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1977: The Sally Hemings Story
John Chester Miller was a professor of American history, and the author of more than a dozen books, including works on Samuel Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

Excerpt from The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery by John Chester Miller, (Charlottesville: Virginia, 1991).

Used with permission of the University Press of Virginia.

Had Jefferson loved Sally Hemings in the deeper sense of that word, he would surely have loved the children she bore him. It was not in Jefferson's nature, nor is it in the nature of most men, to show indifference to the children born of a love match. If his treatment of the children is any indicator, Jefferson's feeling for Sally Hemings--assuming that he had any feeling for her other than the regard a master feels for a loyal, devoted servant and half-sister of his deceased wife--must have been purely carnal. The children did not concern him at all; he was solely preoccupied in indulging his passion for the "African Venus."

It was impossible for Jefferson to carry on a romance or even a friendship without constant letter-writing. Jefferson not only wrote voluminously but he kept a record of every letter he sent or received. He was in the habit of using the polygraph and stylograph to make copies of his own letters, and he carefully preserved the letters addressed to him. In all this correspondence there is only the most casual and infrequent mention of Sally Hemings. She produced no letter written by Jefferson which would have set at rest all doubts of the paternity of her children and the depth of Jefferson's feeling for her. She apparently was not literate; at least, she did not teach her children to read and write. ('When he called her a "Black Aspasia," Tom Moore was stretching poetic license to the utmost latitude.') Of course, if Sally could not read, the absence of letters from Jefferson is explicable; but this explanation requires a suspension of disbelief in the idea that Jefferson loved an illiterate slave woman for over thirty years.

Jefferson's real love-letters were written to his daughters and to his wife, Martha, not to Sally Hemings or to any other woman. "I deem the composition of my family the most precious of all the kindnesses of fortune," he said, and he referred frequently in his correspondence to "the ineffable pleasures of my family society." In 1797 he wrote to his daughter Martha Randolph that "the bloom of Monticello is chilled by my solitude.... I value the enjoyments of this life only in proportion as you participate in them with me." He bewailed his "solitude" yet he had Sally Hemings at his side!

When Jefferson spoke of happiness, he meant, above all, the pleasure he derived from the presence of his daughters and his grandchildren. He never included specifically or by fair inference Sally Hemings in this familial felicity. When he lost his daughter Mary in 1804, he lamented that "others may lose of their abundance, but I, of my want, have lost even the half of all I had. My evening prospects now hang on the slender thread of a single life." It is beyond all credibility that Jefferson was here referring to Sally Hemings rather than to his surviving daughter, Martha Randolph.'

Had Jefferson wanted to devote himself to the unalloyed happiness he allegedly found in the company and arms of Sally Hemings, it is extraordinary that he should have made such a point of urging his married daughters and their husbands to live with him at Monticello. Lovers usually wish to be alone, but in Jefferson's case he seemed deliberately to have courted exposure of his affair by surrounding himself with as many members of his family as possible. In this respect, at least, Jefferson appears to have been unique among the Great Lovers of history.

Since Jefferson's daughters were not aware of their father's alleged relations with Sally Hemings--even though Mary Jefferson lived at Monticello much of the time her father is supposed to have been intimate with Sally and while several of her children were born--a new dimension ought to be added to Jefferson's fame: he was a master, unequalled in American history, of the art of dissimulation. His bearing toward Sally Hemings's children was simply part of an elaborately contrived cover-up sustained for a period of over thirty years. Keeping them as slaves, even though they were well treated, was part of the cover-up; the traumatic experience of growing up on a Virginia plantation as slaves had to be inflicted upon them in order that Jefferson could enjoy the favors of Sally Hemings with impunity.

