The original title of this article is, “The Master and the Mistress”. I refuse to use the word mistress to describe Sally Hemings. A slave she was and as a slave she had no rights or agency in how Jefferson had unlimited access to her body.

Until the day comes when an enslaved woman can have a say-so over her body, the children that come from her body, and how and when she can decide herself what she will or will not do with her body, the word mistress will never be used by me in the same sentences with the words slave and master, regardless as to whether it is Thomas Jefferson or any other white slave master. Another thing that some people say is that Sally had an affair with Jefferson as if she had the right to go into a sexual relationship with Jefferson of her own free will. The use of the word affair is just as wrong and ludicrous. A slave is not on an equal footing with a slave master, and therefore cannot freely do what they desire. A slave suffers from the whims and caprices of their slave master, and Jefferson could do whatever he desired and demanded of Sally, no matter how she felt about it.

The article also addresses an aspect of the Hemings-Jefferson debate that many people do not think of—-the Black descendants of Jefferson-Hemings, and what life was like for them.

The white side is not the only side, nor is it the only view that should always be given validity and the benefit of a doubt. Many voices of enslaved Black people have been lost to us, because of their slave status and the denigration and vilification of their blackness. But, that in no way lessens what they have lived and would have left behind in written records if allowed the very humanity that was torn from them on a daily, brutal basis.

Back to Jefferson and Hemings.

Was it romantic love? Rape? Sexual coercion? Not knowing what either Hemings or Jefferson thought (neither left love letters, diaries or journals of what transpired between them), history and this country will never know. But, realizing that a man who enslaved a woman and had power and control over her body, that there could have been a romantic relationship, could have occurred. Or it could not have occurred. Many people, descendants of Jefferson or not, give the benefit of a doubt to Jefferson since the idea of a president of the United States raping/sexually coercion of an enslaved black woman is repugnant and vile in their minds. Other people cannot fathom an enslaved black woman, Hemings, being able to have autonomy and any rights to say yes or no during the reign of American race-based slavery. Sally did what she could at the time for her to be the best decision for her children she had from Jefferson. Being an enslaved girl, she did not need to fear the threat of physical force to allow Jefferson access to her body. The maligned and legally sanctioned slave society of America, and Jefferson’s position, was threat enough. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Sally did what she could in striking what would have been the best option that would have given some benefits, however flimsy, to her children, and her children’s children. Then again, could Sally have been able to remain in Paris, with no relatives to stay with, no one she knew who would shelter her, no position to seek and obtain gainful employment in Paris? She had to decide what was best for her in the situation she was in, and her return to America was that decision.

In the end, white men owned access to the bodies, and the very lives of the black women and little black girls they enslaved. Pedophile rapist white slave masters were just as prey to their appetites and vices as any other man, therefore Jefferson would have been no more strong of will than any other white slave master.That would include sexual relations with a woman young enough to have been his daughter (Well, she was his wife’s half-sister. Talk about incest. Not to mention that Sally was just a little girl. The last time I looked, 14-years-old is not an adult.)

Anyone who wishes to still deny that white men like Jefferson did not commit racial genetic genocide on enslaved defenseless black women, all they have to do is look at the faces of millions of black Americans living today.

The many hues we come in are a daily reminder of white male lust, sexual perversions, depravities and degradations committed against millions of enslaved black women and black girls.

Enslaved black women who could not in any way say, “No! Master!” No matter how Jefferson treated (or mistreated Sally), in the end he was still her master, not her fiance, not her friend, not her husband.

And there is never an equal relationship of any kind where a man holds life and death over the most intimate parts of another human beings’ life.

No matter how harsh the slave master.

No matter how kind the slave master.

Anyone who enslaves another human being is a low-life piece of trash who is not fit to walk among the living.

In the end, a slave master is still a slave master.

And a slave is still a slave.




