James Thomson Callender, a Scottish-born journalist
infamous for his character assassinations of the Founding Fathers and others, published the
first public report on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in the Richmond
James Thomson Callender responds to critics of his
original March, 1802 Richmond Recorder story about Jefferson and Hemings.
A number of popular rhymes, songs, and newspaper stanzas are written
about Jefferson and Hemings and are widely circulated:
Of all the Damsels on the green/on mountain or in valley/A lass so luscious
ne'er was seen/ As Monticellan Sally
-(Published in the Philadelphia literary magazine Port Folio)
Thou Sally, though my house shall keep/ My widow'rs tears shall dry!/ My virgin
daughters--see!they weep--Their mother's place supply.
Oh Sally hearken to my vows!/ Yield up thy sooty charms--/My best beloved! My
more than spouse/ Oh! Take me to thy arms.
-(Published in the Boston Gazette)
Thomas Jefferson is easily re-elected president. The Callender exposé is
not significant in the campaign.
Jefferson responds to a number of charges against him made by critics.
The full reply was lost. All that survives is the cover letter
sent to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith which alludes to the contents of the full reply. Most historians believe that the
relationship with Sally Hemings was one of the charges Jefferson meant to deny in the
letter. This is the only evidence of a direct comment by Jefferson on the
story that he fathered Sally Hemings's children.
Jefferson retires from public office. He returns to Monticello and
never again leaves Virginia.
Jefferson, 83, dies shortly after 12 noon, on the fiftieth
anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He is eighty-three years old.
By the terms of Jefferson's will, Sally's sons, Madison and Eston Hemings, were
freed. Also freed by his will were: Sally's relative Burwell Colbert, who was
Jefferson's personal valet; John Hemings, Sally's younger brother and the
master carpenter at Monticello; Joe Fossett, Sally's relative and master
ironworker at Monticello. Jefferson not only freed these five slaves who were
blood relations of Sally, but he also petitioned the Virginia legislature to allow them
to remain in the state. Sally Hemings was not freed by Jefferson's will,
however. She received her freedom two years after his death.
Jefferson's slaves are sold in an executor's sale. One
hundred and thirty slaves are sold at auction.
Sally Hemings dies at age sixty-two.
William Wells Brown publishes his first edition of
Clotel; or The President's Daughter,
one of the first African American novels published in the United States. It
was widely believed to have been inspired by the Hemings family story.
John Hartwell Cocke, a general in the War of 1812, an original board member at the University of Virginia, and a close friend of
Jefferson's, writes in his journal about the prevalence of sex across the color line. Citing Jefferson's "notorious example," Cocke writes:
[cases of interracial sex] enumerated. . . they would be found by the hundreds. Nor is it to be wondered at when Mr. Jefferson's notorious
example is considered."
Eston Hemings dies in Wisconsin.
Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge writes to her
husband, Joseph Coolidge. The letter repudiates the claim that
Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children, and endorses the idea that Peter
Carr was the true father.
Henry Stephens Randall publishes a three-volume biography of Jefferson,
The Life of Thomas Jefferson in which he brands the Jefferson-Hemings
story pseudohistory "invented by the Federalists."
Captain Edmund Bacon, who was chief overseer of Monticello for twenty
years while Jefferson was alive, offers his recollections of life at Monticello
to a writer who seeks him out at his Kentucky home. Among other things, Bacon
suggests that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings's children. He
alludes to Peter Carr as the father, writing:
"Mr. Jefferson freed a number of his servants in his will. . . He freed one girl
some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She
was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her
because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was - -'s
daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a
morning when I went up to Monticello very early. When she was nearly grown, by
Mr. Jefferson's direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her
fifty dollars. I have never seen her since and don't know what became of her.
From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory.
She never did any hard work.
Henry S. Randall, a Jefferson biographer and relative, writes
to James Parton, who is working on his own Jefferson biography. Randall
reports a conversation he had with Jefferson's oldest grandson many
years earlier, in which the grandson tells Randall that one of the Carr brothers,
Peter or Samuel, was the father of Sally Hemings's children.
