Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings

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Sally Hemings (or Hemmings) may originally have been called Sarah. It is thought she was the daughter of a slave and John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. Hemings was inherited by Jefferson and his wife in 1774 and apparently served as a nurse and companion to the Jefferson children.In 1787, the 14-year-old Hemings accompanied Jefferson's daughter Mary to France to join her father on a diplomatic mission. Some have speculated that a relationship between Hemings and Jefferson began at this time.Two extant descriptions of Sally Hemings agree on her complexion and comeliness: Thomas J. Randolph, Jefferson's grandson, described her to be "light colored and decidedly good looking."A resident slave remembered her as "mighty near white. very handsome, long straight hair down her back."Hemings continued to serve the Jefferson family and was never legally freed. Hemings bore at least four children; accusations of Jefferson's complicity were first put forward by an embittered former employee.An article in Nature (November 5, 1998) reported that DNA samples taken from Jefferson descendants was compared with Hemings' descendants and concluded that Jefferson may have fathered one of Sally Hemings' sons.Later research casts doubt on the earlier findings and notes that other Jefferson relatives lived in close proximity to the Monticello household and one could have been the father of the child or children in question.Two of Hemings' children, Madison and Eston, let their belief be known that they were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and descendants of one Thomas C. However, unlike Madison and Eston, Woodson does not appear in Jefferson's records.

See Important and Famous Women in America.

Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law – Elizabeth Hemings and her children did live at John Wayles’ plantation during his lifetime. In 18th-century Virginia, children born to slave mothers inherited their legal status, therefore Elizabeth and Sally Hemings and all their children, were legally slaves, even when the fathers were their white masters.

If Sally Hemings’ father was John Wayles, she would have been the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Martha inherited the Hemings family when Martha died in 1782, she left the Hemings family to Thomas Jefferson.

Sally came with her mother to Monticello by 1776. Slave girls from the age of six or eight were babysitters and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations. From 1784, Sally apparently served as a maid and companion of Mary Jefferson, Jefferson’s youngest daughter.

Sally Hemings and Mary Jefferson were living at Eppington – the residence of Mary’s aunt and uncle – in 1787, when Jefferson asked to have his daughter Mary join him in Paris. Fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London that summer. They were received in London by John and Abigail Adams, who wrote that Sally “seems fond of the child and appears good natured.” Jefferson’s French butler, Adrien Petit, escorted the two girls from London to Paris.

It is not known whether Sally Hemings lived at Jefferson’s residence, the Hotel de Langeac, or at the Abbaye de Panthemont, where Jefferson’s daughters Martha and Mary were boarding students. Whatever the weekday arrangements, Sally spent weekends with Jefferson at his villa. While in Paris, Sally undoubtedly received training to suit her for her position as lady’s maid to Jefferson’s daughters. According to French law, Sally was free.

Sally remained in France for 26 months. Jefferson paid her wages while in Paris, the equivalent of $2 a month. According to her son Madison’s 1873 memoir, Sally became pregnant by Jefferson and refused to return to the United States unless he agreed to free her children, and that Jefferson agreed to that condition.

What is alleged, and not known except by implication, is that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship in Paris. After the family returned to Virginia in 1789, Sally seems to have remained at Monticello, where she performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.

There are only two known descriptions of Sally Hemings. The slave Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was “mighty near white. . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as “light colored and decidedly good looking.”

Sally Hemings had six children, who are now believed to have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and their birth dates are recorded in Jefferson’s Farm Book or in letters he wrote. He did not record the father’s name for Sally’s children.

Four children surived to adulthood:
Beverly (born 1798), a carpenter and fiddler, was allowed to leave the plantation in 1821, and according to his brother, passed into white society in Washington, D.C.

Harriet (born 1801), a spinner in Jefferson’s textile shop, also left Monticello in 1821, probably with her brother Beverly, and passed for white.

Madison Hemings (born 1805), a carpenter and joiner, was given his freedom in Jefferson’s will he resettled in southern Ohio in 1836, where he worked at his trade and had a farm.

Eston Hemings (born 1808), a carpenter who was also given his freedom in Jefferson’s will, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1830s. He was a well-known professional musician before moving in 1852 to Wisconsin, where he changed his name to Eston Jefferson along with his racial identity. Both Madison and Eston Hemings made known their belief that they were sons of Jefferson.

Image: Monticello
Jefferson’s Virginia plantation

Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello at the likely conception times of Sally Hemings’ six known children. There are no records suggesting that she was elsewhere at these times, or records of any births at times that would exclude Jefferson paternity. There are no indications in contemporary accounts by people familiar with Monticello that Sally Hemings’ children had different fathers. Many contemporaries said Sally Hemings’ children strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson.

Sally Hemings’ children were light-skinned, and three of them (daughter Harriet and sons Beverly and Eston) lived as members of white society as adults, concealing their origins. Free persons who were seven-eighths white, as Sally’s children with Jefferson were, under Virginia law were legally white.

Sally never married. As a slave, she could not have a marriage recognized under Virginia law, but many slaves took partners in common-law marriages. While Sally worked at Monticello, she had her children nearby. According to her son Madison, they “were permitted to stay about the ‘great house,’ and only required to do such light work as going on errands.” At age 14 the children began their training, the brothers as carpenters and Harriet as a spinner and weaver. Beverly, Madison, and Eston all learned to play the fiddle (Jefferson played the violin).

Sally’s name became publicly linked to Jefferson’s in 1802, during Jefferson’s first term as president, when a Richmond newspaper published the allegation that she was Jefferson’s mistress and had borne him a number of children. Although there had been rumors before 1802, this article spread the story widely, and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson’s presidency.

Jefferson’s policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question. His daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph privately denied the published reports, and her children maintained many years later that such a liaison was not possible, on both moral and practical grounds. They also stated that Jefferson’s nephews Peter and Samuel Carr were the fathers of the light-skinned Monticello slaves.

When appraisers arrived at Monticello after Jefferson’s death in 1826 to evaluate his estate, they described 56-year-old Sally Hemings as “an old woman worth $50.” Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph then gave Sally “her time,” a form of unofficial freedom that would enable her to remain in Virginia (the laws at that time required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). Sally lived her last nine years with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sally Hemings died in 1835 at Charlottesville. The location of her grave is unknown.

