besides, divorce was virtually impossible for an Englishwoman, even a Protestant. Her husband, increasingly restive in London, became nastier in his letters. She went back to England in December, 1787, and Jefferson was again left lonely and bereft. Earlier he had written to her, “I am born to lose everything I love.” 15

15 Jefferson to Maria Cosway, July 1, 1787, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XI, p. 520

Sally Hemings was now fifteen. She was learning French, as was her older brother James, who was in Paris as Jefferson’s personal servant. 16 We know from Jefferson’s account books that he paid 240 francs to a Dr. Sutton on November 6, 1787, for Sally’s smallpox inoculation, and that by January, 1788, he had begun for the first time to pay wages to both James and Sally Hemings, thirty-six francs a month to James and twenty-four to his sister. The French servants received fifty and sixty francs. By French law both were free if they chose to make an issue of it, and they knew it. 17

16 Madison Hemings in his recollections wrote that his mother “was just beginning to understand the French language well” when Jefferson was called home. Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873.

17 That Jefferson knew even his diplomatic status did not give him the right to hold slaves against their will is clear from a letter he wrote to Paul Bentalou, Aug. 25, 1786: “I have made enquiries on the subject of the negro boy you have brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it. … Nevertheless I have known an instance where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession.” Julian Boyd, publishing this letter ( Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. X, p. 296), states that Jefferson here was clearly writing about James Hemings. At some point Jefferson promised to free James in America as soon as he would teach another slave to cook French style at Monticello, and he made good his word Feb. 5, 1796. He freed James’s older brother, Robert Hemings, Dec. 24, 1794. See “Slaves and Slavery,” Farm Book , p. [15].

The circumstances were propitious for an attachment. Sally Hemings must certainly have been lonely in Paris, as well as supremely ready for the first great love of her life. She was thrown daily into the presence of a man who was by nature tender and gallant with women. He was, moreover, the man whom all the children at Monticello, whether white or black, had looked upon as a kind of deity. What is more, if Jefferson had a model in the person of his father-in-law, who had turned to a slave woman after the death of his third wife, Sally Hemings, too, had a model in her mother, that Betty Hemings who had apparently dominated the private life and passions of John Wayles until his death.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson had described blacks as more “ardent” than whites, a preconception that could have served only to heighten an interest in Sally at this moment, whatever dilemma it might produce. Moreover, he liked warmly domestic women. Though he took pleasure in intellectual female companions, enjoying the sharp, witty, and inquiring minds of Abigail Adams and several talented Frenchwomen, he did not fall in love with them. In this respect he resembled Goethe and Rousseau, both of whom loved and lived with unlettered women for many years before marrying them. Furthermore, during this Paris sojourn, Jefferson wrote to an American friend, the beautiful Anne Bingham, deploring the new preoccupation of Frenchwomen with politics: Society is spoilt by it. … You too, have had your political fever. But our good ladies, I trust have been too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics. They are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate. … Recollect the women of this capital, some on foot, some on horses, and some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs and assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries; compare them with our own countrywomen occupied in the tender and tranquil amusements of domestic life, and confess that it is a comparison of Amazons and Angels. 18

18 Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, pp. 151-52

Maria Cosway was no Amazon. Nor, it can be assumed, was Sally Hemings. Her son Madison tells us nothing of his mother’s education or temperament. But he does write of what happened to her in Paris: Their stay (my mother and Maria’s) was about eighteen months. But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enceinte by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. In France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. 19

19 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873. In 1789, when Jefferson returned to Virginia, Sally Hemings was sixteen. She had been in Paris not eighteen but twenty-six months.

Is there any evidence other than Madison Hemings’ memoir that a liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings began in Paris? If a man is in love, in however clandestine an affair, he must tell someone, if only unconsciously and with inadvertence. This is what happened to Jefferson. In March, 1788, he went to Holland on a diplomatic mission and then continued as a tourist into Germany. Not usually a diary keeper, he did write an almost daily journal of this seven-week trip. It is a matter of great curiosity that in this twenty-five-page document he uses the word mulatto eight times: “The road goes thro’ the plains of the Maine, which are mulatto and very fine. …” “It has a good Southern aspect, the soil a barren mulatto clay. …” “It is of South Western aspect, very poor, sometimes grey, sometimes mulatto. …” “These plains are sometimes black, sometimes mulatto, always rich. …” ”… the plains are generally mulatto. …” ”… the valley of the Rhine … varies in quality, sometimes a rich mulatto loam, sometimes a poor sand. …” ”… the hills are mulatto but also whitish. …” “Meagre mulatto clay mixt with small broken stones. …” 20

