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1960: The Jefferson Scandals by Douglas Adair
Douglas Adair was a professor of history until his death in 1968. This essay, originally written in 1960, and revised several times thereafter, was published posthumously in 1974 as part of an edited collection, Fame and the Founding Fathers.

From Douglass Adair's Fame and the Founding Fathers; Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. Copywright 1974. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Why did Sally do it? Why did she mislead her children and conceal their true father's name from them?

An easy answer, of course, is Sally's vanity. It was flattering to her, as it would have been to most women, to have her name linked so intimately with one of the truly great men of the age. The widespread newspaper discussion of her supposed affair with Jefferson, which she undoubtedly was aware of, provided a tempting opportunity to elevate simultaneously her status in her own children's eyes and to give them as high a pride of ancestry as their situation as slaves allowed. Sally would have been less than human if the opportunity here offered had not been grasped. Hence, the overdramatized report of her trip to France and the supposed adventures there. Every man's knowledge of his paternity rests on hearsay. Thus, though it is impossible to believe that Eston,, Madison, Harriet, and Beverly did not hear remarks by the other servants on some occasions indicating that Jefferson was not their father, pride encouraged them to believe their mother's story, with its wealth of circumstantial detail.

This is an easy answer, but it is not the only answer. One suspects that more is involved than Sally's vanity. Assuming that Peter Carr was Sally's lover, her denial of this fact seems especially significant in view of the lasting almost conjugal, nature of their relations.

All of the evidence points to the notion that Sally's connection with Peter Carr was a genuine love match. exhibiting deep and lasting emotional involvements for both partners. There is no hint from any member of the Monticello household or from the record of Jefferson's Farm Book that Sally Hemings was to the slightest degree promiscuous. Indeed, all the evidence we have points to her strong instincts to continence. Like Jefferson himself, like the Jefferson children, Sally appears to have accepted middle-class standards of monogamy as the proper standards that ought to govern the relations of men and women, and we know that Sally inculcated these standards in her own children. Because of her special status at Monticello and Jefferson's protection, Sally, unlike most slave women, could not have been forced into a sexual relationship against her will. We can only assume then that when Peter Carr became her lover he must have wooed her. And apparently he won her heart once and for all, for there is no evidence of Sally Hemings's attachment ever to any other man.

The long-continued stability of the attachment is evidenced by the children born to Carr and Sally during a fifteen- year period. Their first child, the short-lived Harriet, was born when Sally was twenty-two and Carr was twenty-five, their fifth child, Eston, when the parents were thirty-five and thirty-eight respectively. Thus as a conservative estimate the intimacy between Sally and Carr lasted at least fifteen years, beginning in hot youth but enduring into middle age.

While Sally was faithful to her lover, Peter Carr, she could not as a slave ask him to be faithful to her. Two years after she bore Carr's first child and in the very year (1797) she conceived his second child, Carr married Hetty Smith, a member of a distinguished Baltimore family--one of her brothers was a senator from Maryland and another brother served in both Jefferson's and Madison's cabinets. Carr seemingly loved his wife, and he was certainly a devoted father to the four children Hetty bore him, but his marriage did not erase his affection, his desire, his deep emotional involvement with Sally Hemings. All of Sally's last three children were born after Peter Carr's marriage. Despite his wedding vows, despite his affection for his wife, he found that for at least ten years after his marriage he could not divorce himself from Sally.

It was this situation productive of fierce jealousy--of feeling of betrayal even--on Sally's part, that must be remembered in judging her repudiation of Carr's paternity of her children. In as much as Sally loved Carr, so much more must she have hated his wife, and on occasion hated him, too, for taking a wife. Her revenge was neither to refuse him her body nor to punish him by accepting other lovers but, more subtly, to deny to her children-- the children who were the continuing mark of their mutual affection--that Carr was their father. Pride and revenge were equally compounded in the fictitious story she told her children about being Jefferson's mistress.

Love and rejection were strands in the twisted emotional knot that tied Sally to Peter Carr; love and guilt were strands twisted into the knot binding Peter to Sally during most of their adult lives. We have the record of an eyewitness report on Carr's confessed shame over the sorrow his attachment had caused Jefferson and the rest of the Monticello family after the newspapers began to mock the president for his supposed amours, but the guilt with love must have been present earlier. Peter Carr must have been conscious, long before Callender made Sally's name notorious, that this affair was only the most obvious and sensational way in which he had disappointed Jefferson's hopes and plans for his career.

For Jefferson, whose only son had died in infancy, looked on Peter, the child of his favorite sister and Dabucy Carr, "the dearest friend I knew,"33 almost as his own son, and on Peter's future Jefferson heavily invested his aspirations and hopes. Sometime after their father's death the Carr boys came to live at Monticello, where Jefferson personally acted as Peter's "preceptor" until he embarked on his diplomatic mission to France. At this time he asked James Madison to become Peter's guardian, recommending him as "a boy of fine dispositions and sound masculine talents," who had already mastered Latin and the rudiments of Greek, and was now ready to embark on an intensive program of advanced "philosophic" reading that would prepare him for a career of public service." But Jefferson while in France was not content to leave Peter's education even to such admirable proxies as Madison and George Wythe, who acted as the boy's tutor in 1786. There was a steady flow of letters from Paris to Peter in Virginia offering guidance on his studies, his manners, and his morals. Peter was encouraged to consider his time as a precious commodity and to never waste a moment of it. He was warned that "every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself," and that "the acquisition of science . . . is what (next to an honest heart) will above all things render you dear to your friends, and give you fame and promotion in your own country." To provide Peter with the "knowing head" and the necessary professional knowledge for political leadership, Jefferson carefully worked out elaborate and comprehensive reading lists (they have been preserved in his papers) of the basic books on politics and history, on natural science and mathematics that the youth should master. And from Paris came parcels of books for Peter's use.

