Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
The Sage of Monticello—Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States—was one of the most venerated statesmen in American history. Despite the litany of achievements for which Jefferson is rightly celebrated, he also represents a dark chapter in the nation’s history. He lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during an era when it was permissible for one group of human beings to own another. I discuss Jefferson and his relationship to slaves in general, and his slave Sally Hemings in particular, in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
As a slaveowner who never repudiated the peculiar institution, Jefferson’s views on race and master-slave relations were complex. He was not a man who could profess ignorance of the slave’s plight. He knew all too well from both personal experience and his studies that slavery was an abomination. At times he condemned the institution in uncompromising terms. “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” he wrote in Query XVIII of his only book, Notes on the States of Virginia. Later in that same essay, he explained, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events.”
Yet Jefferson did not free his slaves, nor did he disavow the brutal institution. He also may have had a sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, who possibly bore him at least one and perhaps as many as six children. The likelihood that Jefferson may have fathered one or more mulatto children with his slave has been a vexing question for more than 200 years. In the era before DNA testing was possible, historians wrestling with the question had to examine records of when the Hemings children were conceived and track Jefferson’s whereabouts near those dates. They also debated whether it was out of character for this thoughtful, venerable leader to have engaged in such behavior.
In 1998, a scientist, Eugene Foster, published the results of a DNA test in the journal Nature indicating that the sage of Monticello may have fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’ offspring. The study required researchers to gather samples from descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Foster and his colleagues discovered a match in the Y chromosome DNA—material passed from father to son—between descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas’s paternal uncle, and Eston Hemings, Sally’s last child. Foster could not rule out other Jefferson men as the father, but circumstantial evidence suggested that Thomas, owing to his proximity to Sally Hemings on crucial dates, was the most likely parent. Sally gave birth to four children between 1795 and 1808, and Thomas was present during the times the children were conceived.
The inability to state a definitive conclusion for or against Jefferson’s paternity complicated the statesman’s legacy. His defenders insisted that Jefferson was shy and seldom preoccupied with mundane matters of sex and bodily functions following the death of his wife. She died in 1782, when Jefferson was 39 years old. He lived another 44 years. Having promised her that he would never remarry, Jefferson honored his pledge and remained a celibate widower, spending his time and energy on loftier matters of philosophy, science, and governance. Had he engaged in a sexual liaison with Sally Hemings, which supporters of the Jefferson-Hemings coupling contend probably began while they both lived in France in 1789, the young woman would have been 16 years old while her master was 46. The disparity in age, wealth, and social status is off-putting for Jeffersonian enthusiasts who cannot envision the great man taking a slave mistress.
For others, the DNA test, although not definitive, strongly suggested that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. The master had made the slave his lover. Jefferson’s paternity fit in with a larger narrative on master-slave relations. It was a dirty little open secret on many a southern homestead that the slave children bore an uncanny resemblance to the slave master or his male relatives. Wives and daughters were forced to turn a blind eye to the stepchildren and half-siblings who came and went on the plantation grounds. The Jefferson-Hemings union was further evidence of the depraved relations that flowed from a monstrous, "peculiar" institution. The only difference was that Jefferson was a prominent public figure; his story was replayed innumerable times on plantations scattered across the South.
Another troubling question concerned the matter of consent. If Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings engaged in a sexual relationship, what was the nature of that relationship? Were they genuinely in love, did Jefferson force himself on her, or was it some odd mixture of the two—a Stockholm Syndrome whereby the slave girl came to identify with her oppressor? Of course, the issue can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The two people who know the answers are long gone. Nonetheless, speculation continues. Moreover, the question of whether a slave could ever consent to anything gives way to objections: To assume that Sally Hemings had no choice is to objectify her as a victim with no will of her own. Yet to argue that she consented is to ignore the fundamental precepts of the master-slave relationship. On and on the queries extend into the murky past.
The story’s questionable provenance did not help matters. First reported in the press in 1802, the tale originated with James Callender, an unscrupulous “scandalmonger” who had written unsavory pamphlets in service of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans until the two men had a falling out. With the gloves off, Callender wasted no time in repeating rumors about President Jefferson cavorting and his slave woman. As the Richmond Reporter observed, “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.” It was not enough to cite the name of the mistress. Evidence, however circumspect, must be presented to lend the scurrilous reports an air of legitimacy. “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.” Based on this rumor, a caricature titled "A Philosophic Cock," depicting Jefferson as a preening rooster with “Dusky Sally” as his hen, circulated as early as 1804.
Although it did not erupt into a full-fledged scandal during Jefferson’s lifetime, the rumor occasionally elicited wry comments, such as this ditty from the Irish poet Thomas Moore:
The weary statesman for repose hath fled
From halls of council to his neighbor’s shed,
Where blest he woos some black Aspasia’s grace,
And dreams of freedom in his slave’s embrace!
Although Jefferson never publicly commented on the tale, Sally Hemings’ descendants believed that he was an ancestor. Oral history passed down through generations noted that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress and that she exercised a degree of autonomy that would have been difficult to fathom were she not his concubine. As Madison Hemings, her son, remarked in a two thousand-word interview published in a partisan Republican newspaper in Ohio in 1873, the two became lovers while Jefferson was in France. When it came time for him to return to the United States, Sally Hemings initially resisted.
