Skip to main content

Was Jefferson Guilty?

March 2023
1min read

On September 1, 1802, the Richmond, Virginia, Recorder; or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany , asserted that President Thomas Jefferson “keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY . The name of her eldest son is TOM . His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”

Thus did the editor of the Recorder , James Callender, create a mystery that continued to haunt American history for the next 188 years. The accusation tormented Jefferson and his family during their lifetimes. It resurfaced in the 187Os, reinforced by Sally’s descendants, who claimed she told them Jefferson was their father. After being dormant for another half-century, it became a public issue again in the 1950s, when J. C. Furnas in his best-selling Goodbye to Uncle Tom flatly declared Jefferson guilty. By the late 1960s, when debunking America became a national obsession, this conclusion was accepted in many quarters as an established fact.

This much is certain. Sally Hemings (or Hemmings), herself a mulatto, lived at Monticello and had five mulatto children, several of whom had reddish hair and some resemblance to Jefferson. In private, Jefferson denied his guilt several times but never made a public statement. In my opinion, the reason for his silence was, first, Sally Hemings was the illegitimate daughter of his wife’s father, John Wayles, and, second, the father of Sally’s children was Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr, who grew up at Monticello and was a virtual son to Jefferson.

The question of Jefferson’s guilt or innocence has become more than a merely historical mystery. As a Jefferson biographer I have received letters from high school students and teachers, some black, others white, who view the assertion with enormous symbolic weight. For blacks, many of whom presume Jefferson’s guilt, it is a paradigm of white betrayal. Feminists also lurk on the fringes of the debate. I think the question is sufficiently serious to warrant the appointment of a committee of scholars from the Society of American Historians or some other leading historical organization who would attempt to determine with all the authority the facts can muster where the truth lies—and publicize the conclusion vigorously.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "December 1990"

Authored by: Tom Carter


Authored by: Richard Brophy

Like any other popular art, jigsaw puzzles can tell us a lot about pieces of the past

Authored by: The Editors

The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron

Authored by: The Editors

The Story of the United States Portrayed on its Postage Stamps

Authored by: The Editors

We asked dozens of historians to play detective and tell us what case in all of American history they would most like to see cracked

For a good part of his life, the governor of New York has used history as a guide—and a solace

Authored by: Judith Dunford

Fewer than half of O. Henry’s short stories actually take place in New York, but we still see the city through his eyes

Authored by: Jeffrey W. Miller

In the early sixties it was going to revolutionize American education. By the early seventies it had confounded a generation of schoolchildren. Today it is virtually forgotten. But as we head toward another round of educational reforms, we should recall why it went wrong.

Authored by: Carmine Prioli

Giving the men who died aboard America’s first battleship a decent funeral took fourteen years, three-quarters of a million dollars, and some hair-raising engineering. But in the end, they did it right.

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.