Perhaps the most inexplicable event in the Sally Hemings story as the Callender-Brodie script unfolds is Jefferson's failure to give freedom upon his death to the woman who as a young girl, allegedly had renounced her opportunity of freedom and returned to Monticello in order to satisfy his desires. In his will, Jefferson freed five slaves, all Hemingses, and he petitioned the state legislature, as the law required, for permission for these freed slaves to remain in Virginia. But Sally Hemings was not among those manumitted: her name appeared on the slave inventory of his estate and her value was set at fifty dollars, although she might have been regarded as a collector's item by anyone who believed Callender's story. A few years later she was freed by Martha Jefferson, and she spent her last years living with her sons. She died in 1835 and was buried in a Negro burying ground, not at Monticello with Jefferson.

If Jefferson were actually trying to conceal his liaison with Sally Hemings and the existence of his slave children, this must be regarded as the final step in the cover-up. The very enormity of the offense with which he was certain to be charged after his will had been made public provided Jefferson with a plausible argument in favor of his innocence, for who would believe that he failed to free a slave woman with whom, according to Fawn Brodie, he had enjoyed decades of idyllic bliss and for whose love he had risked the presidency and the good opinion of posterity; and how could it be explained that he had not stipulated that she be buried in the family plot at Monticello rather than in an obscure Negro cemetery? Obviously, the answer is that no decent-minded person would believe this of Jefferson--indeed, it would be difficult to believe of any man--and so Callender's charges would almost certainly be dismissed by posterity as the work of a unprincipled traducer of a great and good man whose conduct offered convincing proof of his innocence. And so Jefferson would be gathered to history, immaculate, virtuous, and above suspicion....

In 1873 the editor of the Pike County Republican published a journalistic scoop: an interview with Madison Hemings in which he asserted that before she died his mother had told him that he and his brothers and sisters were the children of Thomas Jefferson; that she had conceived her first child by Jefferson in France in 1789 (the child, born in 1790, had died in infancy); and that Jefferson, while minister to France, had entered into a bargain with Sally Hemings to the effect that in exchange for her favors all the children born of this union would eventually be set free.

Whatever its claim to authenticity, this is strictly an "as told to" account. Madison Hemings had only a rudimentary education, and he could not possibly have used the stilted overblown "literary" language in which the "interview" is couched: among other things, he is made to say that Sally Hemings was "enciente" (sic) by Thomas Jefferson when they returned to Monticello in 1789 and that his brother and sister who went North were never "suspected of being tainted with African blood." Did Madison Hemings, who was of African descent on his mother's side and who had married a black, really consider "African blood" a taint or did the editor of the Pike County Republican simply reveal his bias?" His objective is clear enough: to induce the newly enfranchised Southern blacks to vote Republican and to destroy all possibility that the Southern aristocracy could resume its position as the titular leader of its section against the North. But, as sometimes occurs when politicians and journalists deplore racial discrimination, equality is something to be exported, not practiced at home.

If Madison Hemings actually told this story to the editor of the Pike County Republican, doubtless he hoped to achieve instant fame as the unacknowledged natural son of Thomas Jefferson and, like most blacks and mulattoes in nineteenth century America, he probably felt cheated by life. In the community in which he lived, he was classed as "colored" and no doubt was treated as such by his white neighbors--which meant that they had nothing to do with him. But if he could prove that he were a natural son of a president of the United States, his position would change dramatically overnight: he would appear not only as good as a white man but as the white man's superior and, as such, entitled to the respect and consideration that had hitherto been denied him.

It was clearly this desire to gain social standing and respectability that prompted slaves to assume the family name of their master - for example, Isaac Jefferson, one of Jefferson's slaves whose life story appeared in the Pike County Republican along with Madison Hemings's, took the surname of Jefferson because, as he said, "it would give me more dignity to be called after so eminent a man." (For the same reason, slaves in classical antiquity, upon receiving their freedom, often took the name of their master.)

