The subject [of Jefferson's possible relationship with Sally Hemings] is an
unpalatable one for many Americans: the assertion that a great national figure
was involved in miscegenation--this is the central supposed "fact" of the
Hemings matter--is one that Americans find difficult to treat as anything but a
malicious accusation. Malice was, indeed, the animating force behind the
original claim, but we need to brace ourselves into an intellectual posture
from which we can see that the importance of the stories about black Sally
Hemings and Thomas Jefferson lies in the fact that they seemed--and to some
people still seem--of any importance. |
The facts of the matter require attention not because Jefferson's behavior
needs to be questioned but because they are of some (but not very much) help in
understanding Jefferson's views about miscegenation and, far more, because they
shed light on the cultural context in which he moved and of which we are heirs.
Viewed in the context of his feelings about white women, the problem of
Jefferson's actual overt behavior becomes essentially irrelevant to the subject
of this book; it is to the inner world of his thought and feeling that we must
look for significant behavior and, even more, to his culture for the larger
significance of the matter.
In 1802 James T. Callender charged in the Richmond Recorder that it was
"well known" that Jefferson kept Sally, one of his slaves, as concubine and had
fathered children by her. The features of "Tom," the eldest offspring, were
"said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president
himself." Callender was a notorious professional scandalmonger who had turned
upon Jefferson when the President had disappointed his hope for federal office.
Despite the utter disreputability of the source, the charge has been dragged
after Jefferson like a dead cat through the pages of formal and informal
history, tied to him by its attractiveness to a wide variety of interested
persons and by the apparent impossibility of utterly refuting it.
Ever since Callender's day it has served the varied purposes of those seeking
to degrade Jefferson for political or ideological reasons, of abolitionists,
defamers of Virginia, the South, and even America in general, and both
defenders and opponents of racial segregation. Jefferson's conduct has been
attacked from several angles, for in fact the charge of concubinage with Sally
Hemings constitutes not one accusation but three, simultaneously accusing
Jefferson of fathering bastards, of miscegenation, and of crassly taking
advantage of a helpless young slave (for Sally was probably twenty-two when she
first conceived). The last of these, insofar as it implies forced attentions on
an unwilling girl, may be summarily dismissed. For one thing, indirect evidence
indicates that Sally was happy throughout her long period of motherhood, and,
more important, Jefferson was simply not capable of violating every rule of,
honor and kindness, to say nothing of his convictions concerning the
As for bastardy and miscegenation, the known circumstances of the situation at
Monticello which might support the charges were, very briefly, as follows. The
entire Hemings family seems to have received favored treatment. Sally's mother
was mulatto and had come to Jefferson with her still lighter children from the
estate of his father-in-law, John Wayles, in 1774. Most of Sally's siblings
were personal servants; one brother became a skilled carpenter and two of
Sally's children were eventually charged to him for training. Sally herself and
her mother were house servants, and Sally (described as very fair) was sent as
maid with Jefferson's daughter to Paris. All the slaves freed by Jefferson were
Hemingses, and none of Sally's children were retained in slavery as adults. She
bore five, from 1795 to 1808; and though he was away from Monticello a total of
roughly two-thirds of this period, Jefferson was at home nine months prior to
each birth. Her first child was conceived following Jefferson's retirement as
Secretary of State with nerves raw from political battling with Hamilton. Three
others were conceived during Jefferson's summer vacations and the remaining
child was born nine months after his very brief return to Monticello for the
funeral of his daughter. In short, Jefferson's paternity can be neither refuted
nor proved from the known circumstances or from the extant testimony of his
overseer, his white descendants, or the descendants of Sally, each of them
having fallible memories and personal interest/ at stake
If we turn to Jefferson's character we are confronted by evidence which for
many people today (and then) furnished an immediate and satisfactory
refutation. Yet the assumption that this high-minded man could not have
carried on such an affair is at variance with what is known today concerning
the relationship between human personality and behavior. If the previous
suggestions concerning his personality have any validity, Jefferson's relations
with women were ambivalent, and in the Hemings situation either tendency could
Assuming this ambivalence in Jefferson, one can construct two reasonable
(though not equally probable) and absolutely irreconcilable cases. It is
possible to argue on the one hand, briefly, that Jefferson was a truly
admirable man if there ever was one and that by the time he had married and
matured politically, in the 1770's, his "head" was permanently in control of
his "heart." Hence a liaison with a slave girl would have been a lapse from
character unique in his mature life. It would have represented, on a deeper
level, abandonment of the only grounds on which he was able to maintain
satisfactory relations with women, their safe incarceration in the married
state. It would have meant complete reversal of his feelings of repulsion
toward Negroes and a towering sense of guilt for having connected with such
sensual creatures and having given free reign to his own libidinous desires,
guilt for which there is no evidence. On the other hand, however, it is
possible to argue that attachment with Sally represented a final happy
resolution of his inner conflict. This would account for the absence after his
return from Paris in 1789 of evidence pointing to continuing high tension
concerning women and Negroes, an absence hardly to be explained by senility.