Published: October 3, 2008
Sometime around 1800, an anonymous American artist produced an arresting painting entitled “Virginian Luxuries.” It depicts a slave owner exercising two kinds of power over his human property. On the right, a white man raises his arm to whip a black man’s bare back. On the left, he lasciviously caresses a black woman. The artist’s identification of these “luxuries” with the state that produced four of our first five presidents underscores the contradiction between ­ideals and reality in the early Republic.
October 5, 2008

New-York Historical Society

Thomas Jefferson


Virginia Luxuries,” by an unknown artist, around 1800. Courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

No one embodied this contradiction more strikingly than Thomas Jefferson. In 1776, when he wrote of mankind’s inalienable right to liberty, Jefferson owned more than 100 slaves. He hated slavery but thought blacks inferior in “body and mind” to whites. If freed, he believed, they should be sent to Africa; otherwise, abolition would result in racial warfare or, even worse, racial “mixture.” Yet in his own lifetime, reports circulated that Jefferson practiced such mixture with his slave ­Sally Hemings.

In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed, who teaches at New York Law School and in the history department of Rutgers University, published “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.” Reviewing the evidence, she concluded it was likely that Jefferson had fathered Hemings’s children. But her main argument was that generations of Jefferson scholars had misused historical sources to defend the great man’s reputation. For example, they had dismissed as worthless the recollections of Madison Hemings, Sally Hemings’s son, who described his mother’s relationship with Jefferson to a journalist in 1873, while accepting at face value the denials of Jefferson’s white descendants that such a relationship existed. The book caused a sensation in the sedate world of Jefferson scholarship. Shortly after it appeared, DNA testing established a genetic link between a male Jefferson and Eston Hemings, Madison’s brother. Today, Monticello’s Web site discusses the controversy in a way that leaves the distinct impression of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.

Gordon-Reed has now turned her attention to an even more ambitious pro­ject. In “The Hemingses of Monticello,” a work based on prodigious research in the voluminous Jefferson papers and other ­sources, she traces the experiences of this slave family over three generations. Engrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature (e.g., “Youth in females has attracted men in all eras across all cultures”). Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book.

Gordon-Reed’s account begins with Elizabeth Hemings, born in 1735 as the daughter of an African woman and a white sea captain; she bore at least 12 children, half with an unknown black man, half (including Sally) with her owner, John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law. (This made Sally Hemings the half sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles, who died in 1782, after which he never remarried.) The Hemings family went to Monticello as part of Martha’s inheritance. Individual members eventually found their way to Paris, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond, allowing Gordon-Reed to pre­sent a revealing portrait of the varieties of black life in Jefferson’s era.

When she died in 1807 at 72, Elizabeth Hemings left behind 8 living children, more than 30 grandchildren and at least 4 great-grandchildren. The most fascinating parts of Gordon-Reed’s book deal not with Sally Hemings herself but with other all but unknown members of her extended family. Initially because they were related to Jefferson’s wife and later because of his own connection with Sally Hemings, the family was treated quite differently from other slaves at ­Monticello. The women worked as house servants, never in the fields, the men as valets, cooks and skilled craftsmen. Jefferson paid some of them wages and allowed a few to live in Charlottesville or Richmond and keep their earnings. Because of their independent incomes, her sons were able to provide Elizabeth Hemings with goods unavailable to most slaves. As Gordon-Reed relates, archaeological excavations have revealed among her possessions pieces of Chinese porcelain, wineglasses and other products of the era’s consumer revolution.

Their status as a “caste apart” from the other slaves did not diminish the Hemingses’ desire for greater freedom. In 1792, at her own request, Jefferson sold Sally’s older sister Mary to Thomas Bell, a local merchant, who lived openly with her and treated their children as his legal family. Three years later, Jefferson allowed their brother Robert to work out an arrangement with a white resident of Richmond to purchase and free him.

Less happy was the fate of Sally’s brother James Hemings, who accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where he studied cuisine. During the 1790s, James asked for his freedom and Jefferson agreed, so long as he trained his successor as chef at Monticello. A few years later, James Hemings committed suicide. Gordon-Reed sensitively traces the career of this restless, solitary man, acknowledging that “we simply cannot retrieve” his inner world or why he took his own life. Unfortunately, when it comes to the core of the book, the ­relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, she is less circumspect.