Along with the intellectual guidance came moral instruction, for as Jefferson reiterated, "a knowing head" is a secondary blessing compared to "an honest heart." "Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains rather than do an immoral act." Morals, Jefferson told Peter, were not like astronomy, a matter of "Science," and, at best, reading books "will encourage as well as direct your feelings." above all, "lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous etc. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral facilities, and increase your worth."

As a practical rule which would invariably supply a sure test for honorable and right conduct, Jefferson offered Peter this advice: "Whenever you are to do a thing tho' it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself, how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly."

Peter, who worshipped his uncle, tried, as his letters show, to follow the austere regimen planned for him. Both Madison and Wythe testify to his industry and seriousness. Indeed he had progressed so well that on April 18, 1787, he was begging Jefferson to let him come to Paris to acquire European polish and to add the knowledge of men to that of books. Jefferson, however, denied the request. When he had sailed for France in 1784 he had wondered if it might not be desirable to have Peter join him in Paris, but once there he was "thoroughly cured of that Idea." In fact he had come to believe that it was a great mistake for any young American boy to travel to Europe. "When men of sober age travel, they gather knowledge which they may apply usefully for their country," but young men are exposed to "inconveniences" which far outweigh any advantages to be gained. From observations "founded in experience" Jefferson feared that if Peter came to Paris he would pick up habits and manners that would "poison" the residue of his life. The young American abroad "acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation.... He is led by the strongest of all the human passions into a spirit for female intrigue destructive of his own and others happiness, or a passion for whores destructive of his health, and in both cases learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice." Temptation to form "a connection, as is the fashion here," would be well nigh irresistible; it is difficult for young men "to refuse it where beauty is a begging in every street." So Peter's request was denied, but Jefferson assured him: "There is no place where your pursuit of knowledge will be so little obstructed by foreign objects as in your own country, nor any wherein the virtues of the heart will be less exposed to be weakened. Be good, be learned, and be industrious, and you will not want the aid of travelling to render you precious to your country, dear to your friends, happy within yourself."

Consequently, Peter remained in Virginia, seasoning his intensive reading with attendance at the county courts. In 1789, with Madison as chaperon, he did travel to New York to see Washington inaugurated and to meet the political leaders from all over the United States who were starting the wheels of the new federal government, but he was back in Virginia by the end of the year when Jefferson, his cousins, and Sally returned from France. In 1793, just about the time of the commencement of his attachment to Sally, he was admitted to the bar, and no young Virginian of his generation seemed to have more favorable prospects of a distinguished career. Learned, supported by both Jefferson and Madison, he came to the bar and the forum with other qualities. William Wirt, a friend who was a sound judge, found him "naturally eloquent. His voice was melody itself. He had the advantage of a large commanding figure, a countenance like his soul, open and noble." But Carr's career petered out almost at once--two undistinguished terms in the Virginia House of Delegates (1801-1804) and it was finished. Jefferson's first wish for him, that he would be "precious" to his country, was not granted.

One can be sure, too, from our knowledge of Peter Carr's inability to solve his ambiguous relations with Sally Hemings and his wife, Hetty Smith Carr, that Jefferson's third wish, made when Peter was seventeen, that he would be happy within himself, was not fulfilled. Only the second wish, that Peter would be "dear" to his friends, came true. In the obituary prepared when Carr died in 1815, aged forty-five, William Wirt wrote: "No man was dearer to his friends; and there was never a man to whom his friends were more dear." Peter Carr's great capacity to give and to inspire affection stands as his most lasting achievement, and what this involved in heartbreak for his uncle and his two families we have seen.

Here then is the story, or as much of it as we are ever likely to know, of the scandals at Monticello. Here are the circumstances that knotted the lives of the Wayles, the Hemingses, the Carrs, and the Jeffersons into the tangled web of love and hatred, of pride and guilt, of love and shame. Today it has become fashionable for some historians to defend slavery as a "good" system that had reciprocal advantages for Negroes and whites Slavery was not really bad in itself, these scholars say, if only the master was a humane and kindly person--the evils of slavery, with its institutionalized inequality of human beings, should be attributed chiefly to the evil masters who were the rare exceptions in the antebellum South. Decent people, they argue, can transform a legalized system of unequal rights into decent personal relations. Thomas Jefferson, who was the best of masters, who had experienced the capacity of the system of inequalities to poison the relations of decent men and women, black and white, who were trapped in it, knew better. "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.... And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies.... Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever!"

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