Taking up the subject of the love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings impels one first to make two stipulations before the discussion can even begin.
The first is that “race” is an illusion. There is only one race, the human race, which began migrating out of East Africa around 75,000 years ago. But any contemplation of the Jefferson/Hemings relationship will force the writer to employ socially constructed designations of “black,” “white” and “race,” used here within quotation marks in recognition of both the fact of the illusion and its persistence.
The second is that the whole of American history is painted on the canvass of this illusion with innumerable powerful and shameful consequences, most of which “white America” is loathe to acknowledge, much less face with any measure of honesty and atonement.
Intellectually, as James Baldwin often considered about the illusion, this demands a questioning of what in the American culture moves “white America” to cling so desperately to the illusion despite its demonstrable harm, not only historically, but also currently to our collective morality, politics, institutions, opportunities for the future, and indeed, scholarship of the past.
All the way up until the 1990s, Jefferson hagiographers systematically suppressed the ample circumstantial evidence of Jefferson’s affair with Hemings, perhaps most egregiously in the work of Dumas Malone. This matter has been explored in full in the good work of Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed and her book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”
It is with this that we may now begin our examination of the extraordinary relationship between Thomas and Sally, by which names I hope you’ll now permit me to refer to them.
Sally was the granddaughter of one white slaveholder and the daughter of John Wayles, who was also the father of Martha (Wayles) Jefferson, to whom Thomas was married in 1772 and of whom Thomas became widower on her passing in 1782. Sally was in the room when her half-sister passed, and was present when Thomas promised Martha to never again marry. She was also by his side at Thomas’ death.
Since childhood, Sally had not been exposed to the horrors of the lash or life as chattel, but rather that of a somewhat privileged housemaid. Her complexion was light, so much so that as a freed woman she was able to register as “white” in the census of 1830, though sadly we have no portrait.
While Thomas was stationed in Paris in 1787, he sent for his daughter Mary (“Polly”) after the death of his other daughter Lucy in his absence. He had originally asked for Polly to be brought to him by a senior female servant whom he intended to send back. That servant was pregnant, however, and Sally was chosen by his family as escort instead.
The late Christopher Hitchens noted in his, “Thomas Jefferson,” that Thomas did not send Sally back, though he had no need for a governess or extra servants. Instead he began to pay both her and her brother James wages, though he had never paid James wages previously.
Sally, who may well have resembled her half-sister Martha, lodged in a separate boarding house while Thomas traveled. She was also bought fashionable clothing, with Thomas noting the expense of 200 francs on “clothes for Sally” in his accounts for April 1789.
Hitchens also pointed out that Thomas kept no public mistress in Paris, nor later, and though many historians appear to believe the man negotiated life with no carnal impulses whatsoever, plenty of references in his letters to ribald passages from Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” as well as explicit appreciations of the female form, plus our own familiarity with basic human nature, indicate to us that these historians are practicing sins of omission. Only one volume of the many letters penned by Thomas has gone missing, the one that included his letters to Sally.
We also know from Sally’s son Madison that in Paris Sally extracted from Thomas a promise to free any children born to him by her, a promise he kept upon his death in 1826, freeing Sally and their children and no other slaves, ever.
When Thomas traveled back to America, he insisted Sally be berthed next to his own rooms on the ship. Back at Monticello, each of Sally’s children was born – dutifully logged in the plantation’s farm book – nine months after Thomas’ return home from one travel or another.
Circumstantially, this would give the lie to the oft-repeated odious allegation that Sally would give herself to any member of the Jefferson males available, most often charged as being one of his nephews though I’ve seen “brother” in these pages recently (letter to the editor, March 9), none of whom were logged as present at Monticello at all of these times.
The evidence for Sally and Thomas’ romance – piled high, as I see it, and woefully abridged here – would do well enough for yrs. truly. But nevertheless, in 1998, Nature magazine conducted a DNA test – performed blindly and independently by three separate laboratories – that showed an excellent match between the Jefferson male line and Sally’s descendants, explicitly confirming Thomas’ fatherhood of Sally’s last child, and explicitly ruling out Thomas’ nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr.
If all this seems romanticized, I’d posit that’s precisely because what evidence we have points to a legitimate romance between Thomas and Sally, though this is not to deny the power dynamic that existed between the two, no matter how well Thomas may have treated her. She was, after all, his slave, and legitimate consent was not remotely possible. Thomas’ gushing, contemptible hypocrisy on the malignant issue of slavery is well known.
But with all these facts brought to bear, one may well wonder into what illusions any denier of their relationship is buying. One suspects it likely to be reverberations of the same old ones about “race” that do our great nation and all of humanity such pernicious harm.