There are some aspects about which everyone seems to agree regarding Sally Hemings.
The first is that she was a stone fox. Around the Monticello plantation where she grew up she was called “Dashing Sally” by the time she was about age 15.
When she arrived in Paris with President Jefferson, she captivated people. This is also something absolutely everyone agreed upon.
And then there are some other facts we know.
We know that Sally Hemings was born around 1773. She was the child of the slave Betty Hemings and planter John Wayles, who was her master. When Sally was about one year old, John Wayles died and his slaves were inherited by Thomas Jefferson and his new wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha was John’s daughter and so a half-sister to Sally but I don’t think they really acknowledged that relationship.
The slaves were moved to Monticello. Thomas and Martha Jefferson apparently had a happy marriage on the estate. He played the violin and she accompanied him on the piano. They had six children but only two daughters survived to adulthood. Then, about ten years after their marriage, Martha died at age 33. Jefferson was distraught, supposedly heartbroken over the loss of his wife. He shut himself away. He paced. Maybe I’m making that up, maybe not, but pacing feels right. He never remarried. He did go on to have well documented love affairs with a series of other women, including Betsey Walker and Maria Cosway, both of whom were married. (That’s not really relevant to Sally’s story, but if you want to get into the “Jefferson was an immoral man” camp right this moment, I thought it would be a good piece of information for you.)
We also know that Sally became the companion to Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Polly. Sally was considered very sweet natured and was well liked by the family. She moved with the family to Paris in 1787, where Jefferson was the United States Ambassador to France. Her brother, James Hemings, also went to Paris to train as a chef. Sally was quickly absorbed with the culture of the city. Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her biography, The Hemings at Monticello:
While James Hemings was busy plying his trade, his younger sister had little to do but absorb the routine of the household. This meant getting used to the other servants, who spoke another language and had their own cultural manners. Having no apparent role in the operations of the residence for long stretches of time, she was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly at the place.
From her perspective that may not have been at all a bad thing, rather a source of immense joy as her nonessential status left her free to experience her new surroundings in more of her own way…
One of the things Hemings learned fairly early on was how it felt to receive pay for one’s work. In January of 1788 she received her first recorded wages—twenty-four livres, plus an additional twelve as a New Year’s tip. Hemings did not receive pay again until November; and when she did, the wage was half that of her brother, Jefferson having concluded that this was the appropriate rate. Despite the cut, Hemings’s salary for the rest of her time in Paris was actually well above that of the average female live-in servant in France.
There are no indications what her job was.
But she did not spend all her time in France (where she resided for two years) just flitting around and absorbing French customs and being paid for a very ambiguous job.
While there, she had a son whom she named Tom.
TOM. THE SAME NAME AS THOMAS JEFFERSON. Just pointing that out. I have no horse in this race, for I am a historian. I am not biased in any way. ABOUT THIS CHILD SHE NAMED TOM.
Her child was very light skinned. She proceeded to have six more extremely light skinned children upon her return to America, and the boys later recalled that they “were permitted to stay about the ‘great house’ and only required to do such light work as going on errands.” They also all learned how to play the fiddle. (Remember Jefferson played the violin. Totally their dad, absolutely, 100% their dad).
At Monticello Jefferson also had Sally tend to his private rooms, an area no other slaves were permitted to enter.
When Jefferson died he stipulated in his will that all of her sons be freed, though he made no special arrangements for Sally. However, following his death in 1826, Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, freed Sally.
We know all of this history through various diaries and letters written at the time.
One of the facts that we do not know absolutely 100% for certain is that she was President Jefferson’s mistress. And if she was, we certainly do not know if that was because she loved him or if she simply had no other choice.
The notion of a master having a slave mistress was incredibly common. In 1861 Mary Boykin Chestnut, the wife of a plantation owner in South Carolina, wrote:
Ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mullatos one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds. My disgust sometimes is boiling over.
When Jefferson returned from France he was concerned that people would assume that Sally’s child was his, and that it would damage his political career. I mean, if you consider Mrs. Chestnut’s statement, that parentage was something people were already generally assuming about light skinned children born on plantations. It was right around the time that Alexander Hamilton was involved in a career-threatening scandal becasue he was havng an affair with Maria Reynolds, a married woman.
Are you just curious about 18th century sex scandals? Cool! I’ll tell you about that one! Brief digression!
Maria Reynolds told Hamilton that her husband had left her and she needed money to take a train home to her family. Hamilton showed up at her door later that night with the money. Hamilton, much later, explained, “I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her . . . Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”
“Other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable”. God that’s great.
Anyhow, the two had a three year affair. Her husband – who had apparently not left Maria after all – blackmailed Hamilton. Hamilton gave him thousands of dollars. I cannot actually figure out how many dollars that works out to three hundred years later, but let’s just say a billion dollars. Hamilton gave him a billion dollars. It became a huge scandal, and it almost destroyed his entire career.
And that was just a married woman.