20 Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, pp. 8-33

This appears to be evidence of both a preoccupation and a problem. If, moreover, one contrasts this journal with another he kept when touring southern France in the spring of 1787, before Sally Hemings’ disturbing mulatto presence had come to trouble him, one will see that in that account, numbering forty-eight pages, he uses the word mulatto only once. The rest of the time he describes the hills, plains, and earth as dark, reddish-brown, gray, dark-brown, and black. 21

21 Ibid. , Vol. XI, pp. 415-63

There is another quotation, too, in Jefferson’s Holland journal that bears repeating: The women here [in Holland], as in Germany, do all sorts of work. While one considers them as useful and rational companions, one cannot forget that they are also objects of our pleasures. Nor can they ever forget it. While employed in dirt and drudgery some tag of ribbon, some ring or bit of bracelet, earbob or necklace, or something of that kind will shew that the desire of pleasing is never suspended in them. … They are formed by nature for attentions and not for hard labour. 22

22 Ibid. , p. 27. This is in marked contrast with his straightforward, almost sociological treatment of women at work in the fields in France in Mar., 1787. See Vol. XI, p. 415.

This is all very tender, and suggests that he was thinking not at all of the splendidly dressed Maria Cosway when he wrote it.

Upon his return to Paris, Jefferson found a letter from Maria Cosway reproaching him for not writing, which he had not done for three months. His reply was affectionate; he described his trip to Germany, and in mentioning the art gallery at Düsseldorf, he made what would seem to be a wholly unconscious confession of his new love: At Dusseldorpf I wished for you much. 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. 23

23 Ibid. , Vol. XIII, p. 103, Jefferson to Maria Cosway, April 24, 1788

Hagar the Egyptian, it will be remembered, was Abraham’s concubine, given to him by his wife Sarah when she could not bear a child. Known through legend as mother of the Ishmaelites, she was depicted by artists as having a dark skin.

Jefferson continued in this letter to Maria Cosway: “I am but a son of nature, loving what I see & feel, without being able to give a reason, nor caring much whether there be one.” Shortly afterward he formulated what became the most provocative of all his moral directives to society: “The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.” He wrote this in a famous letter to James Madison on September 6, 1789, repeating it in slightly different fashion: “The earth belongs always to the living generation.… They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.” 24

24 Ibid. , Vol. XV, p. 396. Obviously this letter can be read on several levels: political, social, and personal.

In another fascinating letter, written to Maria Cosway on January 14, 1789, he described himself as “an animal of a warm climate, a mere Oran-ootan.” 25 In 1789 the word orang-utan meant for most people not one of the great apes but “wild man of the woods,” the literal translation of the Malay words from which it is derived. There was much confusion about the relation of the great apes to man; even the gorilla was as yet unknown in Europe and America. In his Notes on the State of Virginia , published only a few months before Sally Hemings’ arrival, Jefferson had indiscreetly written that blacks preferred white women, just as “the Oran-ootan” preferred “the black woman over those of his own species.” 26 We do not know exactly what Jefferson conceived an “Oran-ootan” to be in 1787, but we do know that in Paris on October 2, 1788, he sent away to his London bookseller for a list of books which included E. Tyson’s Oran-outang, or an anatomy of a pigmy (1699), 27 a work that tried to clarify the problem of whether an orang-utan was an ape or a man. All of this would indicate that Jefferson was suddenly uncomfortable about what he had written in his book. And well he might be. For when the Federalist press in America later heard rumors about his slave paramour, it needled Jefferson mercilessly on this very passage. For example, on September 29, 1802, the editor of the Frederick-Town, Virginia, Herald quoted from Jefferson’s Notes, adding that “by the same criterion he might be making himself out to be an ‘Oranootan.’ … there is merriment on the subject. …”

25 Ibid. , Vol. XIV, p. 446

26 Notes on the State of Virginia , p. 138. G. L. Buflbn, whose Histoire Naturelle (1781-85) Jefferson much admired, had written a chapter in which he described the scholarly debate over the nature of the orangutan. Buffbn cites several authors who wrote that the “Orang-Outang” was fond of native women and frequently ravished them. Buffon himself confused the orang-utan, which he had never seen, with the chimpanzee of Africa. See his Natural History (London, 1792, 10 vols.), Vol. IX, pp. 149-77.

