For nearly 40 years, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson reportedly had a prolonged sexual relationship with an enslaved black woman of African ancestry, Sally Hemings.
Jefferson was 44 years old while Hemings was only 14 when this sexual relationship started in 1787. In today’s world, it would be considered statutory rape. Interestingly, Jefferson kept all of these children by Sally, his own children, as slaves.
As far back as 1802, a year after ascending the Presidency of the United States, there had been rumours that Jefferson had sexual relations with his black slave, Sally Hemings and that he fathered children by her. For many Americans, it was atrocious to believe that a man with Jefferson’s ideology and standing would have sexual relations with a black woman. This was a man who argued against race mixing because, somehow, (quote and unquote) “blacks are inferior to whites in the endowment of both body and mind.” It is even more controversial because interracial sex and marriages in the United States as far back as 1622 were considered felonies.
The history of the United States of America would be incomplete without Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation’s founding fathers, who also served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. However, Thomas Jefferson was not just a former president and founding father of the United States of America who authored the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33. He was a white supremacist and slaveowner who allegedly despised Black people.
However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children, including six documented descendants, with Sally Hemings, his black slave at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia. The nature of their relationship is widely debated and continues to be a subject of historical research and inquiry.
Who Was Sally Hemings?
The story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s intimacy is traced back to 1787 when Hemings travelled to Paris with Maria Jefferson after the death of her sister, Lucy.
Sally Hemings was the daughter of Betty Hemings and her owner, John Wayles who was a planter and enslaver. Wayles had inherited Betty from his late wife, Martha, and he began an affair with her and made her his concubine. Betty would give birth to six children for Wayles in a span of 12 years, of which Sally was the youngest of these children.
When Wayles died in 1773, his property, including his slaves, was inherited by his eldest daughter, Martha Wayles, who had married the young planter and future president, Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1772. At the time when John Wayles died, Sally was still an infant; she, along with her mother and siblings, was brought to Jefferson’s home in Monticello where they continued living as slaves.
The children from Betty’s relationship with Wayles were younger half-siblings of Martha Wayles. Sally was 25 years younger than Martha and grew up in her home. As was the practice at that time, children born to female slaves inherited the mother’s slave status. It did not matter if the father was the slave owner, the children born were automatically slaves.
Paris: The Beginning of the Jefferson-Hemings Liaison
The rape of Sally Hemings is reported to have begun in Paris. In 1787, Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Maria to Paris as her body slave when her father was the Ambassador of the United States to France. She was just 14 years old at the time and around the same age as Maria. They stayed in France for 18 months, and in those months, Jefferson and Hemings’ sexual relationship began. When Jefferson was called back home, Hemings refused to return to Virginia. She was starting to love France, its language, and its culture. In France, she was free, but if she returned to Virginia, she would be enslaved. Jefferson then enticed her with perks so she could return to Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson reportedly promised that if she returned to Virginia with him, he would free her children once they reached the age of 21. There have been different accounts of how many children she had, but she certainly had at least four children- three boys and a girl.
When Sally Hemings returned to Monticello, she performed the duties of an enslaved household servant. It was her duty, all her life up to the time of Jefferson’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after her children and do such light work as sewing. She was still referred to as Maria’s maid.
After Sally and Thomas Jefferson returned from Paris in 1789, she gave birth to a son, Tom. He died shortly after he was born. She gave birth to six other children: Harriet Hemings I, who died when she was two, Beverly Hemings, Thenia Hemings, who died in infancy, Harriet Hemings II, Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings.
The birth of the children was recorded in Jefferson’s farm book. However, unlike how he did for the other enslaved people, he did not record who the father of Sally’s children was.
The Hemings children were allowed in the main house. They were not given any complex duties. At the age of 14, they began their duties, with the boys Beverly, Madison, and Eston learning carpentry and how to play the violin which Thomas Jefferson also played. Harriet II learned how to spin and weave and was often on the cotton plantation.
Sally Hemings Freed Children
Thomas Jefferson did not possess the habit of freeing slaves. When slaves ran away, he sent people after them to get them back. According to Jefferson’s farm book, Sally Hemings’s son, Beverly Hemings ran away in 1822, he was older than 21 when Jefferson had promised to free the Hemings children. There is no evidence in the farm book which purports that Jefferson had sent people after Beverly Hemings after he left.
The next Hemings child that left Monticello was Harriet Hemings, Sally’s daughter who also left at age 21. From this, one can say that the agreement between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was fulfilled and both parties performed their duties.
According to Edmund Bacon, who was Thomas Jefferson’s overseer, Jefferson freed a girl before his death. Edmund Bacon also mentioned that Thomas Jefferson was not Harriet’s father, but that was something he could not have known as Harriet was born in 1801 and Bacon didn’t come to Monticello till 1806 when Harriet was five.
Recall that Thomas Jefferson was part of the people who signed the first Constitution of the United States of America in 1787. The charter allowed slave owners to capture fugitive slaves and prohibited the abolition of slavery before 1808.
