Resolving the Sally Hemings Myth

(This article first ran in The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, VA on December 11, 2011.)
A new book raises serious doubts about the allegation that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings that produced one or more children. Entitled “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission,” it presents the conclusions of a yearlong inquiry by more than a dozen senior scholars from around the country.

I had the honor of serving as chairman of the commission and as editor of the new book.

Containing more than 400 pages and 1,400 footnotes, it is by far the most comprehensive analysis of the issue. With but a single mild dissent, the scholars concluded the story is probably false.

This conclusion will come as a surprise to many, who will recall the prestigious science journal “Nature” published a 1998 story entitled “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” suggesting the relationship had been confirmed by DNA tests. But as the study’s director, Dr. Eugene Foster, emphasized in letters to the editor of both “Nature” and the New York Times, the DNA tests merely linked Eston Hemings to one of more than two-dozen Jefferson males known to have been in Virginia at the time. Thomas Jefferson’s DNA was not involved.

The story originated in 1802 as part of a blackmail scheme by the most notorious scandalmonger of his era, James Thomson Callender, who once described George Washington as a “traitor” and a “thief.” During the 1800 presidential campaign Callender repeatedly libeled incumbent John Adams. After Jefferson won, Callender declared “by lying I made you President” and demanded as compensation appointment as Postmaster of Richmond — threatening that if Jefferson refused he would turn his pen on the president and exact “ten-thousand-fold vengeance.” Jefferson refused.

Callender first charged Jefferson was a French agent, and then that he was an atheist. Although Callender had never even been to Monticello, he learned there were biracial children there (the Hemings family was inherited by Jefferson upon the death his father-in-law in 1773), and Callender alleged Jefferson had begun a long-term affair with Sally, while serving as U.S. Minister to France, that had produced a son named “Tom” who resembled the president. There is no record of any such “Tom” in surviving Monticello records, and the subsequent claim of Thomas Woodson to have been that child was refuted by six DNA tests. Because they knew Jefferson and Callender, even Jefferson’s political enemies John Adams and Alexander Hamilton dismissed Callender’s charges as false.

There is no evidence that Sally or her children received “extraordinary privileges” as is widely alleged. She was never legally freed, and her children were not all given their freedom upon turning 21 as is often claimed. (Her eldest son, Beverly, left Monticello around the age of 24 without being legally freed.) It is true that Jefferson freed Sally’s sons Madison and Eston in his will, but he freed all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, who were still his “property” at that time — and Sally’s sons received by far the worst treatment in the will.

Only two surviving accounts of Sally’s abilities survive, and both are negative. Abigail Adams hosted Jefferson’s daughter Mary and Sally for three weeks in London in 1787 on their way to Paris and wrote the teenaged Sally needed “more care” than 8-year-old Mary and was “wholly incapable” of even babysitting.

We know very little of Sally’s life in Paris, but the surviving evidence suggests she didn’t even live near Jefferson. Her duties were to serve as ladies’ maid to daughters Martha and Mary, who lived across town in a Catholic convent school that had servants’ quarters. Years later, Martha received letters from Paris classmates asking to be remembered to Sally.

Sally is seldom mentioned in Jefferson’s records except on lists of his slaves, where she is treated exactly like her sisters. Jefferson wrote his overseer in 1790 that while he was in Washington his daughter Martha and her husband were to have “whatever the plantation will furnish,” including “the use of the house-servants, to wit Ursula, Critta, Sally, Bet, Wormley and Joe. So also of Betty Hemings should her services be necessary.” As usual, Sally was treated no different from other descendants of Betty Hemings. This was nearly a dozen years before the Callender allegation was first published, and one might have thought that had Sally been Jefferson’s “lover” she would have been among the dozen slaves he regularly took to Washington. She was not.

The most objective eyewitness observer on this issue may be overseer Edmund Bacon, who decades after Jefferson’s death denied allegations Jefferson fathered Sally’s children by noting he had often observed another man leaving Sally’s room while arriving for work early in the morning.

If Thomas Jefferson did not father Eston, who did? The best guess is his younger brother Randolph, who was documented in “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave” to have spent his nights at Monticello playing his fiddle and “dancing half the night” with his brother’s slaves and is alleged to have fathered children by other slaves.

Some claim the “oral history” of Sally’s descendants helps prove the alleged relationship. By far the strongest oral traditions along those lines were passed down by descendants of Thomas Woodson, whose claim was refuted by six DNA tests. There are no known descendants of Beverly or Harriet, leaving only Madison and Eston among Sally’s known children. Madison waited nearly 50 years after Jefferson’s death before reportedly claiming to be Thomas Jefferson’s son, but the new book identifies numerous errors in his account. The story passed down for generations by Eston’s descendants (until author Fawn Brodie persuaded them otherwise in the 1970s) was that Eston was not President Jefferson’s child, but the child of an “uncle.” Because of his relationship to daughter Martha, brother Randolph was widely known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph.”

 

About the author

Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia and has studied Thomas Jefferson for nearly four decades. His repeated offers to debate the issue with leading pro-paternity scholars have thus far gone unanswered.

 

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