27 Jefferson to Thomas Payne, Oct. 2, 1788, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIII, p. 651. Tyson also confused the orang-utan with the chimpanzee and believed African pygmies to be apes.

There is also what one might call “hard,” as well as psychological, evidence that Jefferson was treating Sally Hemings with special consideration. A curious item for April 29, 1789, in Jefferson’s Paris account book reads as follows:


This suggests the possibility that when Jefferson went to Holland and Germany he saw to it that Sally was properly chaperoned in a French home and not left as prey to the French servants in his ministry on the Champs Elysées. Jefferson’s account book shows, too, that in April, 1789, he spent a surprising amount of money on Sally Hemings’ clothes. His figures for that month include ninety-six francs for “clothes for Sally on April 6,” seventy-two more on the sixteenth, and an additional twenty-three francs on the twenty-sixth for “making clothes for servis,” which might also apply to her wardrobe. The total, including the last, was 191 francs, almost as much as the 215 francs he had spent on his daughter Martha the previous June.

The basic “proof” of the liaison, of course, would be Sally Hemings’ pregnancy in Paris at age sixteen. To support this, we have the statement of her son Madison, who could have learned it only from his mother and who, perhaps, learned from her at the same time the French word for pregnant, enceinte . But there is additional evidence, for which one must jump ahead almost thirteen years to 1802, when Jefferson was President. Madison Hemings tells us that the child was born “soon after” their arrival back in America, which was in late October, 1789. On September 2, 1802, James T. Callender, co-editor of the Richmond Recorder , published the following: It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor , keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY . The name of her oldest is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age.

Most Jefferson biographers give the impression that Callender was a lying renegade who was determined to destroy Jefferson politically. It is true that he was obsessively a defamer of the great, and that after calling Jefferson a hero for some years he had turned against him venomously. But while Callender repeated and exaggerated scandal, he did not invent it. He had been the first to publish the story of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds, which Hamilton later admitted. He was also the first to publish the ancient rumor that Jefferson before his own marriage had tried to seduce Betsey Walker, the wife of one of his best friends. Poor Jefferson, terribly besieged, and even threatened by Walker with a challenge to a duel in 1803, finally in 1805 admitted privately in a now-famous letter, “when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady; I acknolege its incorrectness.” 28

28 Thomas Jefferson Correspondence , printed from originals in the collections of Wm. K. Bixby; W. C. Ford, ed. (Boston, 1916), p. 115. For a detailed account of the Betsey Walker episode see Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, 1948), pp. 447-51.

Callender in 1802 was told by Jefferson’s neighbors that Sally Hemings by then had borne Jefferson five children, and he reported this additional scandal in the Recorder on September 15. Though Jefferson’s Farm Book records are scanty up to 1794, we know from scattered entries after that date that Sally Hemings bore four children from 1795 to 1802, and that two of them, both daughters, died in infancy. Once Callender broke the story, other newspapermen felt free to join the attack, and it soon became evident that some of them had been quietly circulating among themselves since 1800 the rumors that Jefferson had a slave mistress. 29 Now those who had not heard of it began checking on their own.

29 Callender himself had seen hints in a Virginia newspaper, Rind’s Federalist , in 1800, but then had indignantly refused to believe them. Bronfon, editor of the Gazette of the United States , wrote that he had heard the rumors “freely spoken of in Virginia, and by Virginian Gentlemen,” before Callender’s first article appeared. See the Richmond Recorder , Sept. 2, 1802, and the reprint of Bronfon’s article, Recorder , Sept. 22, 1802.

The editor of the Lynchburg, Virginia, Gazette , who scolded Jefferson like an indignant parish vicar for not marrying a nice white girl, said that he had waited two months for a Presidential denial of Callender’s charges, and then made inquiries and found “nothing but proofs of their authenticity.” 30 The Frederick-Town Herald editor wrote that he had waited three months before personally checking, and then concluded: Other information assures us that Mr. Jefferson’s Sally and their children are real persons, and that the woman herself has a room to herself at Monticello in the character of semstress to the family, if not as house-keeper, that she is an industrious and orderly creature in her behaviour, but that her intimacy with her master is well known, and that on this account she is treated by the rest of his house as one much above the level of his other servants. Her son, whom Callender calls president Tom, we are assured, bears a strong likeness to Mr. Jefferson. 31