Thomas Jefferson freed all of Sally’s surviving children through his will after his death. Of all the hundreds of slaves he owned, he only formally freed a particular group. Sally Hemings was never officially freed but she was “given her time” or unofficially freed after the death of Jefferson. Also, in a census in 1830, Sally Hemings and her younger children, Madison and Eston were counted as White people. Her older children, Beverly and Harriet Hemings, passed into White society after leaving Monticello. Their connection to Monticello was never found and they lived as White people until their deaths.
Thomas Jefferson believed that women slaves were more valuable than male slaves. He wrote a letter about it two years before Harriet Hemings’ departure. He mentioned that female slaves had children and it added to capital. At the time of Harriet’s departure, Thomas Jefferson was in debt. So why would he free an item of his capital?
The Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Controversy
There were always rumours about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in Virginia. In 1802, James Callender published a story telling the public how Jefferson kept his concubine as a slave and she had children for him after Callender saw enslaved light-skinned children at Monticello. The rumours spread wide. Interestingly, there is no public record of Thomas Jefferson denying the rumour.
In 1858, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, wrote to her husband that her elder brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph informed her that Sally Hemings’ children were fathered by Samuel Carr, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson. Also, in 1868, Henry Randall said that Thomas Jefferson Randolph told him that Peter Carr, Samuel’s brother, was the father of the Hemings children. For the next 150 years, the Carr brothers were rumoured to be the father of their Hemings children.
However, in 1873, Madison Hemings claimed that he and his siblings were children of Thomas Jefferson. He mentioned that his mother, Sally Hemings had got pregnant at the end of her stay in Paris and had decided to seek the protection of French law but Jefferson told her that her children would be free once they were 21.
The testimony of Madison Hemings was seen as irrelevant. According to most people, there was no written history to back up the fact and Madison’s oral history failed to produce facts. Another testimony was that of Israel Gillette, a former slave at Monticello. He mentioned that Sally Hemings was employed as Jefferson’s chambermaid, and that “Mr Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.”
In November 1998, a DNA test made by scientist Dr Eugene Foster proved that there was a link between Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings children. The test made use of the Y chromosomes of the subjects. It was based on the fact that the Y chromosomes remain unchanged in descendants.
Thomas Jefferson had no male white child, so they used samples from Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson, on the basis that they were biologically related and there was no form of illegitimacy in play. The samples were transported to a lab in London. They were marked with codes and not actual names for the sake of anonymity. The result of the test confirmed that Eston Hemings was related to the Jeffersons. The DNA test also revealed that Eston Hemings was not related to the Woodsons or the Carrs.
In 2018, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello announced that it was going to host an exhibit on the life of Sally Hemings. The foundation also asserted that it was addressing as a settled issue that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ known children.
Did Thomas Jefferson Rape Sally Hemmings?
Over the years, people have tried to sanitise history and whitewash what happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Some people have even labelled her as a mistress.
Although available evidence shows that there was a sexual relationship between them, there is no conclusive evidence to prove whether or not Thomas Jefferson raped Sally Hemings. However, it is widely acknowledged that their relationship was deeply unequal, as Hemings was a slave and Jefferson was her owner. The power dynamic between them raises significant questions about the possibility of informed and consensual romantic or sexual interactions. It is important to acknowledge the complexity of the historical record and the various interpretations of their relationship, but it is also crucial to recognise the ethical concerns associated with non-consensual sexual activity between a slave owner and a slave.
Can it be called rape? To answer this question, we must consider that:
- Thomas Jefferson was way older than Sally Hemings. He was at least 30 years older than her. It is pertinent to note that when their relationship started, Hemings was 14 while Jefferson was 44. Whatever happened between them at that point could be nothing short of rape.
- Thomas Jefferson held a position of authority over Sally Hemings. He was her master and owner.
- Jefferson was a White man in a white supremacist country while Hemmings was an enslaved black woman.
- Female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances from their owners.
Jefferson had the power to coerce Sally Hemings into a relationship that lasted for nearly 40 years. A lot of Jefferson warriors have tried to classify what Jefferson and Hemings had as a love relationship. They’ve gone so far as calling her an agent of change, that Jefferson was mesmerised by her beauty. Whatever their relationship was, it would be hard to know. The President never really mentioned Sally Hemings in any of his writings before his death. Also, Hemings’ feelings toward Jefferson remain unknown because she was uneducated and, like other slaves at that time, she didn’t document her thoughts or experiences.
What is important is that there was a powerplay in the relationship and it would be insensitive to romanticise whatever happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as it tries to diminish the power imbalance suffered by Black people in pre-civil war United States of America.
Thomas Jefferson enslaved 607 people throughout his lifetime. But he freed only seven and let three others escape Monticello. They were all extended members of the Hemings family. Four were his children.
As for Sally Hemings, she was not legally freed even after Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. Nine years later, in 1835, she died at the age of 62 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the location of her grave remains unknown, even to this day.
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