Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), was born on a large Virginia estate run on slave labor. His marriage to the wealthy young widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 more than doubled his property in land and slaves. In his public life, Jefferson made statements denouncing blacks as biologically inferior and claiming that a biracial American society was impossible. Despite these facts, there is much evidence to suggest–if not prove conclusively–that Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that the two had at least one and perhaps as many as six children together.
Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.
The only surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings emphasized her light skin, long straight hair and good looks. She had four children (according to Jefferson’s records)–Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston–several of them were so light-skinned that they later passed for white. Jefferson never officially freed Hemings, but his daughter Martha Randolph probably gave her a kind of unofficial freedom that would allow her to remain in Virginia (at the time, laws required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). According to her son Madison Hemings, Sally lived with him and his brother Eston in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.
Rumors of a Relationship
Rumors of a relationship between the widowed Jefferson (his wife Martha died in 1782, after a difficult delivery of the couple’s third daughter) and his attractive mulatto house slave circulated in Virginia society for years: Sally’s several children looked to be fathered by a white man, and some had features resembling Jefferson’s. In 1802, a less-than-reputable journalist named James Callender published an accusation of the affair in the Richmond Recorder. Jefferson had hired Callendar to libel John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, and Callender had expected a political appointment in the bargain; when he didn’t get it, he struck back at Jefferson in print, hoping to cause a scandal and hurt Jefferson’s chances for reelection (he was unsuccessful).
The supposed “Tom and Sally” liaison hovered in the background for much of the 19th century, threatening Jefferson’s heralded reputation as one of the most idealistic of the founding fathers. In 1873, Sally’s son Madison (born in 1805) gave an interview to an Ohio newspaper claiming that Jefferson was his father as well as the father of the rest of Sally’s children. Israel Jefferson, another former slave from Monticello, verified this claim. In 1894, James Parton’s biography of Jefferson argued the other side of the debate, repeating a long-running story within the Jefferson and Randolph families (Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph) that Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr had admitted that he himself was the father of all or most of Sally Hemings’ children.
In the second half of the 20th century, the historian Winthrop Jordan added new fuel to the fire, arguing in a 1968 book that Sally Hemings became pregnant only when Jefferson was in residence at Monticello. This fact was significant, as he was away fully two-thirds of the time. Jordan’s work sparked a new, more critical phase of Jefferson scholarship in which sought to reconcile Jefferson’s reputation as a principled lover of democracy with his admitted racism and the negative views he expressed about African Americans (common to wealthy Virginia planters of the time).
In November 1998, new biological evidence surfaced, in the form of a DNA analysis of samples from Field Jefferson, a living descendant of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, and from Eston Hemings (born in 1808). The analysis showed a perfect match between Y-chromosomes–a match with less than one in a thousand chance of being random coincidence. The same study compared DNA between the Hemings line and descendants of Peter Carr’s family, revealing no match. Though the study established probability and not certainty (though several of Jefferson’s male relatives certainly shared that male Y-chromosome, none of them were present at Monticello nine months before each time Sally gave birth), it lent new legitimacy to Madison Hemings’ long-ago claims that Jefferson fathered Madison and his siblings.
Where Things Stand Now
In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation accepted the conclusion, supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had at least one and probably six offspring between 1790 and 1808. Though most historians now agree that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, debate continues over the duration of that relationship and, especially, over its nature. Admirers of Jefferson are inclined to see his relationship with Hemings as a romantic love affair, despite his public statements about race. Those who doubt the sterling nature of Jefferson’s character, however, cast things in a much more negative light, seeing him as one more predatory white slave owner and his relationship with Hemings as proof of the hypocrisy behind his eloquent statements about freedom and equality.