30 Reprinted in the Richmond Recorder , Nov. 3, 1802

31 Reprinted in the Richmond Recorder , Dec. 8, 1802

This description of Sally’s position is very like that given by Madison Hemings: We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, and look after us children and do such light work as sewing &c. 32

32 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873

Jefferson’s staunch editor friend, Meriwether Jones, in defending the President in the Richmond Examiner on September 25, 1802, made a rare and astonishing public admission that mulatto children were born by the thousands on southern plantations. He admitted also that there-was a “mulatto child” at Monticello but denied that Jefferson was the father: That this servant woman has a child is very true. But that it is M. Jefferson’s, or that the connection exists, which Callender mentions, is false —I call upon him for his evidence. … In gentlemen’s houses everywhere, we know that the virtue of the unfortunate slaves is assailed with impunity. … Is it strange therefore, that a servant of Mr. Jefferson’s at a house where so many strangers resort, who is daily engaged in the ordinary vocations of the family, like thousands of others, should have a mulatto child? Certainly not. …

John Adams, one of the few statesmen of the time who could testify firsthand about Sally Hemings’ beauty, fully believed the Callender story. He said, privately, that it was “a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character—Negro slavery.” 33 But he found circulation of the story saddening. It is said that young John Quincy Adams wrote a ballad about the President and Sally, as did a great many other bad poets at the time.

33 Page Smith, John Adams (N.Y., 1962, 2 vols.), Vol. II, p. 1094

Jefferson, despite enormous public and private pressure, made no public denial of either the Sally Hemings or the Mrs. Walker story. He insisted that he would not dignify calumny by answering it in the press, though actually he did delegate friends, to whom he supplied material, quietly, to write defenses on his behalf. We know he wrote at least one article during the crisis of these scandals and published it under the pseudonym Timoleon, but curiously it answered only one charge, both obscure and false, namely, that he had paid one Gabriel Jones a debt of £50 in depreciated currency. 34

34 See the Richmond Examiner, June 25, 1803. For the discovery that this was actually Jefferson’s article see Noble E. Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power, Party Operations, 1801-1809 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963), p. 257.

There were other defenses made, however, that touched on Sally Hemings. William Burwell, Jefferson’s private secretary in 1805, in an unpublished memoir now in the Library of Congress, tells us that at Jefferson’s request he wrote a series of articles for the Richmond Enquirer in 1805 in reply to accusations of a Virginia plantation owner, Tom Turner, in the Boston Repertory . Turner had accused Jefferson of a whole list of misdemeanors, including the favorite Federalist canard that he had acted as a coward when, during the Revolution, the British invaded Virginia while he was governor of the state. Turner had also insisted that the Sally Hemings story was “unquestionably true.” The Burwell articles, called “Vindication of Mr. Jefferson,” appeared serially in the Richmond Enquirer in August and September of 1805. They consisted chiefly of a vigorous defense of Jefferson’s wartime governorship. But of the slave-paramour charge Burwell, on September 27, 1805, said only that it was “below the dignity of a man of understanding.”

Finally, in 1805, apparently under great pressure, Jefferson wrote a private letter, now missing, to his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln. In it, presumably, he answered more, possibly all, of the many charges being heaped upon him in the venomous Federalist press. He sent a copy to Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, on July i, 1805, with a covering letter, part of which we have already quoted, in which he acknowledged offering love to Betsey Walker. But he then added that this story was “the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me.” Because of that statement, some Jefferson scholars believe that this covering letter is “a categorical denial” by Jefferson of the Sally Hemings story. 35

35 See especially Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President, First Term 1801-1805 (Boston, 1970), p. 498n. For the complete covering letter to Robert Smith see Thomas Jefferson Correspondence , p. 115. Robert Smith’s sister was married to Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr.

And yet the original letter to Levi Lincoln, the copy to Robert Smith, and presumably the letterpress copy Jefferson almost always made of his letters have all inexplicably disappeared. One wonders why. If this letter contained the denial Jefferson’s friends had been hoping to see for almost three years, what became of it and the copies? The covering letter to Robert Smith is very ambiguous. Who knows exactly which “allegations against me” Jefferson had chosen to list in the missing letter? It is conceivable that this letter and its copies disappeared because there was something essentially and inadvertently damaging to Jefferson in them.