That a Jefferson-Hemings relationship could be neither refuted nor substantiated was challenged in 1998 by DNA tests which established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last known child born to Sally Hemings. There were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, and a few of them are known to have visited Monticello. The study’s authors, however, said “the simplest and most probable” conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings.

Shortly after the DNA test results were released in November 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee consisting of nine members of the foundation staff. In January 2000, the committee reported its findings that the weight of all known evidence – from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data – indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the father of all six of Sally Hemings’ children listed in Monticello records.

. who marries Thomas Jefferson, and.

. whose mixed-race, enslaved mother was raped by John Wayles
for a dozen years.

Just to be clear (because things are getting a little confusing), John Wayles is the father of BOTH.

Martha Wayles Jefferson and Sally Hemings are half-sisters.

Sally is 3/4 White and 1/4 Black.

When John Wayles died, Martha inherited Sally Hemings.

When Martha married Thomas Jefferson,
her property became his property,
so he became the enslaver of Sally Hemings.

Again, Martha and Sally have the same father
-- they are half-sisters --
but now one of them is married to a Founding Father, and the other is enslaved by him.

Martha and Thomas Jefferson have several children before Martha's death.

After Martha's death,
Thomas takes his oldest daughter to France with him while he works there on behalf of
the newly-formed American government.

In 1787, he sent for his 9-year-old daughter Polly
to come to France in the care of 14-year-old Sally.

Sally Hemings serves the Jefferson family
in France for two years.

At some point during those two years,
Thomas Jefferson begins raping Sally Hemings.

She becomes pregnant by age 16.

According to French law, Sally could have petitioned
for her freedom and remained in France.

Instead, she returned to America
as the property of her rapist,
with his promise that he would free their child
when the child turned 21.

Sally would go on to have six children
(who were each only 1/8 Black)
by Thomas Jefferson.

While all of these children were freed at 21,
Sally never gained her freedom.

Her children mostly chose to live their lives
as White people after gaining their freedom.

If you'd like to learn more
about Sally Hemings and her family,
read the book
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Gordon-Reed's work on this text
provided DNA evidence
proving the "relationship" between
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Important Women of History

Born 1773,
Died 1835.
One told story among many untold.

The story starts a couple generations back. There was this African woman, Susannah Eppes, she was called, who ended up on the ship of an English captain named John Hemings. He had sex with her. She got pregnant. Shortly thereafter, she found herself living in Virginia, slave to landholder Francis Eppes IV, where she had her baby.

The baby was a girl: Elizabeth Hemings, a half-white, first-generation African immigrant.

Mother and daughter worked for old Mr. Eppes until his own daughter, Miss Martha, was to be married. At that point, Martha Eppes received Elizabeth Hemings for her personal slave, part of the bridal package.

So, Hemings moved house and became a domestic servant to the bride and her new husband, John Wayles, a lawyer and slave trader. She also became a mother: got together with a man likewise enslaved, and had four children with him.

The thing is, John Wayles’s wives just kept dying. First Martha Eppes, then two more. After the third, he decided to take Elizabeth Hemings as his concubine. Now at this point, Hemings was already a mother of four she already had a longterm relationship going with another man. Nevertheless Wayles fathered another six children by her. These Hemings children were not only his by blood (he was their father) they were also his legal property (he was their slaveowner). The youngest was Sally Hemings.

John also had some children who weren’t slaves, of course. Enter Martha Wayles, his daughter: she’s the one who later married Thomas Jefferson.

Got it? Now, pause for a moment. Already, the family ties between the Hemings women and, shall we say, the Marthas are bizarrely intertwined. Martha’s grandfather owned Sally’s grandmother. Martha’s mother owned Sally’s mother. Martha and Sally are sisters.

Martha is white – a future First Lady.

Sally is three-quarters white – a second-generation African immigrant.

Here’s where it gets weird. When John Wayles died, Martha and Thomas Jefferson inherited a lot. A lot of land, a lot of debt, also a lot of slaves. Among these were the Hemings children: Sally and her brothers and sisters. Which means, when John Wayles died, Martha inherited her siblings. (Jefferson, his in-laws.)

These Hemings children apparently never did any field work while enslaved to the Jeffersons, for what that’s worth. But the pattern continued: after Martha died and Thomas got over his devastation, he began having sex with Sally Hemings.

That started while he was abroad, working as the American envoy to France. His two youngest daughters had been staying with friends States-side, but when little Lucy died of whooping cough, Thomas called nine-year-old Polly to join him overseas. He arranged for an older woman to accompany her and look after her, but when they arrived, the nurse turned out to be Sally.

Abigail Adams, who received them in London, wasn’t too thrilled. Sally was only 15 or so, and according to Abigail, she wasn’t much of a nurse. But Sally stayed on, joining Jefferson in Paris that summer, where he found other reasons to value her.

Lest it go unsaid, there are some allegations that this whole “consort” business is the stuff of legend – that Thomas Jefferson, who spoke so rousingly about the human dignity of enslaved blacks, would never have slept with his late wife’s enslaved half-sister.

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

The DNA of Sally’s children disagrees. Anyway, what’s so surprising? Jefferson was a powerful man who lived at a time when powerful men enslaved people of color and often had sex with them. Despite his apparent values, it was a time of cognitive dissonance. So is our own time. So is every time.

But let’s not deviate. Hemings learned a little French in Paris. More importantly, she was considered legally free as long as she stayed, because slavery was illegal there. She could have left. However, Jefferson got her pregnant and promised to free her children if she came home, so she did that instead.

The baby died, but Hemings had six other children afterward, whose names Jefferson wrote down in his slave book – with just one peculiarity. Unlike all the other slave births he recorded, he did not write down who their father was.

Jefferson never freed Sally Hemings nor did he free all her children, as he’d promised. In his lifetime, Jefferson freed only two slaves. In his will, he freed five more – all Hemings men a few, his own children. The only female slave who went free under his watch was Sally’s runaway daughter, whom Thomas chose not to pursue.

After Thomas died, Sally’s niece Martha Jefferson (the third Martha in the line) chose to keep her aunt out of the auction afterward she freed Sally informally, though it never happened in print. For nine years following, Hemings lived in Virginia with her two youngest sons – and in 1833, they were all written up in the census as free whites.


According to one line of thought, Sally Hemings is significant only because Thomas Jefferson is significant. Hemings didn’t write the Declaration of Independence, after all – rather, she was impelled to sleep with its author. What’s really important is the way Jefferson’s affair with her changes what we think about him.