Sally Hemings would have become Becky Burwell and the bitter outcome of his
marriage erased. Unsurprisingly, his repulsion toward Negroes would have been,
all along merely the obverse of powerful attraction, and external pressures in
the 1790's would easily have provided adequate energy for turning the coin of
psychic choice from one side to the other. One is left fully persuaded only of
the known fact that any given pattern of basic personality can result in widely
differing patterns of external behavior.
The question of Jefferson's miscegenation, it should be stressed again, is of
limited interest and usefulness even if it could be satisfactorily answered.
The Notes had been written years before, and Jefferson never deviated
from his "aversion," as he wrote just before he died, "to the mixture of
colour" in America. One aspect of the history of the Hemings family, however,
offers possible clarification on several points. It appears quite probable that
Sally and some of her siblings were the children of his father-in-law, John
Wayles. It must have been a burden indeed for Jefferson, who probably knew
this, to have the Hemingses in the same house with their half-sister and aunt,
his beloved wife, who almost certainly was ignorant of the situation. This
burden might well have embittered his thoughts on miscegenation in general and
have helped convince him to his dying day that it was a social evil. It would
also have heightened his conviction that slavery was degrading to white men.
And while it does not settle anything concerning his relations with Sally, it
would explain the favored treatment the Hemings family received at
For many people it seems to require an effort of will to remember that the
larger significance of the Hemings matter lay not in Jefferson's conduct but in
the charges themselves. Callender's words went echoing through the
anti-Jefferson press (with help from Callender) because they played effectively
upon public sentiment. The motivation underlying the charges was undoubtedly
political; some of his opponents were willing to seize any weapon, no matter
how crude, for berating Jefferson, but that a white man's sleeping with a Negro
woman should be a weapon at all seems the more significant fact. It is
significant, too, that the charge of bastardy was virtually lost in the clamor
about miscegenation. Hamilton's admission of sexual transgressions with a white
woman had done little to damage his reputation. Jefferson's offense was
held to be mixture of the races, and Callender and his fellow scandalmongers
strummed the theme until it was dead tired.
In glaring red, and chalky white,
The same theme could easily be transformed into ridicule of Jefferson's
Let others beauty see;
Me no such tawdry tints delight--
No! black's the hue for me!
Thick pouting lips! how sweet their grace!
When passion fires to kiss them!
Wide spreading over half the face,
Impossible to miss them.
Oh! Sally! hearken to my vows!
Yield up thy sooty charms--
My best belov'd! my more than spouse,
Oh! take me to thy arms!
For make all like, let blackee nab
Jefferson's personal transgression could be handsomely enlarged to represent a
threat to society, according to what might be called the law of gross
De white womans.... dat be de track!
Den Quashee de white wife will hate,
And masse Jefferson shall hav de black.
Why should a judge, (him alway white,)
'Pon pickaninny put him paw,
Cause he steal littler dat no rite!
No! Quashee say he'll hate no law.
"Put the case that every white man in Virginia had done as much as
Thomas Jefferson has done towards the utter destruction of its happiness, that
eighty thousand white men hail; each of them, been the father of five mulatto
children. Thus you have FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND MULATTOES in addition to the
present swarm. The country would be no longer habitable, till after a civil
war, and a series of massacres. We all know with absolute certainty that the
contest would end in the utter extirpation both of blacks and mulattoes. We
know that the continent has as many white people, as could eat the whole race
at a breakfast."
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