An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Illustrated. 798 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35


Seeing Past the Slave to Study the Person (September 20, 2008)

Time Topics: Sally Hemings | Thomas Jefferson

In 1787, at the age of 14, Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly from Virginia to Paris, where Jefferson was serving as American minister. According to Madison Hemings’s account, at some point she became Jefferson’s “concubine.” When Jefferson was about to return to America in 1789, according to Madison, Sally Hemings, pregnant and aware that slavery had no legal standing in France, announced that she was going to remain in Paris. To persuade her to accompany him home, Jefferson agreed to a “treaty” whereby he would free her children when they reached adulthood.

Most scholars are likely to agree with Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s seven children (of whom three died in infancy). But as to the precise nature of their relationship, the historical record is silent. Was it rape, psychological coercion, a sexual bargain or a long-term loving connection? ­Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to probe the feelings of a man and a woman neither of whom left any historical evidence about their relationship. Madison Hemings’s use of the words “concubine” and “treaty” hardly suggests a romance. But Gordon-Reed is determined to prove that theirs was a consensual relationship based on love.

Sometimes even the most skilled researcher comes up empty. At that point, the better part of valor may be simply to state that a question is unanswerable. Gordon-Reed’s portrait of an enduring romance between Hemings and Jefferson is one possible reading of the limited evidence. Others are equally plausible. ­Gordon-Reed, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility. She sets up a series of straw men and proceeds to demolish them — those who believe that in the context of slavery, love between black and white people was impossible; that black female sexuality was “inherently degraded” and thus Jefferson could not have had genuine feelings for Hemings; that any black woman who consented to sex with a white man during slavery was a “traitor” to her people. She cites no current historians who hold these views, but is adamant in criticizing anyone who, given the vast gap in age (30 years) and power between them, views the Jefferson-Hemings connection as sexual exploitation.

As a black female scholar, Gordon-Reed is undoubtedly more sensitive than many other academics to the subtleties of language regarding race. But to question the likelihood of a long-term romantic attachment between Jefferson and Hemings is hardly to collaborate in what she calls “the erasure of individual black lives” from history. Gordon-Reed even suggests that “opponents of racism” who emphasize the prevalence of rape in the Old South occupy “common ground” with racists who despise black women, because both see sex with female slaves as “degraded.” This, quite simply, is ­outrageous.

After this rather strident discussion, which occupies the best part of four chapters, Gordon-Reed returns to her narrative. She relates how in 1802 the Richmond journalist James Callender named Hemings as Jefferson’s paramour and how throughout his presidency news­papers carried exposés, cartoons and bawdy ­poems about his relationship with “Yellow Sally.” Gordon-Reed makes the telling point that while Callender called Hemings a “slut as common as the pavement,” she was hardly promiscuous. She gave birth only at times when Jefferson could have been the father.

Neither Jefferson nor Hemings responded to these attacks. But whatever his precise feelings about the relationship, Jefferson certainly took a special interest in their children. Gordon-Reed notes that while other Hemings offspring were named after relatives, Sally Hemings’s sons bore names significant for Jefferson — Thomas Eston Hemings (after his cousin) and James Madison and William Beverley Hemings (after important ­Virginians).

In the end, Jefferson fulfilled the “treaty” he had agreed to in Paris and freed Sally Hemings’s surviving children. He allowed their daughter Harriet and son Beverley (ages 21 and 24) to leave Monticello in 1822. Very light-skinned, they chose to live out their lives as white people. Jefferson’s will freed Madison and Eston Hemings as well as three of their relatives. The will did not mention Sally Hemings, but Jefferson’s daughter allowed her to move to Char­lottesville, where she lived with her sons as a free person until dying in 1835. For the other slaves at Monticello, Jefferson’s death in 1826 was a catastrophe. To settle his enormous debts, his estate, including well over 100 slaves, was auctioned, destroying the families he had long tried to keep intact.