In other words, she’s significant not for who she was or what she did, but for what was done to her.

This is the significance that James Thomson Callendar vocalized in 1802, suggesting in the Richmond Recorder that Hemings’s name sullies Jefferson’s that somehow she sullies American history by having been made a part of it.

True, the only reason we know about Hemings is that she happened to get tangled up in the affairs of a patriotic archetype. Yet there were countless other women who lived the same story, whose names we don’t know, and it’s important to remember that history contains them too: the invisible, unreported many. These are the stories that Hemings’s life helps illuminate.

Sally Hemings was not unique. She lived a matrilineal pattern already several generations deep by the time it got to her: her grandmother Susannah Eppes, impelled by John Hemings… her mother Elizabeth Hemings, impelled by John Wayles… herself, impelled by Thomas Jefferson.

The word “impelled” is consciously chosen. We don’t know what these women thought of their sexual partners, but we know their partners had complete control over their circumstances. Where a “no” holds no weight, a “yes” cannot exist. The word “consent” does not describe it.

There’s another reason Hemings’s story is significant: for the questions it raises. Where does sexual consent exist today where does it not? How much weight do we give this? In what ways are the patterns from only 200 years ago still rippling? In what ways do we continue to determine people’s rights and privileges according to race, gender and other identifiers?

Also, how does a women’s history perspective on Hemings’s story differ from a more mainstream telling? For that last question, dig into this article.

Sally Hemings and Her Place in American History

As a third grader, Annette Gordon-Reed remembers reading her first biography of Thomas Jefferson. Her fascination with this former president continued through her adolescence and adulthood, inspiring her to eventually become a distinguished historian and writer. However, it wasn&rsquot Jefferson himself who most ignited her imagination but his longtime slave, Sally Hemings (1773-1835).

Throughout her celebrated career, Professor Gordon-Reed &ndash the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School and a Professor of History at Harvard University &ndash has devoted much of her transformative scholarship to telling Ms. Hemings&rsquo remarkable story, focusing not only on her decades-long relationship with Jefferson but on who she was as a complex woman shaped by race, gender, status and circumstance.

On January 26, the Chapin community had the distinct privilege of spending a virtual evening with this noted scholar. As the 2021 Gilder Lehrman Institute Lecturer, she centered her captivating talk around her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, &ldquoThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family&rdquo (2008), a follow up to her previous work, &ldquoThomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings&rdquo (1997).

Inaugurated in 2006, Chapin&rsquos annual lecture is the result of the School&rsquos wonderful partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes the understanding of U.S. history through educational programs. Students in Classes 7 and 11 logged into the virtual webinar, along with current and past parents, professional community members, alums, grandparents and friends.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for History, Professor Gordon-Reed has received a multitude of honors including a National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur &ldquogenius&rdquo grant. The author of numerous volumes, she was a lawyer before pivoting to a career in writing and academia.

&ldquoThis book means so much to me,&rdquo exclaimed Professor Gordon-Reed after Head of School Suzanne Fogarty&rsquos warm welcome and an introduction from James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

&ldquoI was dissatisfied with the dismissal of the Hemings family in connection to Jefferson, so I asked myself, &lsquoWhat can I do?&rsquo&rdquo

The &ldquodismissal&rdquo Professor Gordon-Reed was referring to was the systematic removal of Sally Hemings and her family from historical records. For 150 years, historians denied that Jefferson had had an intimate relationship with his slave and fathered her six children, despite compelling evidence supporting this claim. Although most modern historians believe the relationship indeed existed, it wasn&rsquot until 1998 that DNA testing proved Jefferson&rsquos paternity.

Through her groundbreaking and painstaking research, Professor Gordon-Reed sheds new light on this long-simmering historical debate, helping to restore the Hemingses rightful place in the American narrative. By examining Jefferson&rsquos copious archives &ndash he was &ldquoan inveterate record keeper&rdquo &ndash the speaker described how she was able to piece together a timeline that traced the Hemings family from the 1700s in Virginia to the years following Thomas Jefferson&rsquos death in 1826.

Professor Gordon-Reed&rsquos sweeping, 800-page book, which she characterized as &ldquoa generational saga of an enslaved family,&rdquo also benefited from the fact that the Hemingses lived at Monticello, Jefferson&rsquos Virginia plantation, for more than half a century. &ldquoI could follow their lives unlike [slave] families separated by sale,&rdquo she said. She also noted that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson&rsquos deceased wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, which may have contributed to Jefferson&rsquos preferential treatment of her.

Along with Sally Hemings, the book includes significant sections about her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, her siblings, and four of her children with Jefferson who lived (two died in infancy): sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston, and daughter Harriet. &ldquoI wanted to go beyond Sally Hemings,&rdquo she said, adding that recollections from Madison Hemings played an important role in her research.

At one point, Professor Gordon-Reed shared a revealing story about young Sally Hemings and the time she and her brother, James, spent in Paris, where Jefferson was serving on a diplomatic mission. Ms. Hemings accompanied Jefferson&rsquos daughter on the journey in 1787 and in time became Jefferson&rsquos &ldquoconcubine,&rdquo the professor explained.

Learning she was pregnant, Ms. Hemings wanted to remain in Paris, where she knew slavery was illegal by French law. However, Jefferson made her an offer of sorts. If she returned to Virginia, he promised to free her child, and any future children, once they reached adulthood.

&ldquoSally decides to come back with Jefferson,&rdquo said Professor Gordon-Reed. &ldquoWhy did she do that? people ask me. Think about it. It would have been very difficult to leave her family. This is the dilemma of all enslaved people. Do you take the freedom and leave your family behind?&rdquo

In the end, Jefferson kept his promise. As the professor reiterated, Sally Hemings and her family were elevated above other enslaved people, likely because of their biological connection to his late wife. Thus, the Hemings children held domestic jobs and never had to work as servants. In addition, &ldquothey got a head start on emancipation.&rdquo

&ldquoSome saw it as a story of survival,&rdquo Professor Gordon-Reed pointed out, reflecting on the complicated choices Ms. Hemings faced. &ldquoPeople like Sally used whatever agency they had to make a better life for themselves and their families.&rdquo

For the last few minutes of her riveting lecture, Professor Gordon-Reed graciously responded to a number of previously submitted questions, one of which touched on the challenges of her research process.

