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Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie
Fawn M. Brodie was professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of several other noted biographies of Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, and Sir. Richard Burton, the explorer. Brodie died in 1981, at age sixty-five.

Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974, pp.32, 291-294. Reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

If the story of the Sally Hemings liaison be true, as I believe it is, it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, as the Federalists and later the abolitionists insisted, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years. It also brought suffering, shame, and even political paralysis in regard to Jefferson's agitation for emancipation.

Eric McKitrick has written perceptively that "the values of Thomas Jefferson's career are basic to the entire system of American culture," and "the way you think about Thomas Jefferson largely determines how you will think about any number of other things." But the way one thinks about Thomas Jefferson is conditioned as much by what others have written about him as by the inner needs of the reader in search of a hero. It makes some difference to the hero-seeker whether, on the one hand, he is convinced by the so-called historical record that Jefferson was indeed a brooding celibate Irish clergyman "holding down the lid in the parish"--in Carl Becker's words, "a man whose ardors were cool, giving forth light without heat" -- or whether, on the other hand, he considers him a casual debaucher of many slave women, as some blacks today believe. There remains, however, a third alternative: that he was a man richly endowed with warmth and passion but trapped in a society which savagely punished miscegenation, a man, moreover, whose psychic fate it was to fall in love with the forbidden woman. The fault, it can be held, lay not in Jefferson but in the society which condemned him to secrecy.

Once one accepts the premise that a man's inner life has a continuing impact upon his public life, then the whole unfolding tapestry of Jefferson's life is remarkably illuminated. His ambivalences seem less baffling; the heroic image remains untarnished and his genius undiminished. And the semi-transparent shadows do tend to disappear....

The necessity for secrecy concerning Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings pervaded every aspect of their relationship. Even in his Farm Book she remained surprisingly anonymous. Though he wrote Sally's name many times, on the slave inventories, the distribution lists for fish, beef, blankets, and linen, he never included her last name, as he did that of her mother and several of her brothers. He listed her often just below that of her sister Critta, and there is no indication in the Farm Book that she was singled out for special treatment. Jefferson noted the date of the birth of her daughter Harriet, October 5, 1795, but he did not anywhere indicate the date that this daughter died, and were it not for a letter from his daughter Martha reporting her death in late 1797 we would not know why she disappeared from the Farm Book listings.

Jefferson listed Sally's daughter Edy twice in 1796, on bread and fish distribution lists. Then she too disappears from the Farm Book. There is, however, a haphazard quality to all his early Farm Book listings. Sometimes children were listed with their mothers, often not at all, and sometimes separately, especially as the children grew older. Occasionally Jefferson noted deaths on old lists; many times he crossed out names and there is no clue as to the reason. He made slave inventories so seldom it would seem to have been an unpleasant chore. When he was vice-president his distribution lists became sporadic when he became president they ceased altogether. Only after his retirement did the Farm Book reflect truly meticulous attention. Before 1810 it is a record as much of the disorder as of the order in Jefferson's life.

Jefferson delayed making a new slave inventory after his return from Paris until 1794. Then he listed Sally Hemings but not the son who had been born shortly after their return. This absence has been cited as evidence that Tom did not exist, that he was a mere creature of the poisonous imagination of James Thomson Callender. It may also be evidence that Jefferson chose to consider him free from birth, either because he had been conceived on the free soil of France, or because Jefferson had so promised his mother. On the slave inventories of 1798 and 1810 Jefferson listed Sally with subsequent children born to her-- Beverly, the second Harriet, Madison, and Eston. A "Tom" shows up consistently on the food and clothing distribution lists from 1794 to 1801, but it can be persuasively argued that in every case the name stood for Tom Shackleford, an old slave wagoner and foreman of slaves whom Jefferson greatly trusted, and whom in his letters he sometimes called Shackleford and sometimes Tom. He died in 1801.