The story of the abuse heaped upon Jefferson during his Presidency in regard to his intimate life has never been told in full detail. Nor have the evidences of his anguished reaction to this abuse ever been pieced together in such a fashion that one can see the extent of his humiliation and his suffering. Nevertheless, despite the savagery of the attacks, despite the dozen or so published pornographic ballads, Jefferson kept Sally Hemings and her children at Monticello. In 1805 and 1808 she bore two more sons. 36

36 Farm Book , p. 128

Years later Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s favorite grandson, who was born in 1792 and spent many summers at Monticello, in effect growing up with Sally Hemings’ children, talked to biographer Henry Randall confidentially about the controversy. Randall reported privately that Randolph described one of the children as looking so much like Jefferson that “at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have been mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.” Since he was a house servant, Randall noted, “the likeness between master and slave was blazoned to all the multitudes who visited this political mecca.” When Randall asked Randolph why Jefferson did not send this family away from Monticello to another of his plantations, the grandson replied that though “he had no doubt his mother would have been very glad to have them thus removed,” still “all venerated Mr. Jefferson too deeply to broach such a topic to him,” and “he never betrayed the least consciousness of the resemblance.” 37

37 As reported by Henry Randall in a letter to James Parton , June 1, 1868. See James Parton, pp. 236-42.

One is reminded here of Tolstoi, also a great egalitarian, who had an illegitimate son by a serf on his estate before marrying the Countess Sophia. This son became Tolstoi’s coachman—similarly visible for everyone to see. But he was never educated like Tolstoi’s numerous legitimate children nor made part of the inner family.

Both Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his sister, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, blamed their uncles, Peter and Samuel Carr, instead of their grandfather, for the paternity of Sally Hemings’ children. Randolph told Randall in all seriousness that he himself had “slept within sound of his [Jefferson’s] breathing at night,” and “had never seen a motion, or a look, or a circumstance” that was suspicious. Still, in an article about his grandfather, he wrote that Jefferson’s bedroom-study was his sanctum sanctorum, and that even his own daughters never sat in it. 38

38 See Randolph’s broadside, “The Last Days of Jefferson,” quoted in Jefferson at Monticello , p. 135.

In the end, much evidence is contained in the history of Sally Hemings’ seven children. Despite the strenuous “family denial” and the secrecy Jefferson himself, not surprisingly, seems to have encouraged, a considerable amount of information is available about them. Ellen Randolph Coolidge, in discussing the “yellow children” at Monticello in an unpublished letter, wrote that she knew of her “own knowledge” that Jefferson permitted “each of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed.” “I remember,” she wrote, “four instances of this, three young men and a 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.” 39

39 Ellen Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, Jr., Oct. 24, 1858. Harold J. Coolidge has kindly permitted me to quote one paragraph of this remarkable letter. One is reminded in reading it of what Mrs. Frances Trollope wrote in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1927 ed., p. 59) in 1832: “I once heard it stated by a democratical adorer of this great man, that when, as it sometimes happened, his children by Quadroon slaves were white enough to escape suspicion of their origin, he did not pursue them if they attempted to escape, saying laughingly: ‘Let the rogues get off, if they can; I will not hinder them.’ This was stated in a large party, as proof of his kind and noble nature, and was received by all with approving smiles.”


There are three runaways listed in Jefferson’s Farm Book . Jamy, son of Critta Hemings, born in 1787 when Jefferson was still in Paris, ran away in April, 1804. Beverly and Harriet, two children of Sally Hemings, ran away in 1822. 40 It is possible that the fourth runaway referred to by Ellen Coolidge was the oldest son of Sally Hemings, the one Callender derisively called “president Tom.” Though he is described in the newspapers of 1802 as resembling Jefferson, in one respect he remains the most mysterious of all Sally Hemings’ children because he is not listed in the Farm Book under the name of his mother, as are the others. Since there are at least six different slaves named Tom recorded at various times in the Farm Book , only one listed with a birth year, absolute identification of “Tom Hemings” in this old record is not possible.