&ldquoIt&rsquos tough when you&rsquore dealing with little snippets of information. It&rsquos like a puzzle. You have to think creatively and broadly and prepare for dry holes that lead nowhere,&rdquo she said, adding &ldquoYou have to believe in your project and savor every victory. And you have to love it!&rdquo

In his closing remarks, Dr. Basker praised Professor Gordon-Reed for her compassionate and thought-provoking talk. &ldquoWhat you&rsquove done for these students is really open up a world of different people and different circumstances and help us to understand them as human beings,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoThe other thing you&rsquove done is you&rsquove modeled a possibility. I&rsquom hoping there are Chapin students who got a chance to hear you tonight who can see in you something they might aspire to and might become.&rdquo

Did John Adams Out Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?

The first eight months of 1802 were mercifully dull for President Jefferson. France and England signed a peace treaty, reopening European and Caribbean ports to American commerce. The Navy was making headway against Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. West Point was established. A prime concern was paying off the national debt. The bitter election of 1800 was fading from memory.

From This Story

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

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Then, in the September 1 issue of the Richmond Recorder, James Callender, a notorious journalist, reported that the president of the United States had a black slave mistress who had borne him a number of children. “IT is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves,” the story began. “Her name is SALLY.”

Federalist newspapers from Maine to Georgia reprinted the story. Racist poems were published about the president and “Dusky Sally.” Jefferson’s defenders were more muted, waiting in vain for the denial that never came from the Executive Mansion. The scandal rocked the fledgling nation.

How “well known” was the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Callender wrote that it had “once or twice been hinted at” in newspapers, as indeed it was in 1800 and 1801. And in reaction to his muckraking, the Gazette of the United States said it had “heard the same subject freely spoken of in Virginia, and by Virginia Gentlemen.” But while scholars have combed the sources, they have identified no specific written reference to the Jefferson-Hemings liaison prior to the appearance of Callender’s scandalous report.

I believe I have found two such references. They precede the exposé by more than eight years, and they come from the pen of none other than Jefferson’s old friend and political rival John Adams. In letters to his sons Charles and John Quincy in January of 1794, Adams points to the relationship between the sage of Monticello and the beautiful young woman known around the plantation as “Dashing Sally.” The references have escaped notice until now because Adams used a classical allusion whose significance historians and biographers have failed to appreciate.

Adams’ letters offer tangible evidence that at least one of the country’s leading political families was aware of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship long before the scandal broke. The documents cast new light on the question of elite awareness of the relationship, on the nature of the press in the early republic, and on Adams himself.

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This article is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine

Jefferson resigned as George Washington’s secretary of state on the last day of 1793. It had not been a good year. His efforts to force his hated rival Alexander Hamilton out of the cabinet for financial misconduct failed miserably. Continuing to support the French Revolution despite the guillotining of the king and queen and the blossoming of the Terror, he alienated Adams and was disappointed by Washington’s proclamation of American neutrality in France’s latest war with England. At 50 years old, he was eager to return to his beloved Virginia estate to live as a gentleman farmer and philosopher.

Adams, the vice president, refused to believe that his estranged friend was really done with public life. In letters to his two eldest sons, he sourly assessed the man he was convinced would challenge him to succeed Washington as president. On January 2 he wrote to Charles:

Mr Jefferson is going to Montecello to Spend his Days in Retirement, in Rural Amusements and Philosophical Meditations—Untill the President dies or resigns, when I suppose he is to be invited from his Conversations with Egeria in the Groves, to take the Reins of the State, and conduct it forty Years in Piety and Peace.

On January 3 he wrote to John Quincy at greater length, enumerating seven possible motives for Jefferson’s resignation.

5. Ambition is the Subtlest Beast of the Intellectual and Moral Field. It is wonderfully adroit in concealing itself from its owner, I had almost said from itself. Jefferson thinks he shall by this step get a Reputation of an humble, modest, meek Man, wholly without ambition or Vanity. He may even have deceived himself into this Belief. But if a Prospect opens, The World will see and he will feel, that he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell though no soldier. 6. At other Moments he may meditate the gratification of his Ambition Numa was called from the Forrests to be King of Rome. And if Jefferson, after the Death or Resignation of the President should be summoned from the familiar Society of Egeria, to govern the Country forty Years in Peace and Piety, So be it.

In the vernacular of the time, “conversation” was a synonym for sexual intercourse and “familiar” was a synonym for “intimate.” The obvious candidate for the person whose conversation and familiar society Jefferson would supposedly be enjoying at his bucolic home is Sally Hemings.

But who was Egeria, and how confident can we be that Adams intended Hemings when he invoked her name?

Egeria is a figure of some importance in the mythical early history of ancient Rome. According to Livy and Plutarch, after the death of the warlike Romulus, the senators invited a pious and intellectual Sabine named Numa Pompilius to become their king. Accepting the job with some reluctance, Numa set about establishing laws and a state religion.

To persuade his unruly subjects that he had supernatural warrant for his innovations, Numa claimed that he was under the tutelage of Egeria, a divine nymph or goddess whom he would meet in a sacred grove. The stories say she was not just his instructor but also his spouse, his Sabine wife having died some years before. “Egeria is believed to have slept with Numa the just,” Ovid wrote in his Amores.

Age 40 when he became king, Numa reigned for 43 years—a golden age of peace for Rome during which, in Livy’s words, “the neighboring peoples also, who had hitherto considered that it was no city but a bivouac that had been set up in their midst, as a menace to the general peace, came to feel such reverence for them, that they thought it sacrilege to injure a nation so wholly bent upon the worship of the gods.”

Numa Pompilius converses with the nymph Egeria in a 1792 sculpture by the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen. (Library of Congress)

Adams, who was well versed in Latin and Greek literature, had every reason to feel pleased with his comparison. Like Rome at the end of Romulus’ reign, the United States was a new nation getting ready for its second leader. Jefferson would be the American Numa, a philosophical successor to the military man who had won his country’s independence. Like Numa, Jefferson was a widower (his wife, Martha, died in 1782) who would prepare himself for the job by consorting with a nymph, his second wife, in a grove that was sacred to him.