For a series of newspaper articles on interesting lives of
blacks living in southern Ohio, writer S.F. Wetmore interviewed Madison
Hemings. The account, published in the Pike County Republican would be
largely ignored by historians until the 1960's. When it was "rediscovered,"
it was again widely repudiated by most Jefferson historians.
Watch a special video report on Madison Hemings.
John A. Jones, the editor of the Waverly Watchman--a
rival to S.F. Wetmore's Pike County Republican--bitterly attacks Madison
Hemings's testimony as untrustworthy.
Pike County Republican newspaperman S.F. Wetmore
publishes the memoirs of Israel Jefferson, a former slave at
Monticello who was friendly with Madison Hemings. Israel Jefferson corroborates
Madison's claims to having been the President's child.
Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of Thomas Jefferson,
angrily replies to Israel Jefferson's testimony in the pages of the Pike County
James Parton, a prominent nineteenth-century Jefferson biographer,
publishes The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Relying on information from
Henry Randall, Parton discredits the Jefferson-Hemings story as a "Campaign Lie" spread by Jefferson's political enemies. Parton passed along Randall's claims that one of the Carrs fathered Sally Hemings's children. Of Madison Hemings, Parton writes: "There is even a respectable Madison Henings (sic), now living in Ohio, who supposes that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Has been misinformed. The record of Mr. Jefferson's every day and hour, contained in the pocket memorandum books, compared with the record of his slaves' birth, proves the impossibility of his having been the father of Madison Henings."
Madison Hemings dies at his home in Chillicothe, Ohio.
The Scioto Gazette, a Chillicothe, Ohio newspaper
publishes a brief article, "A Sprig of Jefferson Was Eston Hemings," which
describes Eston Hemings's remarkable resemblance to a Jefferson bronze statue in Washington D.C.
Under the heading "Anna Hemings: Beautiful Octoroon," the
Scioto Gazette published a follow-up to its previous week's article on
Eston Hemings's resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. In the article, a
local judge relates his impressions of Anna Hemings, Eston's daughter, who, the judge believed, was Thomas
Following the death of one of Sally Hemings's grandsons, Beverly Jefferson of
Madison, Wisconsin, the Chicago Tribune printed an obituary. The
November 12, 1908 death notice did not mention Thomas Jefferson as Beverly's
grandfather, but, that same day, a friend of Beverly's, A.J. Munson, wrote to
the paper to correct the record:
November 12, 1908
Editor of the Tribune:
In the Tribune today is a notice of the death of Beverly Jefferson of Madison.
His death deserves more than a passing notice, as he was a grandson of Thomas
Jefferson, father of the doctrines of the democratic party. . . Beverly
Jefferson was one of God's noblemen--gentle, kindly, courteous, charitable. He
was friendly to everybody in his home city, and he will be missed there quite
as much or more, perhaps, than any other citizen.
Henry S. Randall's 1868 letter to James Parton resurfaces at Harvard as part
of Parton's papers. The letter alleges that one of the
Carr brothers, not Jefferson, fathered Sally Hemings's children.
Jefferson's Farm Book, containing vital statistics on his slaves, is
reprinted by University of Virginia professor Edwin M. Betts. Prior to this,
the Farm Book had been lost, unnoticed among Jefferson items donated to the
Massachusetts Historical Society in 1898.
Madison Hemings testimony is "rediscovered" by James H.
Rodabaugh at the Ohio State Historical and Archaelogical society in Columbus,
Ohio. It is passed to the author John Dos Passos, who then forwards it to
Lerone Bennett publishes a popular account of the
Jefferson-Hemings story in Ebony magazine. The article, "Thomas
Jefferson's Negro Grandchildren," began provocatively: "Scattered across the nation living out their final years in total obscurity are a handful of elderly Negroes who can trace their ancestry to the most illustrious of America's founding fathers. They are the great-great grandchildren of the famous Virginia patriot, who authored the Declaration of Independence--Thomas Jefferson. In four generations, these proud Negro descendants of America's third President have made the long and improbable journey from the white marbled splendor of Monticello to the "Negro ghetto" in the democracy their forebear helped to found." The story, which reviewed the documenhtary evidence as well as interview living descendants, helped to revive popular interest in the story.
