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.
THE MASTER AND THE MISTRESS
New-York Historical Society
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.
THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO
An American Family
By Annette Gordon-Reed
Illustrated. 798 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35
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.