I asked Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard scholar and author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, what she made of the Adams references. “While the two letters to his sons do not definitively prove that Adams knew about the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in early 1794,” Gordon-Reed said in an email, “this elucidation of the allusion to Egeria makes that an intriguing possibility.”

One didn’t require a classical education to grasp the Egeria allusion in the early 1790s. In 1786, the French writer Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian had published Numa Pompilius, Second Roi de Rome, a romantic novel dedicated to Marie Antoinette—she liked it—and intended as a guide for an enlightened monarchy in France. (“People will believe I’ve written the story / Of you, of Louis, and of the French,” Florian’s dedicatory poem declares.) Soon translated into English, Spanish and German, the novel became a runaway best seller in the North Atlantic world.

It was while researching a novel of my own about the life and afterlife of Numa and Egeria that I happened upon the allusions in the two Adams letters. As a student of religion in public life, I have long been interested in Numa as an exemplary figure in the history of Western political thought from Cicero and St. Augustine to Machiavelli and Rousseau.

In fact, John Adams had made a point of invoking Numa and his divine consort in the three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he published while serving as minister to Eng­land in 1787. “It was the general opinion of ancient nations, that the divinity alone was adequate to the important office of giving laws to men,” he writes in the preface. “Among the Romans, Numa was indebted for those laws which procured the prosperity of his country to his conversations with Egeria.” Later in the work he explains, “Numa was chosen, a man of peace, piety, and humanity, who had address enough to make the nobles and people believe that he was married to the goddess Egeria, and received from his celestial consort all his laws and measures.”

In the Defence, Adams was at pains to inform the world that, unlike other nations past and present, the recently united American states “have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature.” In other words, no Egerias need apply: “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

In a 1794 letter, John Adams gossiped slyly to son Charles about Jefferson’s “Conversations with Egeria." (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society) The second page of Adams' letter to Charles (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society) The third page of Adams' letter to Charles (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society) The letter written by John Adams to his son John Quincy Adams likely on January 3, 1794 (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society) The second page of Adams' letter to his son John Quincy (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Jefferson was the American avatar of Enlightenment rationality, a staunch opponent of the government establishment of religion, and the Washington administration’s foremost advocate of war with the Barbary pirates. Adams’ portrayal of him consulting with a goddess in order to govern “in Piety and Peace” was sharply pointed on all counts. But did he intend the goddess in question to refer to Sally Hemings?

There’s good reason to think so. Seven years earlier, Jefferson had arranged for his 8-year-old daughter, Mary, to join him and his elder daughter, Martha, in Paris. Hemings, a slave who was also a half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, accompanied Mary on the trans-Atlantic passage to England upon their arrival, the two girls went to stay with the Adamses in London. Hemings was then 14 years old but, tellingly, Abigail Adams thought she was 15 or 16.

Writing Jefferson that the two had arrived, Abigail Adams took them under her wing until an emissary showed up two weeks later to convey them to Paris, where Jefferson almost certainly began having sex with Hemings. So in 1787 John Adams had seen for himself that Jefferson had a nubile beauty in his possession. By the end of 1793, John Quincy and Charles presumably would have been aware of it, too. Otherwise, the sexual allusion to Egeria would have been lost on them.

Significantly, John Adams did not allude to the matter when he wrote to Abigail at around the same time. She and Jefferson had something of a mutual admiration society, after all. “My Love to Thomas,” she wrote her husband on the very day that Jefferson resigned as secretary of state (though she wasn’t yet aware of that). Despite the two men’s political rivalry, she maintained a high regard for Jefferson through the 1790s, describing him as a man of “probity” in a letter to her sister. So while John Adams, in Philadelphia, did not refrain from criticizing Jefferson in his January 6, 1794, letter to Abigail, in Massachusetts, he did so with care.

Jefferson went off Yesterday, and a good riddance of bad ware. I hope his Temper will be more cool and his Principles more reasonable in Retirement than they have been in office. I am almost tempted to wish he may be chosen Vice President at the next Election for there if he could do no good, he could do no harm. He has Talents I know, and Integrity I believe: but his mind is now poisoned with Passion Prejudice and Faction.

There was no mention of Numa and Egeria. As I see it, John knew that his wife would not be amused by the insinuation that Jefferson was retiring to an intimate relationship with the maidservant she had cared for in London seven years earlier. That joke was reserved for the boys.

Among the African-Americans enslaved at Monticello were up to 70 members of the Hemings family over 5 generations. (Library of Congress) A photograph of Jefferson’s Monticello, circa 1920 (Library of Congress)

A political eon passed between the vice president’s private joke and the presidential scandal. In 1796, Jefferson was narrowly defeated for the presidency by Adams and, under Article II of the Constitution (changed in 1804), indeed became vice president, having received the second-largest number of electoral votes. Four years later, he returned the favor, besting Adams in perhaps the ugliest presidential election in American history.

By then, Callender had won his muckraking spurs by publishing the story of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with a married woman and subsequent illicit financial arrangement with the woman’s husband. Jefferson was sufficiently impressed to provide the journalist with financial support to keep up his anti-Federalist work. But in May of 1800, Callender was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison under the Sedition Act for “The Prospect Before Us,” a tract alleging pervasive corruption in the Adams administration. After his release, he approached Jefferson and asked to be appointed postmaster of Richmond. Jefferson refused. Callender traveled to Charlottesville and ferreted out the Hemings story, published under the headline “The President, Again.”

One of the more scurrilous commentaries on the story came from John Quincy Adams. On October 5, he sent his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston, a letter with an imitation of Horace’s famous ode to a friend who had fallen in love with his servant girl that begins: “Dear Thomas, deem it no disgrace / With slaves to mend thy breed / Nor let the wench’s smutty face / Deter thee from the deed.”

In his letter John Quincy writes that he had been going through books of Horace to track down the context of a quotation when what should drop out but this poem by, of all people, Jefferson’s ideological comrade in arms Tom Paine, then living in France. John Quincy professed bafflement that “the tender tale of Sally” could have traveled across the Atlantic, and the poem back again, within just a few weeks. “But indeed,” he wrote, “Pain being so much in the philosopher’s confidence may have been acquainted with the facts earlier than the American public in general.”

Historians have assumed that John Quincy, an amateur poet, composed the imitation ode in the weeks after Callender’s revelation hit the press. But in light of his father’s letters, it is not impossible that he had written it before, as his arch little story of its discovery implied. Thomas Boylston arranged to have his brother’s poem published in the prominent Federalist magazine The Port-Folio, where it did in fact appear under Paine’s name.