Author J.C. Furnas publishes Goodbye to Uncle Tom, a best-selling
book on slavery, in which he writes: "Jefferson was only one of many eminent
and sometimes aristocratic slaveowners who left mulatto offspring for their
admirers to deny or ignore." He also adds, in a note of great understatement: "I am aware that all Jeffersonians do not agree on this."
Merrill Peterson, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of
History at the University of Virginia, publishes The Jefferson Image in the
American Mind, which makes the first scholarly use of Madison Hemings's
testimony. The book, which won the Bancroft Prize (the highest award in the
historical profession), branded the Jefferson-Hemings story a "legend" that was
neither verifiable nor credible. Peterson writes:
Upon the flimsy basis of oral tradition, anecdote, and satire, abolitionists
avowed their belief in Jefferson's misecegenation. . . The legend would not
have been born but for the Federalists; it would not have been revived but for
the abolitionists. . . and when there was little but Jefferson's own history
and the memories of a few Negroes to sustain it, the legend faded into the
obscure recesses of the Jefferson image.
Historian Douglas Adair drafts an essay, "The Jefferson Scandals," in
order to respond to what he perceives to be the new popular belief in the
truth of the Jefferson-Hemings story, which he brands "an ugly tale" and
"a libel that has never died."
Historian Pearl M. Graham publishes an article, "Sally Hemings and
Thomas Jefferson," in the Journal of Negro History. She is one of the
first to use the "redisovered" Jefferson Farm Book to argue in favor of the
Professor Winthrop Jordan publishes his monumental groundbreaking
history, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro,
1550-1812. In the few pages of the book that treat the
Jefferson-Hemings story, Jordan argues that it was as consistent with
Jefferson's psychology to have had the relationship with Hemings, as to not to
have had it. This is the first time a historian of Jordan's stature has
publicly endorsed the possibility of the relationship, even if he did not take a firm stand on the actual truth of the matter.
Fawn Brodie, a lecturer in history at U.C.L.A, publishes "The
Great Jefferson Taboo" in American Heritage magazine. The introduction to the article asks: "Did Thomas Jefferson, widowed at thirty-nine, take as a mistress Sally Hemings, the beautiful quadroon half-sister of his late wife?" Anticipating
"inevitable controversy," the magazine breaks with its practice and publishes
Brodie's extensive notes.
Fawn Brodie, author of noted biographies on the Mormon leader Joseph
Smith and the explorer Sir Richard Burton, publishes Thomas Jefferson: An
Intimate History. In one of over thirty chapters in the book, "Sally
Hemings," Brodie discusses the slave girl as one of several important
passionate romantic relationships in Jefferson's life. In an appendix to the
book, Brodie attempts to dismantle the Jefferson "family denial" that one of
the Carrs fathered Sally Hemings's children. (Read an excerpt from the Brodie biography)
Watch a special video report on Fawn Brodie
Reactions to Fawn Brodie's Jefferson biography were numerous, sometimes
favorable, sometimes condescending, and often contentious.
Journalist and historian Garry Wills reviews Fawn Brodie's Jefferson
biography in The New York Review of Books. The review is
personal and cutting, dismissing Brodie as "ignorant" with an "endless
appetite" for "finding sexual references wherever possible." Wills seems most
disturbed by Brodie's characterization of the relationship as one of romantic
love; instead, he argues that Hemings was, at best, a "healthy and obliging
Historian Douglas Adair's essay "The Jefferson Scandals," originally
written in 1960 and revised over subsequent years, is published after his death
to help rebut Fawn Brodie's claims. In the essay, Adair makes elaborate
claims for a romance between Peter Carr and Sally Hemings which produced all of
Pre-eminent Jefferson scholar Dumas Malone and his assistant Steven H.
Hochman, publish a journal article, "A Note on Evidence: The Personal History
of Madison Hemings." The article attempts to dismantle a key pillar of the new
claims about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship--Madison's testimony--by
impugning the motives of S.F. Wetmore, who interviewed Madison in 1873.