40 pp. 60, 130

Jefferson listed his slaves first in 1774, again in 1783, but not again till 1794. During his Presidency, 1801 through March, 1809, he neglected his Farm Book altogether. Almost all his slaves are listed by first name only except Betty, Peter, and John Hemings and two or three others, including an old slave, Tom Shackleford. Sally Hemings is easily identified, both by her birth year, 1773, and by the names of her children, listed and indented under her own, at least when they were small. Of the several slaves in the Farm Book named Tom, one appears frequently among the Hemings family slaves, which are usually listed together. He does not appear on the official inventories of 1794, 1798, and 1810, 41 but shows up consistently on the food and clothing distribution lists from 1794 to 1801. It can be argued that this “Tom” represents Tom Shackleford without his last name. If true, then it would seem that Jefferson did not choose to list Sally Flemings’ oldest son regularly among his slaves and may have considered him free from birth.

41 P.30, 57, 128

Martha Jefferson Randolph mentions a “Tom” in a letter to her father on January 22, 1798, describing an epidemic of sickness in the neighborhood: Our intercourse with Monticello has been almost daily . They have generally been well there except Tom and Goliah who are both about again and poor little Harriot who died a few days after you left us. 42

42 Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson , Edwin M. Betts and James M. Bear, Jr., eds. (Columbia, Mo., 1966), p. 153

This “Harriot,” we know from Farm Book entries, was Sally Hemings’ daughter, and the “Tom” may have been her son. There were two slaves named Goliah at Monticello, one an old man and the other a child of seven. 43

43 Goliah, son of Molly, born in 1791, is mentioned in the Farm Book on p. 30.

There are no listings in the Farm Book between 1801 and 1810. By this time Tom Shackleford had died, but there are several listings of a “hired” Tom in 1810 and 1811. One can speculate that this was “Tom Hemings,” and that he was by then old enough for regular wages. Since no slave named Tom appears after 1811 in the Farm Book , it is possible that Sally Hemings’ son left Monticello in that year, when he was twenty-one. This would have been a fulfillment of Jefferson’s promise to Sally, as described by her son Madison. 44

44 A “Tom” is listed separately from Tom Shackleford on the blanket distribution list on p. 39 of the Farm Book . Two slaves named Tom appear on the bread list of 1796, p. 50. Tom Shackleford’s death in 1801 is noted on p. 60 and in Family Letters , p. 215. Three slaves, “Tom,” “Tom Lee,” and “Tom Buck,” appear under the heading “hired” in the 1810 listing, p. 136. A single “Tom” appears under the “Farm” list of 1810 and under the summer clothing distribution list of 1811, pp. 135-36. An 1810 listing, p. 135, shows Sally Hemings with one “grown” child, and three “children.” However, a “Tom” appears separately in this same listing, and perhaps significantly is not counted in the total figure of “23.” (There is no Arabic numeral after his name, as with the others, which may be additional evidence that Jefferson considered him free.) In this connection it should be noted that this list includes several slaves—Laravia, Shepherd, Indridge, Thruston, and Sukey, who are listed separately from their parents, and not counted among the “grown” children. To interpret these lists accurately one must match the two listings on pp. 134, 135.

Madison Hemings, who was born in 1805, makes no mention of an older brother Tom. It is possible that the “president Tom” who was the subject of all the ribald publicity from 1802 through 1805 was persuaded to leave the shelter of Monticello after he became old enough to make the transition into white society on his own. Even in 1805 he would have been fifteen, old enough to leave. He could have returned for the summers of 1810 and 1811, long enough to appear in various distribution lists. Madison Hemings wrote that the child his mother conceived in France “lived but a short time.” Here he is obviously confusing him with the two small daughters who died in 1796 and 1797. It is conceivable that Sally Hemings, burned by the scandal-mongering publicity of 1802-5, chose not to discuss this son with anyone after his departure and made every effort to protect his identity in the white society by a mantle of silence. Such behavior is common even today among relatives of a black who “passes.”


Jefferson was in political semiretirement at Monticello from January 16, 1794, to February 20, 1797. 45 He wrote to Edward Rutledge on November 30, 1795, “Your son … found me in a retirement I doat on, living like an Antediluvian patriarch among my children & grandchildren, and tilling my soil. …” 46 The celebrated French rationalist, Comte de Volney, a fugitive from the French Revolution, visited Jefferson in Monticello in 1796. He noted in his journal some astonishment at seeing slave children as white as himself: “ Mais je fus étonné de voir appeler noirs et traiter comme tels des enfants aussi blancs que moi. 47 They resulted, he said, from miscegenation between mulatto slave women and the white workmen Jefferson hired. But were some of these children in fact Jefferson’s?