From 1773 to 1826 Jefferson owned or hired five or six different slaves named Tom. They can, with patience, be sorted out. A mysterious Tom, who cannot be easily identified, appears on an important listing in 1810, his name included in a curious manner so that he could be counted as slave or free. He appears again on a summer clothing distribution list in 1811, and then disappears. In 1811 "Tom Hemings" would have been twenty-one, the age of freedom promised to his mother in Paris. So, perhaps inadvertently, Jefferson named and counted him in this important record. One must note, however, that Madison Hemings, born in 1805, makes no mention of an older brother Tom in his reminiscences, nor does his former slave friend Israel, who was born in 1800. Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, in discussing what happened to the "yellow children" at Monticello in a detailed letter of great significance in this matter, wrote that she knew of her "own knowledge" that Jefferson permitted each of his slaves as were sufficiently light to pass for white to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed. "I remember," she wrote, "four instances of this, three young men and a girl, who walked away and staid away--their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves--for they were white enough to pass for white."

Since Jefferson mentioned three "runaways" in his Farm Book, two of whom, Beverly and Harriet Hemings, were Sally Hemings' children, it seems likely that the fourth was Tom Hemings, and that he left Monticello at a relatively early age, probably shortly after the story of his mother's relationship with Jefferson broke into the press in 1802. Perhaps his mother chose not to discuss this son with anyone after his departure and made every effort to protect his identity in the white society by a mantle of silence. Such behavior is common even today among relatives of a black who "passes."

The name of Sally, as we have noted, virtually disappeared from Jefferson's account books after his return from Paris, though there are a great many expenditures for "charity" on the days of his return to and departure from Monticello, and there are those special references to his leaving sums in his "small drawer" at Monticello--$16.30 on June 4, 1806; $17.43 on May 3, 1807--and numerous notations such as "small debts 20 D." and "small expenses, 20 D." which could represent gifts he did not care to identify further. There is a single reference to Sally on September 27, 1801, when Jefferson wrote, "left. . . for Mrs. Sneed for Sally 3 D." Polly Sneed was a teacher who tutored Thomas Jefferson Randolph in 1799, and whose name appears irregularly in the account books from 1792 to 1802. It is not absolutely clear that her "services to the negro women" had to do only with the schooling, but since she charged only $6 for "6 months schooling of Thos Jefferson," Martha's eldest son, it would appear that her services to Sally Hemings had been substantial.

The extent to which Jefferson kept Sally Hemings and her children relatively anonymous in his Farm Book would seem to be symbolic of his entire relationship with her. It was a kind of automatic denial, in the written record, that this slave woman and her children were important to him. Such denial was routine in the South, the accepted way of life. The denial was accepted too, though in a different fashion, by the slave who was genuinely loved. Here the slave was peculiarly deprived of the right to, and even the desire for, emancipation, because freedom meant loss of the love relationship. If Jefferson had freed Sally Hemings it would have been to lose her, and it meant also that she would lose him. For although a master could carry on a liaison with a slave in relative secrecy without public censure, it was very much more difficult and socially dangerous with a free Negro. And the very act of manumission had to be a matter of public record.

For Sally Hemings to have demanded freedom would have meant two things: either that she meant to leave him, as her brother James did, or that she was prepared to see his reputation damaged. As long as she remained a slave she was no threat to him of any kind. His control was total, for he retained the right to sell her if he chose. She could be of damage to him only if he freed her; by that act too he would do great social damage to himself, unless he abandoned her. But the innate decency of Jefferson, as well as his whole libertarian philosophy, must have cried out against this terrible anomaly, and the conflict over it must certainly have contributed to his depression. The injustice of it all was underlined in an especially poignant fashion for both of them in 1795-96, when Martha Randolph lost a baby daughter and then Sally Hemings lost one.

Martha was visiting a health spa with her husband when her child Eleanor was born, August 30, 1795. The infant died almost immediately. When Jefferson learned of the tragedy, he sent for the tiny body and had it interred in his family burial plot. But in 1796, when Sally's child Edy died, she was buried, one must presume, in the slave cemetery at Monticello. Anything else would have been unthinkable. So the unbridgeable gap in status between daughter and mistress was underlined and perpetuated.

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