Fawn Brodie publishes her first major follow-up to her original research
into the Jefferson-Hemings story. The article, "Thomas Jefferson's
Unknown Grandchildren: A Study in Historical Silence," documents the lives of
some of the descendants of Sally Hemings's sons, Eston and Madison.
Historian John Chester Miller publishes The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas
Jefferson and Slavery which reluctantly takes up the question
"imposed" on him and others by Fawn Brodie: whether Jefferson made "the
mulatto slave girl Sally Hemings his paramour." Miller finds the story too
radically inconsistent with Jefferson's character and temperament. Following the lead
of generations of Jefferson historians before him, Miller
endorses the theory that one of the Carr brothers fathered Sally
Barbara Chase-Riboud, a poet and sculptress, publishes an historical
novel, Sally Hemings, in which she blends documentary evidence for the
Jefferson-Hemings relationship with a thoughtful imaginative reconstruction of
conversations, events, and the psychological climate in which the two initiated
and maintained a thirty-eight year romantic attachment. The book proved
popular with the public--a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection--
but it drew heavy fire from Jefferson historians.
The CBS television network "dropped all plans" for a
mini-series based on Barbara Chase-Riboud's, Sally Hemings: A Novel.
CBS bowed to concerted pressure from Jefferson historians and descendants who
lobbied CBS privately, and then went public with their opposition:
[CBS should] reconsider lending its name and network to mass media exposure of
what can only be vulgar sensationilsm masquerading as history.
Watch a special video report on the killing of the mini-series.
- Merrill Peterson
Letter to William Paley, Chairman of CBS
January 16, 1979
[A Jefferson-Hemings television mini-series] will be a mockery of history.
Scandal and sex can be exploited to great financial advantage. The public will
always believe the story. You can never get it back. You can never stop
February 13, 1979
The Washington Post
Virginius Dabney, a writer and Jefferson descendant, publishes, The
Jefferson Scandals--A Rebuttal, an expanded version of a 1979 magazine
article in which he attacked Fawn Brodie's Jefferson biography and Barbara
Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings novel. Dabney breathlessly marshalls whatever
evidence he could find that he felt sufficiently damning to the
interpretations and claims made by Brodie and Riboud.
Read an excerpt from Dabney's book.
Dumas Malone, the eminent University of Virginia professor and
Jefferson historian, speaks to a New York Times reporter in one of the
last interviews of his life. The ninety-two year-old Malone, who had considered
stories about Jefferson and Hemings a nuisance, a lie, and a libel
on a great president, makes a surprising comment that the two of them
may have had a sexual encounter "once or twice."
Watch a special video report on Dumas Malone's view of Jefferson-Hemings.
At the opening event of the University of Virginia's
commemoration of Thomas Jefferson's 250th birthday, a new generation of
Jefferson scholars convened a conference, "Jeffersonian Legacies," which was
"ingeniously structured to promote genuinely fresh thinking about Jefferson and
his legacy. The list of participants did not include many leading scholars
with established reputations as Jefferson specialists who had already had their
say." Though research was presented offering new insights into slave life at
Monticello, little was said of Sally Hemings, except for a presentation of
fifty years of dispute over various claims about the Jefferson-Hemings
Historian Willard Sterne Randall publishes Thomas Jefferson: A
Life, an attempted "reinterpretation" of Jefferson's political career,
his beliefs on slavery, and other central aspects of Jefferson biography. On the
the Jefferson-Hemings story, Randall is quick and sure in his repudiation:
Historians dismissed the Callender charges for nearly two centuries until Fawn
Brodie dusted off a highly inaccurate and uncorroborated memoir by a man who
described himself as Madison Jefferson, son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings.. .
[Madison's testimony] is full of hearsay about events that the would-be
former house slave could not have seen or known firsthand, if only because of
his age, and must be put down as mere gossip about a great man published in the
absence of journalistic standards, much less historical ones.
Merchant-Ivory's feature film, "Jefferson in Paris," depicts a sexual
relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Though the film was not a great
box office success, the reviews of the movie generally dismiss the
"Despite the certainty with which the filmmakers portray the affair, it is a
story for which there has never been, and probably never can be, anything
approaching proof." (Columbia University Professor of History Alan Brinkley,
Newsweek, April 3, 1995.)