So, Jefferson had reason to be concerned!
Are you thinking, “Wow, if you can blackmail someone for an affair with a married lady, then Jefferson is totally going to get blackmailed.” You suspect correctly.
James T. Callender was a journalist, and one of the first people to whom the term “scandalmonger” is applied. He first blackmailed Hamilton, which Jefferson thought was great. You know, Jefferson really does not seem like that terrific a person. I know we like him because we like “presidents who wear wigs”. (I am eagerly awaiting this making a comeback.) But everything I read about Jefferson leads me to believe that, while not exacctly “bad”, he is just kind of sleazy.
So, anyhow, after hearing that Callender had been blackmailing Hamilton, Jefferson asked him if he could dig up any dirt on John Adams. He proceeded to write The Prospect Before Us, which detailed John Adams’ corruption. In it he said that Adams was “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” Jefferson personally proofread the manuscript. Then Callender was fined $200 and sent to jail by the Adams’ administration.
I am going to hit you with a moral you already probably saw coming: if you hang out with blackmailers and you are a powerful politician, eventually they will blackmail you.
I wanted to make that moral a lot pithier, but, well, you see the point.
After Callender was released from jail he asked Thomas Jefferson to make him the Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson – weirdly? – declined. I’m not taking Callender’s side here, because he’s a scumbag who thought journalism was “only writing personal take-downs of people all the time”, but he did go to jail for doing Jefferson’s dirty work, so, yeah, I thought Jefferson might be a pal in this situation. But no! No, Jefferson just did what he felt like doing all the time.
I think maybe Jefferson didn’t really feel a whole lot of attachment to people. He was fickle.
Callender replied – seriously, this is how he replied – “There will be consequences.”
And there were! Callender started writing articles claiming that Jefferson had fathered Sally Heming’s children.
Specifically, he wrote:
It is well known that Jefferson keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally. By this wench, Sally, our President has had several children.
Jefferson, before the eyes of his two daughters, sent to his kitchen, or perhaps to his pigsty, for this Mahogany colored charmer, the black wench and her mulatto litter.
Around this time, people started singing a parody of Yankee Doodle Dandy that referenced Sally:
Of all the damsels on the green
On mountain or in valley
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen
As Monticellian Sally
Yankee doodle, who’s the noodle
What wife were half so hanfy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock
A Blackamoor’s the dandy
First off, if you thought that people in the past were exceptionally civilized, well, you thought wrong, didn’t you? Second, this scandal really puts the whole Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky relationship in some kind of perspective, doesn’t it?
Throughout his life, Jefferson issued private denials of the notion that he was the father of Sally’s many children. He claimed that, in regard to his relations with Sally, “there is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.”
And at the time, a refutation of Callender’s statements ran, “Is it strange 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, should have a mulatto child? Certainly not.”
I mean, it’s strange how common and accepted that situation was, considering the extreme imbalance of power between the two people who engaged in such a relationship.
But, okay, if it was not Jefferson fathering the children – and personally, I think there are some reasons to suspect it was, despite his numerous denials – then who was it?
In 1998 a DNA test was conducted that showed a relationship between one of Hemings’ descendents and the Jefferson male line. That test was not entirely conclusive though. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society suggests that the father could possibly have been Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph.
But look, Sally was not cleaning Randolph’s bedroom.
I think the evidence points pretty strongly to the fact that Jefferson probably fathered Tom and the rest of Sally’s children. There are a few reasons I feel this way.First, members of Sally’s family were the only slaves that Jefferson freed. When you hear that he made provisions for them to be freed after his death, you perhaps think of Ashley Wilkes claiming that he was going to free all his slaves after his death. No. Jefferson was not going to do that. The fact that he freed Sally’s sons indicates that they were probably very, very special.
Second, while Callender was a jerk, and kind of a terrible journalist because journalism is not just personal attacks, he was also very rarely wrong. He was right about Hamilton. He was probably right that Adams had some questionable policies. And he worked more closely with Jefferson than either of them, so, while he might have been weird and vengeful, I am not apt to dismiss his claims.
All of this reasoning is complicated by the fact that Sally herself did not leave any records. When I realized that I thought, “Well, that’s bizarre, you would think that she would have written something about it to someone, sometime. Maybe they burned all her letters.” Then I remembered that she was a slave and thus illiterate.
And just like that, I was back with Mary Boykin Chestnut in feeling that the fact that these arrangements ever existed is absolutely insane. Whether or not Sally stared at Jefferson in a sultry way seems irrelevant in the wake of the fact that she really could not have had much choice in the matter. Whether or not she was dashing and pretty, she still could not read, and he was the President of the United States.
Since I do believe that it seems like the simplest explanation that he fathered her children, I just find myself liking Jefferson a good deal less as a result.
We live in times that are difficult. Where relative power can lead to disaster. But I think, when we look back at history and our relations with our fellow countrymen, we are right in feeling that we have come a long way socially as a country.