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Jefferson’s Mistress?

June 2024
6min read

Why the possible liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings matters to us

When the Supreme ruled that President Clinton was not immune during his term of office from Paula Jones’s suit charging alleged sexual harassment, I thought at once of writing a column about the accusations of sexual misconduct brought against previous Presidents. But I discarded the idea largely because the major stories were probably overfamiliar to those even passingly acquainted with presidential history. They begin with Thomas Jefferson’s supposed fathering of children by his slave Sally Hemings and run on through various alleged or actual cases of bastardy and adultery involving some half-dozen other Chief Executives.

Instead I began a more sober essay on other cases in which the Supreme Court ruled on the extent of a sitting President’s immunity from the legal obligations of ordinary citizens. But Sally Hemings kept coming back into my mind and would not go away.

I think I know why. First of all, because a bit of my personal history and that of American Heritage is involved in this particular episode. Second, because the story was recently revived by a 1995 movie, Jefferson in Paris , which was justly criticized in these pages by Geoffrey C. Ward for presenting the affair as unchallenged fact rather than speculation. And, third, because a new book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy , by Annette Gordon-Reed, has just made its appearance and generated a fair amount of coverage. Gordon-Reed, an African-American professor of law, makes a very potent case for the genuineness of the story. Sally Hemings is indisputably “in the news” again, and what is more, I have for a long time felt (as does Gordon-Reed) that the whole episode is no mere racy footnote to a great life.

The charge that Jefferson “kept as a concubine one of his slaves,” by whom he had at least one son who resembled him, was first publicly made in 1802 by a hostile Richmond newspaperman (a renegade ex-Jefferson supporter) named James Callender. Callender is pretty generally agreed to have been a venal slanderer, and Jefferson’s biographers lumped this assertion with other campaign calumnies that they dismissed as unworthy of refutation. I hardly recall being aware of it before 1971.

That year, however, American Heritage sent me to a meeting of the Organization of American Historians to scout for likely articles. There I heard the late Fawn Brodie, then teaching at UCLA, deliver an eye-opening paper on the subject. I personally learned for the first time that Sally Hemings was not just any slave but the half-sister of Jefferson’s beloved dead wife, Martha. Martha’s father, John Wayles, was also Sally’s father, by Betty Hemings, whom he owned, and Betty was herself the daughter of a white man and a slave woman. Three of Sally’s grandparents, in short, were white. It came as news to me, too, that Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s own sons, had at least confirmed Calender’s essential point (but not his lurid details) in an interview in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. He said that Sally, then long dead, had told him that she had become Jefferson’s concubine (his exact wording) when Jefferson (a widower since 1782) was ambassador to France and she was the maidservant of his small daughter Polly. In 1789, when she was sixteen, she had become pregnant with a son. Madison Hemings said that Sally, who could have been free by French law, consented to come back only on Jefferson’s promise to grant her “extraordinary privileges” and to emancipate her children at the age of twenty-one. She went on to bear three more sons and a daughter to the master of Monticello and no children to anyone else.

Brodie believed this account and made a strong circumstantial (and plausible) case for it, which can be found in American Heritage for January 1972, for I brought the paperback with me and presented it to the editor in chief, Oliver Jensen. Jensen, no man to trifle with the reputation of a Thomas Jefferson, nonetheless saw it as a moving and attention-worthy piece of work and printed it, even departing from the magazine’s custom to include footnotes.

Brodie’s arguments are based on scrutiny of plantation records and rest essentially on three props: the special lifelong treatment accorded to Sally Hemings and her children, Jefferson’s presence at Monticello whenever those children were conceived, and no solid evidence of any other paternity. Brodie believed that Sally was Jefferson’s longtime secret mistress, that he could neither liberate nor acknowledge her and the children (as some slaveholders in such liaisons did) without destroying his career and lifework, and that his concealment of the connection compounded his guilt and ambivalence about his role as a slaveholder. You can find the thesis fully laid out in her 1974 book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait . That volume generated sharp rebuttals, which have been repeated in reviews of the movie and in recent studies of Jefferson.