The Adamses never dismissed Callender’s story as untrue. No direct comment from Abigail Adams has come to light, but Gordon-Reed argues in The Hemingses of Monticello that the scandal deepened her estrangement from Jefferson after the bitter 1800 election. When Mary Jefferson died in 1804, Abigail wrote Thomas a chilly condolence letter in which she described herself as one “who once took pleasure in subscribing herself your friend.”

John Adams, in an 1810 letter to Joseph Ward, refers to James Callender in such a way as to imply that he did not consider the Hemings story credible. “Mr Jeffersons ‘Charities’ as he calls them to Callender, are a blot in his Escutchion,” he writes. “But I believe nothing that Callender Said, any more than if it had been Said by an infernal Spirit.” In the next paragraph, however, he appears more than prepared to suspend any such disbelief.

Callender and Sally will be remembered as long as Jefferson as Blotts in his Character. The story of the latter, is a natural and almost unavoidable Consequence of that foul contagion (pox) in the human Character Negro Slavery. In the West Indies and the Southern States it has the Same Effect. A great Lady has Said She did not believe there was a Planter in Virginia who could not reckon among his Slaves a Number of his Children. But is it Sound Policy will it promote Morality, to keep up the Cry of such disgracefull Stories, now the Man is voluntarily retired from the World. The more the Subject is canvassed will not the horror of the Infamy be diminished? and this black Licentiousness be encouraged?

Adams goes on to ask whether it will serve the public good to bring up the old story of Jefferson’s attempted seduction of a friend’s wife at the age of 25, “which is acknowledged to have happened.” His concern is not with the truth of such stories but with the desirability of continuing to harp on them (now that there is no political utility in doing so). He does not reject the idea that Jefferson behaved like other Virginia planters.

Adams’ sly joke in his 1794 letters shows him as less of a prude than is often thought. It also supports Callender’s assertion that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was “well known,” but kept under wraps. It may be time to moderate the received view that journalism in the early republic was no-holds-barred. In reality, reporters did not rush into print with scandalous accusations of sexual misconduct by public figures. Compared with today’s partisan websites and social media, they were restrained. It took a James Callender to get the ball rolling.

John Adams’ reference to Jefferson’s Egeria put him on the cusp of recognizing a new role for women in Western society. Thanks largely to Florian’s 1786 best seller, the female mentor of a politician, writer or artist came to be called his Egeria. That was the case with Napoleon, Beethoven, Mark Twain, Andrew Johnson and William Butler Yeats, to name a few. In Abigail, Adams had his own—though so far as I know she was never referred to as such. It was a halfway house on the road to women’s equality, an authoritative position for those whose social status was still subordinate.

Gordon-Reed has criticized biographers who insist that it is “ridiculous even to consider the notion that Thomas Jefferson could ever have been under the positive influence of an insignificant black slave woman.” Ironically, Adams’ sarcastic allusion conjures up the possibility. Did Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s French-speaking bedmate and well-organized keeper of his private chambers, also serve as his guide and counselor—his Egeria? The question is, from the evidence we have, unanswerable.

In the last book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid portrays Egeria as so inconsolable after the death of Numa that the goddess Diana turns her into a spring of running water. When Jefferson died in 1826, he and Hemings, like Numa and Egeria, had to all intents and purposes been married for four decades. Not long afterward, his daughter Martha freed Hemings from slavery, as her children had been freed before her.

We do not know if, as she celebrated her liberation, she also mourned her loss. But we can be confident that her name, like Egeria’s, will forever be linked with her eminent spouse, as John Adams predicted.

About Mark Silk

Mark Silk is a professor and the director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. A former reporter and editorial writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he is the author of several books on religion in contemporary America and is a senior columnist for the Religion News Service.

Sally Hemings

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Sally Hemings, (born 1773, Charles City county, Virginia [U.S.]—died 1835, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.), American slave who was owned by U.S. Pres. Thomas Jefferson and is widely believed to have had a relationship with him that resulted in several children.

Hemings, known as Sally but who was likely named Sarah, was born into slavery to a white father, John Wayles, and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings. According to oral history passed down through the Hemings family, Elizabeth was the daughter of a white sea captain named Hemings and an African slave owned by Wayles. Sally was thus three-fourths white. When Wayles died in 1773, Elizabeth and her children were inherited by Martha Jefferson, who was Wayles’s daughter by Martha Eppes Wayles and the wife of Thomas Jefferson. The Hemings family was sent to Monticello, Jefferson’s farm and estate in Virginia, where they were given positions as house slaves.

Two years after Martha’s death in 1782, Jefferson went to France to serve as a diplomat. In 1787 he sent for his youngest daughter, Maria, who was escorted by Hemings, then 14 years old. It was during that time that an intimate relationship between Hemings and Jefferson is thought to have begun. In 1789 Jefferson and Hemings returned to the United States. She resumed her work at Monticello, and Jefferson’s records noted that, over the next two decades, she gave birth to six children. Harriet was born in 1795 but lived only two years. Hemings gave birth to a son, Beverly, in 1798 and another daughter named Harriet, in 1801. An unnamed daughter was born in 1799 but died in infancy. Hemings later had two sons, Madison and Eston, who were born in 1805 and 1808, respectively. Some have claimed that Hemings’s first child was Thomas C. Woodson, born in 1790. However, there is no evidence that Hemings had a child that year—notably, Jefferson never noted the birth—and later DNA tests revealed that he was not the father.

In Jefferson’s records from 1822, Harriet and Beverly were listed as runaways, but they actually were allowed to leave freely. Their light-coloured skin helped them blend into the white world of Washington, D.C. Madison and Eston were freed in 1826 at the time of Jefferson’s death. Hemings was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will. In 1827 she was listed as a slave on the official slave inventory of the Jefferson estate and valued at $50. It later appears that she received unofficial freedom from Jefferson’s daughter Martha, and Hemings lived the rest of her life with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The first public mention of Hemings came in 1802, when The Recorder newspaper published an article by James Callender, an adversary of Jefferson, who claimed a relationship between her and Jefferson. Jefferson never responded to the allegations, which became the source of much debate and speculation. Although some of his white descendants later denied the claims—Peter Carr, a nephew of Jefferson, was often cited as the father of Hemings’s children—Hemings’s descendants argued, on the basis of oral history and an 1873 memoir by Madison Hemings, that Jefferson was the father. With conflicting and inconclusive evidence, the majority of scholars found the allegations unlikely. In 1998, however, DNA samples were gathered from living descendants of Jefferson and Hemings, and the subsequent tests revealed that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of some of Hemings’s children Carr was ruled out. Although the scholarly consensus became that Jefferson and Hemings were sexual partners, some, citing the lack of scientific certainty, continued to contest Jefferson’s paternity. (See “Tom and Sally”: the Jefferson-Hemings paternity debate.)