What is at issue in the Madison Hemings interview is not his claim to be related to Thomas Jefferson (since he was almost certainly the natural son of one or the other of the Carr brothers, who were themselves blood relations of Jefferson) but his claim to be the natural son of Jefferson himself. It is this assertion which tends to place him in the company of those who, for whatever motives, have throughout history laid claim of descent from famous men without producing evidence which would establish its validity in a court of law. His unsupported, undocumented testimony, conveyed in a politically suspect vehicle, the Pike County Republican, would certainly not carry conviction in such a court.

Even if Sally Hemings did, in fact, relate the story printed in the Pike County Republican to her son, the possibility remains that her purpose was to raise him in his own sadly battered esteem and to conceal her own dereliction in having children out of wedlock by one of the Carr brothers. The offense of going "outside her race" (legally, of course, she was both a "black" and a slave) might be mitigated by the exalted station occupied by her paramour. Her story conveys the clear impression that she submitted, not altogether willingly and not without exacting conditions, to the then United States minister to France and later president of the United States, not to just an ordinary white man. On the other hand, as the mistress of Samuel Carr and the mother of his children, she lost the stature bestowed upon her by James Callender. Manifestly, if she is acknowledged to have been the concubine of a president of United States, she acquires an eclat denied every other slave woman in American history. For that reason alone, the temptation on her part to confirm Callender's allegations must have been very strong. It is true that one American vice-president, Richard Johnson, admitted to having a slave mistress and to having children by her, but no president confessed to it or, except for President Jefferson, was ever so accused. We know virtually nothing of Sally Hemings or her motives: she is hardly more than a name, "Dusky Sally." Except by making a leap of the imagination far beyond the confines of historical fact, we cannot make her the heroine of a great American love story or as a paragon of purity, self-sacrifice, and tender devotion. And yet it is not beyond the realm of possibility that she was all these things to Samuel Carr.

As regards Jefferson, on the other hand, we knew a great deal about his character, motives, ideals, preoccupations, and attitudes. It is on the basis of this knowledge that the man should--indeed, must--be gauged by successive generations of Americans. Jefferson should be--indeed, he asked to be judged by the moral standards he preached to his daughters, his grandchildren, and the American people in general and, by which he judged others, especially Alexander Hamilton. If, then, he is to be accused of seducing a sixteen-year-old slave girl and having children by her whom he held as slaves, it is in utter defiance of the testimony he bore over the course of a long lifetime of the primacy of the moral sense and his loathing of racial mixture.. How could Jefferson hope to escape the avenging Deity who, he believed, struck down whole nations as well as individuals who closed their ears to the injunctions of the moral sense? How can his frequent assertions that his conscience was clear and that his enemies did him a cruel and wholly unmerited injustice be reconciled with the Jefferson of the Sally Hemings story?--unless, of course, Jefferson is set down as a practitioner of pharisaical holiness who loved to preach to others what he himself did not practice?

If the answer to these questions is that Jefferson was simply trying to cover up his illicit relations with Sally Hemings--not to mention the "Congo Harem" he allegedly maintained at Monticello--he deserves to be regarded as one of the most profligate liars and consummate hypocrites ever to occupy the presidency. To give credence to the Sally Hemings story is, in effect, to question the authenticity of Jefferson's faith in freedom, the rights of man, and the innate controlling faculty of reason and the sense of right and wrong. It is to infer that there were no principles to which he was inviolably committed, that what he acclaimed as morality was no more than a rhetorical facade for self-indulgence, and that he was always prepared to make exceptions in his own case when it suited his purpose. In short, beneath his sanctimonious and sententious exterior lay a thoroughly adaptive and amoral public figure--like so many of those of the present day. Even conceding that Jefferson was deeply in love with Sally Hemings does not essentially alter the case: love does not sanctify such an egregious violation of his own principles and preachments and the shifts and dodges, the paltry artifices, to which he was compelled to resort in order to fool the American people. "There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame," said Francis Bacon, whom Jefferson accounted one of the three greatest men who ever lived, "as to be found false and perfidious."

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