“The Hemingses of Monticello” ends at this point. Only in an earlier aside do we learn that Madison Hemings’s sons fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. One was among the 13,000 soldiers who perished at the infamous Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. I am glad to hear that Gordon-Reed is at work on a second volume tracing the further history of this remarkable family.


Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and the editor of “Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World,” which has just been published.

SOURCE: The New York Time  






Filed under Uncategorized


  1. Hi Anne,

    Just letting you know that I linked back to your post. It’s excellent. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Black Mistress? Give Me A Break «

  3. I’m sorry I just cannot accept the word mistress in describing the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. It’s more coerced than anything else. This is something mainstream Americans don’t want to deal. They’re all in a tizzy over Obama because he’s not a descendant of slaves and have a white mother, therefore society is very much at ease with him than a descendant of slaves.


  4. Ann

    LorMarie, thanks so much for the pingback, and thank you for stopping by.

  5. Ann

    LaReyna, I agree.

    When you are a slave, all rights to your heart, mind and body is trampled on and defiled on the altar of racist-sexist denigration.

    Thanks for your comments, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hello there!

    Thank you for blowing the trumpet!

    I am sick and tired of white people trying to pretend that this 14-year old girl WANTED to be raped by this pathetic old white slave owner and that she WANTED the relationship.


  7. Ann


    Thanks so much for your comments.

    The denial factor of white-run America is nauseating and infuriating. But, then again, the so-called “Founding Fathers” are sooooooooo blameless and so innocent. Such fine upstanding stalwart GENTLEMEN they were towards the defenseless women, girls, boys, and men they enslaved.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Ann

    La Reyna.

    Thanks for posting a link to my essay.

  9. Ann,

    You’re welcome.

    La Reyna

  10. Ann

    “I agree that this is a tragedy but you can’t pin the blame on just whites.”

    And just where do I blame anything on Whites? I spoke of Thomas Jefferson, a slave master who owned and impregnated a young enslaved Black girl who had no rights Jefferson was bound to respect.

    The onus is more on him because HE was the slave master, not Sally.

    I no more consider Jefferson a paragon of virtue anymore than I would Andrew Jackson, who was a racist-butcher (even if he is on a $20 bill; and that is one lowlife who has no damn right to be on any U.S. minted money).

    Jefferson was a slaver. Whether then or now, any man who has not the guts to stand up to wrong is not a man in my eyes. You don’t wait for a certain time or era to occur to grow some balls and be a man.

    You either die standing; or die being a coward.

    You are either a man, or you or not.

    Jefferson is not a man to me, and never will be.

    “It’s a flaw in the human physcological area.”

    And it is also a sign of strength to rise above the desire to enslave/use/degrade another human being—–to RISE above what everyone else around you is doing, and Jefferson made his choice: a slaver, a committer of incest, a rapist. You do not make excuses with, “It was the times!”, “He was a man of his time,” to excuse inhumane and barbaric maltreatment of fellow human beings.

    Thank you for your comments, and thank you for stopping by.

  11. bob

    i agree that this is a tragedy but you can’t pin the blame on just whites. This was quite common back then and is still common nowadays…even in blacks…and whites and all other races. It’s a flaw in the human physcological area