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.

Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?

In the years since the publication of my book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, I have traveled throughout the United States and overseas talking about them—and life and slavery at Monticello. Writers are, in the main, solitary creatures. Or, at least, the process of writing forces us into solitude for long stretches of time I find it refreshing and gratifying to meet people who have read one’s work (or plan to) and have questions, observations, and opinions about it. In all the venues I have visited, from Houston to Stockholm, one question always arises: Did they love each other?

To call this a loaded question does not begin to do justice to the matter, given America’s tortured racial history and its haunting legacy. To be on the receiving end of that question is to be thrown into a large minefield. It is even worse for someone who is considered an expert on Hemings and Jefferson. You wrote the book about them, didn’t you?

Part of a historian’s job is to try to navigate the gap stretching between those who lived in the past and those who live today, especially pointing out the important differences. At the same time, it remains equally important to recognize and give due consideration to those points of commonality that the past the present share. While there’s truth in the old saying that the past is a foreign country, anyone visiting a foreign land also encounters many familiar sights, rituals, and behaviors, because the basic realities of the human condition remain the same.

See the essay in the June 1972 American Heritage, "The Great Jefferson Taboo" by Fawn Brody, which reignited the controversy over Jefferson and Hemings

What does this mean for Sally and Thomas, the enslaved woman and the man who owned her? Their legal relationship to one another—and the world they shared—is strange to us today. Certainly people suffer oppression today: many work for little or no pay, while countless women and children are forced into prostitution. Yet this cannot match the horrific nature of America’s racially-based chattel slavery, in which a person’s children were enslaved in perpetuity unless an owner decided to give up his or her ownership of that person. What love could exist between a man and a woman enmeshed in—and negotiation the rules of—that world? And what difference does it make if they “loved” each other? Why are members of my audience so intent on knowing that?

The question about Hemings and Jefferson, of course, does not arise from a vacuum. We modern people have a history, so to speak, with love, especially of the romantic kind. Not other human emotion excites such passionate interest and longing or gives rise to such high expectations at all levels of society. Songs tell us that “love” is “the answer” to almost everything that ails us: war, famine, disease, and racial prejudice. Love is all we need.

Indeed, I suspect that love’s supposed capacity to heal lies at the heart of people’s interest in Hemings and Jefferson. And he is the prime focus of the inquiry. My impression from talking with people and reading the letters they writing to me, not to mention the many operas, plays, screenplays, and proposals for novels they send, is that Jefferson’s love for Hemings could somehow redeem and heal him. Thomas Jefferson—in need of redemption?

As much as we admire the author of the Declaration of Independence and the two-term U.S. president, a man who doubled the size of the nation, sent Lewis and Clark west, founded the University of Virginia, championed religious freedom, and acted as an all-around renaissance man, Jefferson the slaveholder poses a great challenge. He publicly aired his suspicions that the mental capacity of blacks was inferior to whites’, not exactly as a popular believe in a society that claims (note the operative word “claims”) to find such notions completely abhorrent. For some, the knowledge that Jefferson had loved the enslaved African American woman with whom he had seven children would rescue him from the depravity of having been a slave owner who made disparaging comments about blacks—perhaps not totally exonerating him, but in some small but important way moderating the disturbing facts. That much-longed for human connection would have worked its magic.

Love, which remains extremely difficult to capture and define today or in the past, poses a major hurdle in sorting out the nature of their relationship. Speaking of love in the context of a master-slave relationship is even more difficult, given the moral and political implications. After all, the idea of “love” was used during the antebellum period and afterward as a defense of slavery. Apologists for the peculiar institution claimed that a genuine “love” existed between the races during slavery, putting the lie to northern abolitionists’ claim that the institution was evil and exploitative. Southern slaveholders often pointed to their affection for their individual “mammies” and the supposedly deep ties they formed with their enslaved playmates (of the same sex, of course) on the plantation. Significantly, they never spoke about the possibility of love and regular heterosexual relationships between males and females of mixed races. That type of love was taboo then, and it has remained discomfiting to many Americans even into the 21st century.

Then there’s the question of consent and rape. While Martha Jefferson had given her perpetual consent to sexual relations with her husband by the act of marrying him—there was no such thing as marital rape—Jefferson owned his wife’s half sister, Sally, in a completely different way. Being a man’s wife was not the same thing as being a man’s slave, even if Sally and Thomas’s relationship had begun under unusual circumstances. They became involved while Jefferson was serving as the American minister to France. Under French law, Hemings would have had a clear route to freedom had she chosen it. Instead, she agreed to return to America with him, placing herself entirely under his power. At any time, Jefferson had the right to sell her and their children if he wanted to.

White males, not just slave owners—exercised inordinate power over black women during slavery. Rape and the threat of it blighted the lives of countless enslaved women. At the same time, some black women and white men did form bonds quite different in character than from those resulting from sexual coercion. No social system can ever stamp out all the constitutive aspects of the human character. Heterosexual men and women thrown together in intimate circumstances will become attracted to one another.

Consider how Hemings and Jefferson lived at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between 1787 and 1789. What parents would send their pretty teenaged daughter to live in a house with a lonely, middle-aged widower whose daughters spent all week away at boarding school—and place him in charge of her well-being? Jefferson would never have allowed his daughters Patsy and Polly to live under such a situation unless a female chaperone was present. The question of appropriateness never came up with Sally Hemings, because she was a slave. Her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, had no say in the matter, just another of the countless reasons why slavery was an inhumane institution.

Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion

So what do I say to people about Hemings, Jefferson, and love? I am ever mindful of the dangers of romanticizing the pair. Apologists for slavery have not all gone away, and they will fasten onto any story that appears to “soften” the harsh contours of that institution and mitigate southern slaveholder guilt. I believe, however, that saying that they may have loved each other is not romantic. Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion. I am not one who believes that “love” is the answer to everything. Strong emotions that two individuals may have had cannot mitigate the problem of slavery or Jefferson’s specific role as a slave owner.

