What better way to prepare for the Fourth of July, which celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant Declaration of Independence, than to reflect on the never-ending dispute over whether Jefferson fathered from one to four children borne by his slave, Sally Hemings.
The accusation began with a scandal-mongering newsman in 1802. James Callender, a Scot, had been Jefferson’s creature, paid by the Virginian to assault the Federalist administration of President John Adams. When Jefferson became president but did not appoint Callender to a federal sinecure, the Scot turned on Jefferson and published secondhand stories of “dusky Sally,” a mulatto slave of Jefferson’s who had given birth to children sired by the new president. That Sally’s children reportedly resembled the president — tall and fair, with Jeffersonian features — only fueled the rumors.
The story has simmered for two centuries and more. A Monticello overseer, Edmund Bacon, dictated memoirs in his old age denying the allegation and insisting that another, unnamed white man enjoyed frequent intimacy with Sally. James Madison Hemings, Sally’s son, gave a newspaper interview when he was in his late 60s in which he claimed to be the son of Thomas Jefferson. He said that Sally became Jefferson’s “concubine” in Paris in the late 1780s, when Jefferson was in his 40s and Sally a teenager.
DNA testing was performed in 1998 that established that one line of Sally’s descendants (through her son, Eston Hemings) was almost certainly derived from the Jefferson line. The source of the Jefferson DNA, however, could have been the president’s little-known younger brother (Randolph) or his brother’s sons. The DNA testing removed from suspicion two nephews of Jefferson.
For many years, historians mostly avoided the subject, or dismissed the allegation out of hand, until Fawn Brodie breathed life into it in her controversial 1974 biography of Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed has made rather a fine career out of the cause, winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello in 2009 and a spot on the Harvard faculty.
In response, the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, a collection of thoroughly respectable historians, was rounded up and asked to review the evidence. It reached a very scholarly verdict: That we do not know if Jefferson fathered Sally’s children. Others, notably lawyer William G. Hyland in a very enthusiastic and non-scholarly book, dismiss the case for Jefferson’s paternity as silly.
But did he do it?
There are real problems figuring this one out. Some evidence is plain. Jefferson was at Monticello during the “envelope of conception” for all four of Sally’s children, so his paternity was physically possible. Some of the evidence bears conflicting interpretation.
- Sally is rarely mentioned in Jefferson’s records and those of his family members. Was this because she was unimportant? Or because she was terribly important and thus had to be concealed? Both explanations fit.
- All of Sally’s children achieved freedom, with Jefferson’s assistance. That seems like powerful evidence in favor of Jefferson’s paternity. But Sally herself was never freed. That seems a cold course for Jefferson to follow if she was the mother of his children. The Jefferson prosecutors claim that she was not freed because he knew she could have no kind of reasonable life as a freedwoman. That’s a bit lame, but possible, I suppose.
On balance, I find the defenders less persuasive. They protest that Jefferson could not have fathered Sally’s children because he was so old at the time of the birth of Sally’s last child (64 in 1807). They point out that he was a passionate and vigorous horseman and that all that horseback riding had doubtless made him impotent. This all seems self-contradictory and to involve a good bit of protesting too much. If Jefferson was such a vigorous man in the saddle of a horse, he certainly could have been vigorous in the saddle. . . well, you know. And the man lived to the age of 83; though he plainly had the ailments of age, only a strong and healthy person lived into his 80s in his era.
The defenders point to Randolph Jefferson as the likely father of Eston (the son whose line was DNA-tested), because he had been invited to Monticello during the “envelope of conception” for Eston. But he was only invited there; we do not know that he actually was there. Moreover, there is no evidence he was near Monticello during the other three “envelopes of conception.”
Ah, the defenders respond, Sally could have been promiscuous, or subject to the lovemaking of many male Jeffersons. This begins to strain my credulity. The one thing Gordon-Reed establishes beyond peradventure was that the Hemingses were treated extraordinarily well at Monticello; they really were a privileged clan. It is difficult to imagine that the president would have given his relatives free access to Sally for their pleasure. I do not see Jefferson descending to that level. Perhaps more important, she was Jefferson’s property. A Virginia gentleman did not idly make use of another man’s property, certainly not someone as powerful and important as Thomas Jefferson. This line of argument seems wrong.
The defenders then turn around and claim that Jefferson was too much of a gentleman to sleep with his slave. Please. He was a widower and yet a vigorous man. He was not very smooth with the ladies; years earlier, his effort to bed a neighbor’s wife (Mrs. John Walker) was almost embarrassing in its crudeness. Moreover, he knew that if he remarried he would create great problems with his daughters (whom he loved very much) and their ability to inherit. And he had promised his beloved wife, on her deathbed, that he would not remarry. In those circumstances, a slave mistress was a pretty good answer to all of his problems. That Sally, by all accounts, was drop-dead gorgeous is not a trivial point. The man was human.
A few other pieces of evidence push me over to the prosecution side. Sally’s children were all taught trades that allowed them to go into the world and make their way (carpentry for the boys; sewing for the girl). And the boys were taught to play the violin; one of them actually played the instrument through his life at social events. That really stops me. Jefferson loved music and to play the violin. Would he really pay for slaves to learn that demanding instrument without having some real connection to them?
Finally, I am nudged over the line by the naming of Sally’s children. They all have names that are significant to Jefferson, not to her. The significance of Harriet, Eston, and Beverly requires rather more space than I have here, but the significance of James Madison Hemings does not require much explication. Madison was Jefferson’s best friend and political ally for his entire life. It is possible that Sally gave her son the name simply to please her owner, even though he was not the father. But that seems implausible to me.
Though the evidence is not entirely dispositive, I find it persuasive until other evidence comes to light.