Most of these simply say we can never know, which is the only sure truth, but I believe they then protest Jefferson’s innocence too much. They don’t always specify the blood relationship between Sally and Mrs. Jefferson or give much weight to Madison Hemings’s testimony. Jefferson in his lifetime chose neither to rebut nor to affirm, but his legitimate daughters by Martha Wayles Jefferson and their children in turn were strenuous in denial. They explained the uncontested fact of a Jefferson look-alike among Sally’s sons by saying that the father must have been one of the President’s cousins. What we are left with, then, is the word of her black family against his white family. Who can be surprised that the almost universal judgment of white male historians is in favor of the latter?

Black historians of both sexes are more likely to think otherwise. This is not, I think, a mere matter of closing racial ranks. It’s simply that African-Americans are not unfamiliar with such happenings. That John Wayles would keep his black daughter as a slave, that she should upon his death become the slave of his white daughter and thereafter the property of that daughter’s husband, who might sleep with her—well, what would be so surprising about that? Dozens, hundreds of such sagas are recorded, not merely in abolitionist propaganda but in legal documents and black family memories.

Like it or not, we have to recognize that some things are refracted differently through the prisms of different collective experiences. Race does matter in how we see “our” past as well as the present. I am in no way suggesting that we can’t have some form of shared and unifying American history, and I decidedly reject the proposition that there are only “identity group” histories, each one “true” for members exclusively. All historians can find common ground in respect for rules of evidence and for the egalitarian strivings as well as failures of the American people. But the case of Sally Hemings reminds me that in some areas historians of differing ethnic backgrounds are likely to have differing but equally sustainable viewpoints. We need to recognize, not fight, that reality.

The storm over Brodie’s book led me to other thoughts on the nature of history that have stayed with me. She made free use of the techniques of so-called psychobiography, which accepts a key premise of modern psychoanalysis—to wit, that within all of us are unconscious impulses and feelings that we repress when they are painful or problematic but that betray themselves in our words and behavior, to which they furnish a hidden key. For example, Brodie studied Jefferson’s journals and letters for the summer of 1788 and found “evidence” of a burgeoning forbidden attraction for the adolescent slave girl in his household both in his frequent use of the word mulatto to describe the color of certain soils and in his burst of envious admiration for the patriarch Abraham in a painting of him and his concubine, Hagar, who was also his wife’s servant. Critics insisted that one cannot put dead people on the couch so cavalierly.

With that last point I agree. Nonetheless, I question the wisdom of any historians too quick to discard what twentieth-century psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology have taught us about the intricate workings of human consciousness. The question is not whether to use psychological insights but how. Otherwise we seem to say that people of the past must be assessed entirely on their own terms as “rational beings.” I, for one, find it perfectly plausible that a fortyfive-year-old Jefferson in Paris had sexual feelings even if he did not express them with the openness of a Benjamin Franklin, nor am I outraged by attempts to know the whole complex man better by searching for them. In fact he himself left a charming record of a clearly romantic Parisian involvement with Maria Cosway, the wife of an English painter.

Of course it was a different matter with Sally. If the story is true, he unambiguously exploited her dependent status. That brings up the general question of how to deal with the moral failings of our heroes, and here I can only offer my individual judgment and invite you to consult yours. Jefferson remains heroic to me for his superb utterances on freedom. Would I be dismayed if positive proof surfaced that Callender was right? No more so than I already am by Jefferson’s slaveholding. Exploitation was what slavery was all about; you can’t prettify it, and Jefferson himself knew that. Do I then reject his ideas? Of course not. Inspiring works of the mind do not, alas, always come from spotless beings. They may actually owe their existence to the inner conflicts and outer circumstances of their creators. But once born, they soar on wings of their own. Slaveholder Jefferson’s hymns to liberty belong in the long run to all of us —to Sally Hemings’s descendants as much as to Martha Jefferson’s, and to yours and mine too.

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