Other factors make it difficult to determine the nature of their relationship. Neither spoke publicly about it, leaving us only to draw inferences. We do know that Jefferson bargained intensely with Hemings to return to America, promising her a good life at Monticello and freedom for her children when they became adults. Was that merely in-the-moment lust? While lust can last minutes, months, or even a few years, it cannot typically span the decades during which they were involved. It simply takes more than lust to sustain an interest in another person over such an extended time period.

In addition, Jefferson had access to many other women at Monticello who could have satisfied his carnal interests. Yet, so far as the record shows, he remained fixated on Sally Hemings, arranging her life at Monticello so that she interacted with him on a daily basis for almost four decades. Despite the brutal public attention focused on the pair after James Callender exposed their relationship in 1802, Jefferson continued to have children with Hemings. Their children—James Madison, Thomas Eston, William Beverly, and Harriet—were named for people important to him. His white daughter was said to have wanted Jefferson to send Hemings and their children away so as to spare him further embarrassment. He declined.

Judging Hemings’s feelings about Jefferson proves more difficult, because she exercised no legal power over him. While she did abandon her plan to stay in France and then came home to live and have children with him, Hemings may well have had second thoughts about leaving her large and intensely connected family back home. Several of their great-grandchildren explain that Hemings returned to America because Jefferson “loved her dearly,” as if that meant something to her. Upon their return, Hemings’s relatives, both enslaved and free, behaved as if Jefferson was an in-law of sorts. After he died in 1826, Hemings left Monticello with several of Jefferson’s personal items, including pairs of his glasses, an inkwell, and shoe buckles, which she gave to her children as mementos.

While marriage is generally taken as a proof of love between a given man and woman, the quality of the relationship between couples who are not married, or cannot marry because of legal restrictions, may be better than that of men and women whose unions are recognized by law.

The most that can be said is that Hemings and Jefferson lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Jefferson kept his promises to Hemings, and their offspring got a four-decade head start on emancipation, making the most of it by leading prosperous and stable lives. That, I think, is about as much as one can expect from love in the context of life during American slavery.

2 thoughts on &ldquo Sally Hemmings &rdquo

I am not sure that we can say that it was outstanding for Hemings to return to the U.S. with Jefferson. I feel like it is always better to be free than enslaved and she could have had a better life had she stayed in Paris, where she would have been given greater rights. While she may have consensually entered a relationship with Jefferson, I find it puzzling that he did not free her. If he really respected her and valued her, then he wouldn’t have continued to hold her as his slave after they had been in a relationship.

I am beyond fascinated with this blog post. I find it so interesting considering that my maternal grandmother was born in France but she was forced to come to america as a teenager and married a black man so my mother and my aunts and uncles are all mixed. Also that my paternal grandmother owned slaves and my grandfather happen to be one of her family’s slaves. So this kind of hit home for me.


Of the seven children born to Hemings over the next two decades, only four (five, according to Woodson&aposs descendants) lived to adulthood. Her second child, Harriet, died after only two years. Beverly (a son), born in 1798, left Monticello in 1822 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived as a white man. A second, unnamed daughter died in infancy. Harriet, born in 1801 and named for the first lost daughter, moved away near the same time as Beverly and also entered white society. Hemings&apos youngest children, Madison and Eston (born in 1805 and 1808,  respectively) were freed by order of Jefferson’s will in 1826. While Madison Hemings lived as a Black man (first in Virginia and later in Ohio) all his life, his brother Eston changed his name to Jefferson and began living as a white man in Wisconsin at the age of 44.

Jefferson, in fact, freed all of Hemings&apos children ironically, however, he never freed Hemings herself. After Jefferson&aposs death, she remained at Monticello for two years, after which Martha Jefferson (acting on her father&aposs wishes) gave her "her time," a form of unofficial freedom that allowed her to remain in Virginia (freed enslaved people were required by Virginia law to leave the state after a year). Before his death, Jefferson had also arranged for Madison and Eston Hemings to be allowed to stay in Virginia. After leaving Monticello, Hemings moved with her two youngest sons to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, where she died in 1835.

Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.

The room at Monticello where Sally Hemings is believed to have lived. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

Archaeologists at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello, are unearthing the room where Sally Hemings is believed to have lived, allowing for a new way to tell the story of the enslaved people who served our third president. The excavation has once again reminded us that 241 years after the United States was founded, many Americans still don’t know how to reconcile one of our nation’s original sins with the story of its Founding Fathers.

Just before the Fourth of July, NBC News ran a feature on the room, setting off a spate of coverage about the dig. Many of these stories described Hemings, the mother of six children with Jefferson, as the former president’s “mistress.” The Inquisitr, the Daily Mail, AOL and Cox Media Group all used the word (though Cox later updated its wording). So did an NBC News tweet that drew scathing criticism, though its story accurately called her “the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.” The Washington Post also used “mistress” in a headline and a tweet about Hemings’s room in February.

Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress she was his property. And he raped her.

Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.

In a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, Michelle Obama reminded Americans that no less a symbol of our government than the White House was built by those in bondage. In response, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly offered a softer, gentler take: Those enslaved workers were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” he said. That they had no choice in their food, lodging or whether they even wanted to do the backbreaking work of building Washington by hand was nowhere to be found in O’Reilly’s version.

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Jefferson, an avid writer, never mentioned Hemings in his work. He did, however, grapple with issues of emancipation throughout his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson spent a substantial section attempting to answer the question, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Despite fathering Hemings’s children, Jefferson argued against race mixing because black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-owning founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dreadful institution — including Ben Franklin, who became an outspoken abolitionist later in life, and George Washington, who freed his enslaved servants in his will. But Jefferson did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and children at Monticello, and though some argue that he “loved” Hemings, he granted freedom to only two people while he was alive and five people in his will — and never to her.

Romanticizing Hemings and Jefferson’s so-called relationship minimizes the deadly imbalance of power that black people suffered under before the Civil War. It also obscures our collective history as a nation that moved from being built on the blood, bones and backs of enslaved African Americans and indigenous people, to being the imperfect, hopeful and yet still unequal country we are today.

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