On this day in 1802, the Richmond Recorder publishes a report that Thomas Jefferson, at the time temporarily retired from politics and living on his plantation, Monticello, kept one of his female slaves as a mistress. The article gave only the woman’s first name, “Sally,” but was most likely referring to Sally Hemings, a slave who had once served as a maid and seamstress to Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. After Martha’s death, Hemings became an attendant to Jefferson’s daughter, Maria.
At the time, newspapers and broadsheets were venues through which some of America’s top political personalities could unleash their unbridled criticism of an opponent behind a veil of anonymity. Rivals issued both personal and political attacks in attempts to shame or discredit each other. In 1792, publisher James Callendar—then a supporter of Jefferson’s whose paper was secretly funded by Jefferson and his Republican allies–published a report of Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affair with a colleague’s wife, to which Hamilton later confessed. In 1802, when then-President Jefferson snubbed Callendar by denying his request for a political appointment, Callendar retaliated with an exposé on Jefferson’s “concubine,” Hemings, who also happened to be the half- black half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. The article also charged that Hemings’ son, John, bore a “striking…resemblance to those of the President himself.” Jefferson chose not to respond to the allegations.
The belief that the widowed Jefferson was having an affair with one of his slaves persists to this day. Not only did it tarnish, for some, Jefferson’s legacy as America’s foremost proponent of equality, it spawned years of scholarly and scientific research regarding his and Hemings’ alleged progeny. In 2000, a scholarly committee used DNA test results, original documents, oral histories and statistical data to conclude that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’ six children. Another committee, using the same data, concluded that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph was Hemings’ lover and the father of her children.
Hemings left no written records. Jefferson never officially freed her, but did free her children. She left Monticello after Jefferson’s death in 1826.