The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Sally Hemings

“It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing.”

James Madison Hemings
An Artists’ Imagining of what Sally Hemings looked like. No artwork was recorded or has come up.

It’s impossible to actually know about a woman when men and history are too busy controlling the image of one man. As with most enslaved women, Sally Hemings could not read or write, and record her own life, and if she could, there would have been no one to read them as she was seen as property before a person. She had no legal right to her own body and as such was unable to refuse unwanted sexual advances, as a result Sally Hemings’ children (she had at least six children) belonged and were fathered her master, Thomas Jefferson. Sally was the child of an enslaved woman and her owner, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father in law, making Sally the sister to Thomas Jefferson’s wife. At least two of Sally’s sisters had children fathered by white men as well. Mixed-race children inherited the status of their mothers, regardless of who their father’s were. For centuries, Jefferson’s family and later followers and then historians have crafted a certain image of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Father’s and the writer of the Declaration of Independence. Until the late 1990s most scholars refuted the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson had relations with one of his slaves and even had children with her. Sally Hemings is seen as notorious because of her skin and that Thomas Jefferson had relations with her it ruins his image as a good man, fighter for independence and believes that all men are created equal. She is notorious because of the color of her skin and her status in life ruins the image of an important man and because of that has been erased from history. Why should history forget the name Sally Hemings? Why should her life and role that she played be erased and reduced to a single footnote. She is not to blame for Thomas Jefferson being imperfect, she was a victim to a system that doomed her to fail from the beginning.

Born in about 1773, Sarah or “Sally” Hemings was the youngest of six children of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings and her master, John Wayles. Sally and her siblings were three quarters European descent, their mother being half European and their father being full European which meant that Sally and her siblings were mostly light skinned and if no one knew, they easily could have passed as white; but through the principle of partus sequitur ventrem which is that the slave status of a child followed that of his or her mother. John Wayles took Betty Hemings as his concubine and had six children with her, he also had several other children, from his first marriage, Martha Wayles married a young planter named Thomas Jefferson, and upon John Wayles’ death, Martha inherited the Hemings’. To spell it out, Martha inherited her father’s concubine and her half siblings.

It’s hard to know what Sally’s day to day life was like growing up, there is record that when Sally was about 14 years old she was selected to be a companion to Jefferson’s second daughter Maria (Polly) Jefferson when he requested her to join him in Paris. There Sally was exposed to a world that most slaved in Virginia never would have dreamed of. Paris in the 1780s was at the height of its grandeur, a center piece of politics, culture and the arts that was also on the brink of revolution. The city itself was home to over half a million people (close to the entire population of Virginia at the time), 1,000 of whom were free black residents. In Paris, Hemings was reunited with her older brother James, whom Jefferson had brought with him two years earlier to study French cooking. They lived at Jefferson’s residence, the Hôtel de Langeac. Maria (Polly) and Martha (Patsy), Jefferson’s older daughter who was already in Paris, lived primarily at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, where they were boarding students. Shortly after her arrival, Jefferson’s records indicate that Hemings was inoculated against smallpox, a common and deadly disease during that time. She undoubtedly received training—especially in needlework and the care of clothing—to suit her for her position as lady’s maid to Jefferson’s daughters and was occasionally paid a monthly wage. She learned French (historians do not know if she was literate in either language she spoke) and sometimes accompanied Jefferson’s daughters on social outings.

There in France, Sally became Jefferson’s concubine. In Sally Hemings’s lifetime, the word “concubine” defined a woman who had sexual contact with a man to whom she was not married. A concubine had no legal or social standing, and her offspring could not inherit from their father. Consider how Hemings and Jefferson lived at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between 1787 and 1789. What parents would send their pretty teenaged daughter to live in a house with a lonely, middle-aged widower whose daughters spent all week away at boarding school—and place him in charge of her well-being? Jefferson would never have allowed his daughters to live in such a way unless a female chaperone was present as was customary of the time period. The question of propriety and appropriateness never came up with Sally Hemings, because she was a slave. When Jefferson prepared to return to America, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s son Madison Hemings said (after the fact) his mother refused to come back, and only did so upon negotiating “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her future children. He also noted that she was pregnant when she arrived in Virginia, and that the child “lived but a short time.” No other record of that child has been found. If Sally had remained in France instead of returning to America, Sally would have been a free woman, her child would have been free and she could have had a different life than that of her mother and her mothers before her. Instead she chose to negotiate freedom for children, to give them a good life and to have a different life than before.

Sally Hemings returned with Jefferson and his daughters to Monticello in 1789. There she performed the duties of an enslaved household servant and lady’s maid (Jefferson still referred to her as “Maria’s maid” in 1799). “It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing.” James Madison Hemings records, Sally Hemings had at least six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Four survived to adulthood. Decades after their negotiation, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’ children – Beverly and Harriet left Monticello in the early 1820s; Madison and Eston were freed in his will and left Monticello in 1826. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.

First public accounts of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began in 1802 when reporter James Callender after being refused an appointment to a Postmaster position by Jefferson and issuing veiled threats of “consequences,” reported that Jefferson had fathered several children with a slave concubine named Sally. His family denied the allegation. Others privately or publicly made the claim. Jefferson made no public comment on the matter, although most historians interpret his cover letter from 1805 to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith as a denial alluding to a fuller reply, which has been lost. The Jefferson-Wayles descendants and most historians denied for nearly 200 years that he was the father of Hemings’ children. Thomas Jefferson is one of the biggest heroes in American history, he is the author of the Declaration of Independence, President of the United States, he doubled the size of America, sent out Lewis and Clark to explore the wild west, founded the University of Virginia, he fought for religious freedom, and is seen as a renaissance man in the world and throughout history. But Jefferson as the slaveholder? Jefferson the slaveholder pokes a hole in the perfect image that Jefferson’s family, friends and historians have crafted for years. Jefferson did not shy away from stating his beliefs that white men were just biologically intellectually superior to black men. The thought that Jefferson was in love with an enslaved African American woman, had at least six children with would make him a good man, a family man, a man who just couldn’t truly be with the love of his life. Jefferson being in love solves his short comings.

Enslaved women had no legal right to consent. Their masters owned their labor, their bodies, and their children. Sally Hemings should be known today, not just as Jefferson’s concubine, but as an enslaved woman who – at the age of 16 – negotiated with one of the most powerful men in the nation to improve her own condition and achieve freedom for her children.

Sources

Gordon-Reed, Annette. “Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?” AMERICAN HERITAGE, 2008. https://www.americanheritage.com/did-sally-hemings-and-thomas-jefferson-love-each-other.

The Life of Sally Hemings. https://www.monticello.org/sallyhemings/.

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