“He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred,” the son recalled. “She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia, she would be reenslaved. So she refused to return with him.” It is difficult to know how forceful the much younger slave would have been with the esteemed master, but Madison Hemings’ account is not completely unbelievable. If Sally Hemings meant something to Jefferson, it is plausible that he would have accepted a measure of defiance without objection. According to Madison Hemings, Jefferson promised her “extraordinary privileges” if she would cross the Atlantic to America. Her children, he said, would be free at age 21. “In consequence of this promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.”
Given the sensitive issue of miscegenation in southern society, Jefferson’s heirs possessed a strong incentive to deny paternity. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the president’s eldest grandson, surmised that Peter Carr, Jefferson’s nephew, was the father. Samuel Carr, another nephew, was mentioned as a viable candidate as well. To the extent that mainstream historians addressed the controversy at all, they typically credited the Carr story as the answer to the mystery and seldom inquired further. For many historians, the facts were so heavily disputed and the documentary evidence so scant that the matter was ignored for the remainder of the nineteenth century, and most of the twentieth century.
The undisputed facts are that Sally Heming returned to Virginia and lived out her life there. She bore a total of six children. Beyond those bare statistics, almost everything else is mired in controversy. Madison Hemings’ oral history was never afforded much weight among scholars, who typically dismissed his assertions as tainted by his family’s desire to affiliate themselves with a major historical figure. Moreover, some scholars suggested that Madison Hemings never actually granted the 1873 interview; it was the ghost-written work of an anti-Jeffersonian hack intent on besmirching the dead president’s legacy.
Twentieth Century historians struggled to make sense of the story, but their findings failed to satisfy anyone. Merrill D. Peterson, a renowned historian of the early American republic, dismissed the Hemings rumor as “malicious barbs of political satirists” in his book The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. In discussing the evolution of Jefferson’s public image over time, Peterson noted that anti-Jeffersonian partisans were especially interested in using the rumor to slander the former president’s reputation.
Dumas Malone, the author of a magisterial six-volume Jefferson biography, joined the chorus of apologists who cast doubt on the tale owing to the great man’s character. A decade later, Joel Williamson’s book New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States concluded that the circumstantial evidence was close, but Jefferson probably was not the father. Williamson found that Sally Heming might have been sexually promiscuous—a standard conclusion about mixed-race slave women—and therefore any analysis of paternity would be suspect. It was a conclusion that failed to resolve the issue, and infuriated partisans on both sides of the question. Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian of the founding period, writing in his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson expressed doubts that Jefferson fathered the Hemings children, although he was not as zealous as many of his predecessors.
Not everyone who examined the evidence reached the same conclusion. Fawn Brodie, as prominent scholar who authored a 1974 book on Jefferson, concluded that he probably did father Sally Hemings’ children. Some historians criticized Brodie’s reliance on psychological analysis to assess the actions and motives of long-dead figures, but her suppositions were no more or less likely than any others.
Harvard Law School Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, an expert on the legal history of the early republic, is the most prominent scholar to insist that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children. Her major works, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, argued that white scholars’ beliefs that Jefferson was a moral exemplar who would not have engaged in sex with a slave portray the man as a staid, sexless caricature. He only comes alive when he is viewed as a flesh-and-blood man who succumbed to the human temptations of the flesh. Historians who dismiss the Hemings family’s voices by referring to Jefferson’s exemplary character are naïve about the realities of slaves’ lives and deliberately blind to the sources of information, such as oral histories, that augment white people’s letters, diaries, and self-serving memoirs.
Before the latter half of the twentieth century, the consensus seemed to be that Jefferson was not the father of the Hemings children. The standard narrative gradually evolved as the controversy entered popular culture. In 1979, Barbara Chase-Riboud published a novel, Sally Hemings, that envisioned what the “forbidden love” between Hemings and Jefferson must have been like. The 1995 film Jefferson in Paris portrayed Jefferson as a man who preferred “heart over head” when it came to romance.
The DNA results in 1998 did more than anything else to shift the mainstream discussion. Shortly after the results were published, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation commissioned a study to sift through the available data, such as the DNA evidence, oral histories, letters, and statistical calculations on the likelihood of someone with Jefferson’s DNA makeup (other than Jefferson himself) being present during the time that Sally Hemings conceived her children. In January 2000, the committee announced that a high probability existed that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings as well as some or all of the other children. The Foundation concluded that “the issue is a settled historical matter.” Although the evidence was not definitive, it was persuasive: Jefferson was the father.
Most historians fell in line with this assessment, but not everyone agreed. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society examined the same evidence but reached a different conclusion. This group suggested that Sally Hemings was a peripheral figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life. Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’s younger brother, was more likely the father of at least some of the Hemings children, according to this source. In his book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, David Barton concluded that, based on the DNA evidence, 10 men of the Jefferson line possibly fathered one or more of the Hemings children. The rush to judgment ensured that Thomas Jefferson’s good name would be smeared in the pages of history.
Before the 1998 DNA results, the weight of the evidence suggested that Jefferson probably was not the father. After the testing, the weight of the evidence shifted. The reality is that no one will ever know the nature and extent of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Did they love each other? Is “love,” according to our modern conception of the term, even possible when there is such a vast differential in power between two people? What does “consent” mean under these circumstances? On and on the questions go.
The scandal was little more than a vicious rumor circulated by unscrupulous partisans during Jefferson’s lifetime. It was only centuries later that it became a major source of contention among historians and persons interested in the legacy of the nation’s third president. It will be a topic of discussion as long as Jefferson’s memory lives in American history.