  12. Pingback: the rasx() context » Blog Archive » “Sexual revolution, booty-call 90s + superwomen” and other links…

  13. Vegas

    Yes, Sally had no rights. But all we can do is guess. Most folks don’t last 2 years these days, same race and all when they get married. TJ and SH lasted 38 years. We do not know what they were thinking. They lived in dangerous times. He could shoot off at the mouth about blacks being inferior all he wanted to, it would keep him, his slave wife and their children out of harms way if other whites thought, “he’s ok, he’s with us and he’d never do this or that”. It could’ve all been a facade. However, when he went home behind closed doors they might have been the two happiest folks in the world. Hard to believe, but very possible. Slave or master, no one can stay interested in someone that long if there’s nothing there. All there is are ? marks. Jefferson was very secretive, but full of clues. He named all of him and SH’s kids after his own family members, and not just her kids…but he had some lesser known children from his earlier days with other black women. One was SH’s sister, Mary Hemings, later sold to Jefferson’s friend Col. Thomas Bell at her request. Anyway, Mary and TJ had a child, I think his name was Joe Fossett and he had another child with Betty Brown, named Burwell. No one talks about all this, just because he’s a founding father…yes, founding father, not the Almighty Father. TJ was just a man. He had tons of kids, black and white. When he passed he left this Joe Fossett $300, despite all his financial problems…that and his freedom. I’d like to have $300 now, think about 1826…that money might have lasted 10 years or better. He didn’t leave his white kids any money. Look, in 2009 we can talk about, “oh he was a racist and wasn’t fair, etc.” By the way, his Notes on the State of Virginia is always haunting him. OK, he shouldn’t have wrote it, but he later admitted in writing that he was wrong. No one will forgive him though, because we are all so judgemental and perfect ourselves and never said or did anything wrong. But he did ok, to grow up surrounded by a bunch of Adolf Hitlers. He knew how to keep his mouth shut and keep his family together until his death. There’s lots of irony for Jefferson…it’s funny how he wrote all that stuff and laws against race mixing and then ended up head over heels for a black. I’ll bet he kicked himself every night. One other thing…Sally looked like his wife, but maybe with a little more color (bcuz they were sisters)…that man was probably over the moon at his luck.

    Most people don’t know what love is anyway, and yes, I’m speaking about 2009. That man might’ve loved that woman more than these so called men who just look at a booty on MTV and call it love.

    We need to stop thinking TJ was perfect and just look at him like a man. Someone who said and did lots of stupid things and then found himself in the situation he “preached” against. Everyone’s disecting their relationship, like they knew these people and they don’t know anything. I don’t either, but like I said, 38 years is a LONG time for just playing around. Common sense folks. And please stop thinking this man could just come out like a movie of the week in 2009 and pledge undying love for a black woman in the 1700s. He did the best he could under the circumstances.

  14. Sheree

    Wow. Alot to say and not sure where to begin. First, I think Annette Gordon-Reed did a tremendous job not only on this book, but her first about Hemings and Jefferson. Read her book if you want the closest that exists to a fair, even keel telling of the Hemings-Jefferson affair. I believe that it is a mistake to analyze the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson without taking slavery into consideration and simply viewing it as any other male/female relationship of the day. However, I also consider it just as big a mistake to analyze the dealings the two had with one another only in the context of slave/master. The Hemings in general viewed themselves as different and set apart from other slaves. This idea of themselves formed prior to Jefferson’s involvement with them, though he did support in his actions this general belief they were “different”. Sally Hemings did not view herself as “slave” only. She also identified with being a female, being a “Wayles”, and being part white. Jefferson, in almost every action taken in his life, supported the belief that the Hemings were “different”. Higher than property, but not free. It is in this context the two (Sally and Thomas) related to one another. And one must never forget the relationship started in Paris where Sally was FREE. She had a choice to not return to America. She did. I believe she gave up her freedom to be with a man she cared for. For his part, he showed how he cared by keeping his promise to her to free their children. One cannot assume that Thomas Jefferson was a rapist because he owned slaves and produced children with one, especially when the evidence in this rare, special case, points to a long term relationship in the truest sense of the word. Some whites will have to just get over the fact that Thomas Jefferson loved a black woman, and similarly, some blacks will have to let go of the myth that all slaveowners were evil to the core and incapable of love. Slaves were worthy people, worthy of love, and many slaveowners (regardless of who they did or did not sleep with) were capable of recognizing this and reacting. We can nver forget that “slave” and “master” are artificially constructed concepts. The only thing one can say for certain about all slaves and all slaveowners is they were ALL PEOPLE, with all the good and bad, truth and lies, mistakes that comes with being just simply human.

  15. Joe Garblonzo

    Yeah people, this isn’t such a black or white issue…

    ohh i crack myself up

  16. zaquiera

    and he is supposed to be a founding father .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s