"What 'Jefferson in Paris' presents as vividly real, in a way only film has the
power to, has long been viewed by most historians as a possibility at best, or,
very likely, pure invention." (Richard Bernstein, New York Times, April
Writer Conor Cruise O'Brien publishes The Long Affair: Thomas
Jefferson and the French Revolution 1785-1800, which includes a closing
note about the Jefferson-Hemings story:
"The time may come when Madison Hemings's story can be put to the decisive
test. In the meantime, it would be prudent for historians and biographers to
refrain from dogmatic statements concerning that story. . . In the present
state of knowledge, it is prudent to suspend judgment on this matter.
History Professor Joseph J. Ellis publishes a landmark re-appraisal of
Jefferson, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the
1996 National Book Award. In the book's Appendix, Ellis offers "A Note on the
Sally Hemings Scandal," which acknowledges the important "symbolic" truth of the
story for mixed-race America, but remains deeply skeptical about its truth.
Within the community of Jefferson specialists, there seems to be a clear
consensus that the story is almost certainly not true. . . After five years
mulling over the huge cache of evidence that does exist on the thought and
character of the historical Jefferson, I have concluded that the likelihood of
a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote.
Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed publishes Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings: An American Controversy which systematically
evaluates some 200 years of claims and counter-claims
about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Although she stops short of fully
promoting the truth of the story (she believes DNA evidence might offer the
only possibility for certainty), she is unequivocal in her criticism of
historical scholarship on this question over the years:
It is my belief that those who are considered Jefferson scholars have never
made a serious and objective attempt to get at the truth of this matter. . .
The failure to look more closely into the identities of the parties involved,
the too ready acceptance and active promotion of the Carr brothers story, the
reliance upon stereotypes in the place of investigation and analysis, all
indicate that most Jefferson scholars decided from the outset that this story
was not true and that if they had anything to do with it, no one would come to
think otherwise. In the most fundamental sense, the enterprise of defense has
had little to do with expanding people's knowledge of Thomas Jefferson or the
other participants in the story. The goal has been quite the opposite: to
restrict knowledge as a way of controlling the allowable discourse on this
Dr. Eugene Foster et. al publish an article in the
scientific journal Nature, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child,"
which presents the first scientific proof of Jefferson paternity of at least
one of Sally Hemings's children. Foster's findings also give the lie
to more than a hundred years of historians' claims
that one of Jefferson's nephews, Peter or Samuel Carr,
fathered Hemings's children. DNA testing excluded both of
the Carrs from the list of possible fathers:
To throw some scientific light on the dispute, we have compared Y-chromosomal
DNA haplotypes from male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, a paternal uncle
of Thomas Jefferson, with those of male-line descendants of Thomas Woodson,
Sally Hemings' putative first son, and of Eston Hemings Jefferson, her last
son. The molecular findings fail to support the belief that Thomas Jefferson
was Thomas Woodson's father, but provide evidence that he was the biological
father of Eston Hemings Jefferson. . . The simplest and most probable
explanations for our molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson, rather than
one of the Carr brothers, was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson. . . Watch a special video report on the aftermath of the DNA findings.
In quick response to Foster's published DNA test results,
professors Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf organized a conference at the University of
Virginia to allow "historians to reflect upon and begin attempting to explain
the significance of the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings."
The organizers described it as a forum for a number of academics who had
assumed the truth of the relationship before the DNA but had "not bothered to
publish their thoughts."
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation issues the "Report of
the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings."
endorsed the findings reported in Dr. Foster's 1998 Nature article.
Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our
evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the
birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.
More than twenty years after CBS executives were pressured by Jefferson historians to drop plans for a mini-series on Jefferson and Hemings, the
network airs, "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." Though many
quarrelled with the portrayal of Hemings as unrealistically modern and heroic,
no major historian challenged the series' premise that Hemings and Jefferson had a
thirty-eight year romantic relationship that produced children.