45 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Boston, 1962), pp. xxiii-xxiv

46 Writings of Thomas Jefferson , A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh, eds. (Washington, D.C., 1903-4, 20 vols.), Vol. IX, p. 313

47 Jean Gaulmier, Un Grand Témoin de la Révolution et de L’Empire (Paris, 1959), p. 211

Two daughters were born to Sally Hemings during this temporary retirement: Harriet, on October 5, 1795, and Edy, whose name is listed twice in 1796 in the Farm Book under Sally’s name and then disappears. 48 Edy, it can be assumed, died in 1796, since she appears in no slave listings under her mother’s name thereafter. We know that Harriet died in 1797, not only because she disappears from Farm Book listings after that year 49 , but also by Martha Jefferson’s report in January, 1798, already quoted. If Jefferson wrote a letter of sympathy to Sally Hemings, there is no record of it. What has been preserved is his reply to Martha, a letter of such melancholy that it suggests something more than peripheral involvement. He said in part: Indeed I feel myself detaching very fast, perhaps too fast, from every thing but yourself, your sister, and those who are identified with you. These form the last hold the world will have on me, the cords which will be cut only when I am loosened from this state of being. I am looking forward to the spring with all the fondness of desire to meet you all once more. … 50

48 PP. 31,50-1

49 Harriet, the first of two daughters with this name, is listed only on pp. 31, 52-3 of the Farm Book .

50 Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Feb. 8, 1798, Family letters , PP- 155-50


Beverly, a son, was born to Sally Hemings on April i, 1798, 51 eight months and twenty days after Jefferson’s arrival in Monticello from Philadelphia on July 11, 1797. 52 We know nothing of Beverly’s youth except a tantalizing reference in the reminiscences of the Monticello slave named Isaac, who referred to “the balloon that Beverley sent off,” and the fact that he is listed as a runaway at age twenty-four. 53 Madison Hemings wrote that “Beverly left Monticello and 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.” 54 All of this suggests that Beverly had some schooling at Monticello and could have had some financial assistance from Jefferson, as did his sister Harriet.

51 Farm Book , pp. 57, 128

52 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty , p. xxvi

53 “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4; Farm Book , p. 130. Jefferson’s fascination with balloon ascensions had begun in Paris.

54 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873


A second Harriet, named after the child that died in 1797, was born in May, 1801, and it must be noted that Jefferson was in Monticello from May 29 to November 24, 1800. 55 Harriet was listed as a runaway in the Farm Book in 1822. 56 Edmund Bacon, an overseer at Monticello, said later of this slave girl: 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. She was not his daughter: she was ______’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early. When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since and don’t know what became of her. From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory. She never did any hard work. 57

55 Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty , pp. xxix-xxx, and Farm Book , p. 128

56 p. 130

57 Jefferson at Monticello , p. 102. Jefferson does not list this gift of fifty dollars in his account book for that year, which suggests that he may have given generous gifts of money to both Sally Hemings and her children that could not be traced in any fashion. (It is believed that the name of Harriet’s father was stricken from Bacon’s memoir by Hamilton W. Pierson when he edited it for the original publication in 1862.)

Bacon, however, did not come to Monticello as overseer till 1806, after six of Sally’s seven children were born, and he never lived in the big house.

Madison Hemings wrote of his sister Harriet with a touch of irony: Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, 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. 58

58 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873. Pearl N. Graham in 1948 interviewed four sisters in New Jersey and Massachusetts who claimed to be descendants of Sally Hemings. They said their grandmother Harriet ran away to Canada and married one Reuben Coles. Still, all four were born in Charlottesville and were members of Negro communities. Their stories are in obvious conflict with that of Madison Hemings concerning Harriet. A letter from one of these women, Lucy C. Williams, which Miss Graham was good enough to let me copy, speaks of “John Hemings my great Grand.” John Hemings, according to Madison Hemings, was the son of Betty Hemings and John Nelson, a white carpenter at Monticello. It is possible that these four women were his descendants rather than Harriet’s. See Pearl N. Graham, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” Journal of Negro History (1961), 44:89-103.


Madison Hemings, named after James Madison, was born January 19, 1805. Jefferson was not in Monticello at his birth, but had been there from April 4 to May 11, 1804. 59 Madison’s reminiscences, on the whole remarkable for their accuracy of detail concerning Monticello, show evidence of considerable education, though he insists he learned to read “by inducing the white children to teach me.” Of his relations with Jefferson he writes in his memoir: He was uniformly kind to all about him. He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood.

