Since Sally Hemings has come up in recent posts (here, and here) I think it is time to deal with the controversy surrounding her and her presumed sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Hence this long post.
Sally Hemings, her mother and five siblings, were among the 139 slaves inherited by Thomas Jefferson’s wife upon the death of her father John Wayles. Moved to Monticello, the Hemingses had privileged positions there—most were domestic servants or trained as artisans. Sally was a maid to the two Jefferson daughters and had other light domestic duties.
When his wife died in 1782, weeks after their daughter Lucy was born, Jefferson was heartbroken and, it is said, promised Martha on her deathbed that he would never marry again. (He never did.) Jefferson was only 39 years old. Given the fact that in the ten years of their marriage, Martha had six children—two of whom lived to adulthood: Martha “Patsy” and Mary “Polly”—it would not be amiss to infer that Jefferson had a fairly strong libido. On the other hand, most couples at that time had large families and did not practice any sort of birth control.
In 1784, Jefferson went to Paris to take up his duties the following year as minister to France, replacing Benjamin Franklin who chose to retire. He took Patsy with him—placing her in a convent school—but left Polly, her maid and companion Sally Hemings, and toddler Lucy with their Aunt Elizabeth Wayles Eppes in Southside, Virginia. Jefferson was crushed when he learned of Lucy’s death from whooping cough at the age of two-and-a-half.
AN ASIDE—Alone and lonely, Jefferson was introduced to Maria Cosway in August 1786. The daughter of an English father and an Italian mother, Cosway, an artist married to fellow artist Richard Cosway, was beautiful and intelligent. Jefferson was smitten by her. The two found they shared an interest in art and architecture and spent many days together going to exhibits in Paris and traveling through the French countryside. It is unclear whether their romantic attachment was consummated. Maria’s return to London in October, at the insistence of her husband, inspired Jefferson to compose a 4,000-word love letter called “The Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart,” a conversation he has with himself about the struggle between the practical and the romantic. Although Jefferson and Cosway corresponded throughout their lives, expressing affection for each other, they never resumed their close relationship. END OF ASIDE.
It may be that the death of Jefferson’s daughter Lucy prompted him to send for his daughter Polly. At any rate, Sally Hemings accompanied Polly, in 1787, to London and on to Paris. It is unclear whether Sally lived in the Jefferson household at the Hôtel de Langeac or whether she was with the Jefferson daughters at their convent school. What is known is that Jefferson had her inoculated against smallpox, that she was tutored in French, and boarded for a time at a laundry where she received instruction. At some point she was paid a wage of $2 a month.
Jefferson had also brought James Hemings, Sally’s brother, to Paris to have him trained in the art of French cooking. It is worthy of note that a slave brought to France could sue for his/her freedom as slavery was illegal in that country. Neither Sally nor James did that; they opted to return to the United States with Jefferson in 1789—they had large families there—when he was appointed secretary of state in the new national government.
It may have been in Paris that a sexual relationship developed between the Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. She was, after all, a stepsister of his wife and may have resembled her. Their liaison became a subject of speculation during Jefferson’s lifetime, chiefly in 1802 when political journalist, James Callender, published an article in a Richmond newspaper claiming that Sally was Jefferson’s concubine.
The controversy continued over the years until 2000 when The Thomas Jefferson Research Foundation assembled the pertinent information on the subject, including documentary and statistical evidence, oral evidence from descendants, as well as scientific evidence, namely DNA results. The study’s report found that someone carrying the Jefferson Y-chromosome fathered Eston Hemings, the last child born to Sally Hemings (1808). Based on the findings, the report stated that “the simplest and most probable” conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings. Most historians now agree that Jefferson was the father of at least one and probably all of Sally’s six children.
The evidence indicates a high degree of probability; this does not mean that the conclusion is incontrovertible. Indeed, in 2011, the Jefferson Heritage Society issued its own report, after reviewing the same material, concluding that it was more likely that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph was the father of at least some of Sally Hemings’s children.
With regard to Sally’s children: all were given their freedom, some of the males prior to Jefferson’s death in 1826, and the other children, according to Jefferson’s will, after the age of twenty-one. No other slaves were freed by his will; the remainder—140— were auctioned off in 1827 to pay his many debts. Sally herself was not technically freed. She was “given her time,” probably by Patsy Jefferson Randolph. This was an informal method of emancipation that prevented the freed individual from having to leave Virginia within a year as ordered by law. Sally lived at first with two of her sons in Charlottesville, and later on her own.
Sally Hemings died in 1835; her burial place is not known. Was she was literate? Nothing written by her has surfaced. And there are no known images of her. Slave owners often had sexual relations with female slaves—this was the case with Jefferson’s father-in-law. Few openly acknowledged these liaisons or legally recognized the resulting offspring.