59 Farm Book , p. 128; Dumas Malone’s chronology, Jefferson the President, First Term , pp. xxviii-xxix

The slave Isaac in his reminiscences reported that “Sally had a son named Madison, who learned to be a great fiddler,” 60 but we do not know whether it was Jefferson, himself an able violinist, who taught the young slave who claimed to be his son. Freed by Jefferson in his will, Madison lived for a time with his mother (by then also free) in Albemarle County, Virginia, married a free black woman in 1834, and after his mother’s death in 1835 went west to Ohio, where he made his living as a carpenter. 61

60 Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4

61 Pike County Republican , Mar. 13, 1873


Jefferson was in Monticello from August 4 to October 1, 1807. Eston Hemings was born May 21, 1808. 62 As with Beverly, Harriet, and Madison, his name appears many times in the Farm Book under the name of Sally Hemings. He was one of the five slaves freed in Jefferson’s will, all of whom were members of the Hemings family. Madison Hemings wrote that Eston married a free black woman, immigrated to Ohio, and then went on to Wisconsin.

62 Farm Book , p. 128. Jefferson’s Garden Book , Edwin Morris Betts, ed. (Philadelphia, 1944), p. 330, has the evidence for Jefferson’s presence at Monticello through the summer of 1807.

Jefferson’s will contained the request that the Virginia J legislature be petitioned to permit Madison and Eston Hemings to stay in the state if they so chose. Otherwise, by Virginia law, which barred free Negroes, they would automatically have been banished. Still, it must be noted, by Jefferson’s own reckoning, based on Virginia’s legal definitions of the time, these youths were white. When a friend wrote to him in 1815 asking at what point a black man officially changes into a white man, Jefferson replied explicitly, “Our canon considères two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of negro blood. …” 63

63 Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, Mar. 4, 1815, Writings of Thomas Jefferson , Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., Vol. XIV, p. 270

And what, in the end, was “the condition” of Sally Hemings? Jefferson did not free her in his will, but left this service for his daughter Martha to perform, which she did two years after Jefferson’s death in 1826. Had Jefferson freed her during his lifetime and made the necessary request from the Virginia legislature that she be allowed to remain in the state, the news would have been trumpeted over the nation. This publicity he was probably unwilling to subject himself to, and it is conceivable that Sally Hemings never requested it. Still, it is a melancholy discovery to find her listed on the official inventory of Jefferson’s estate, made after his death, as an “old woman” worth thirty dollars. 64 She was then fifty-three.

64 A copy may be seen at the Univ. of Virginia library.

Madison Hemings wrote that his mother lived with him and Eston Hemings in a rented house until her death in 1835. The U.S. Census of Albemarle County in 1830 listed Eston Hemings as head of a family, and as a white man. The other members of this family are listed under his name by age and sex only, as was traditional at the time. There is a listing of a woman—fifty to sixty years of age—described as white. This is Sally Hemings. 65 So the census taker, in making this small descriptive decision, underlined the irony and tragedy of her life.

65 A film of this census may be seen at the Univ. of Virginia. Eston is listed as having in his household two whites (ages 20-30) (doubtless himself and Madison], one white (50-60) [his mother), three colored males under ten, one colored male (35-36), one colored female under ten, and one colored female (35-36). Since Eston married a free black woman, something of the family relationships can be worked out, especially when checked with Madison Hemings’ reminiscences.

As for Jefferson, he had watched with increasing despair over the years as Virginia permitted slavery to expand and as the laws controlling slaves became ever more repressive. He had seen the social degradation imposed upon Sally Hemings’ five living children by the taboos and rituals of the slave society in which he was inextricably enmeshed. So rigid were these taboos that he could not admit these children to be his own, even when they passed into white society, without social ostracism and political annihilation. Whether one believes they were his children or not, one cannot deny that he paid dearly for their presence on that enchanted hill. He could not abandon the slave society in Virginia if he would, and he would not if he could. Overwhelmed at the end with a crushing burden of debt—$107,000—he could not find his way to free in his will more than five of his hundred-odd slaves. He had lived almost half of his life, in the phrase he used to describe himself to Maria Cosway at age seventy-seven, “like a patriarch of old.” 66 And so his ambivalence—which may well have served to lessen for him the sense of the tragedy of it all—was continually compounded.

66 My Head and My Heart , p. 176


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