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Beyond Slavery pp 191-212 | Cite as

Love, Sex, Slavery, and Sally Hemings

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Part of the Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice book series

Abstract

“Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows” Thomas Jefferson maintained in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), “but no poetry … Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.” By way of example, he critiqued the work of Phillis Wheatley, who rose to fame as an enslaved teenager in the late 1760s, with the publication of her early poems. “The compositions under her name are beneath the dignity of criticism.”1 Jefferson’s conviction that a young black girl who grew up in bondage would know little of love and even less of poetry is worth noting today as Americans again revisit his relationship with another enslaved teenager, Sally Hemings. There, Americans often find an interracial romance that has some celebrating Hemings as a “founding mother.”2

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. David Waldstreicher (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002) 178. Initially published in newspapers, Phillis Wheatley’s early poems were collected and published in a 1773 publication entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which is reprinted in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Rhys Isaacs, “Monticello Stories Old and New,” in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: History, Memory, and Civil Culture, eds. Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) 27.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    James Callender, Richmond Recorder, September 1, quoted in Michael Durey, “With the Hammer of Truth”: James Thomson Callender and America’s Early National Heroes (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990) 159.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Barbara Chase-Ribound, Sally Hemings (New York: Avon, 1980); Jefferson in Paris, directed by James Ivory, Merchant Ivory Productions, Touchstone Pictures, 1995; and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, directed by Charles Haid, Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, 2000.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Notable exceptions include Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997). Published shortly before the DNA tests were conducted, legal scholar Gordon-Reed’s book made an impressive case for a Jefferson-Hemings relationship even before the DNA tests issued the final blow. Less successful in reaching scholars was Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974). A Book-of-the-Month Club Selection that received favorable reviews in the popular press, Brodie’s argument for an intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings won few converts.Google Scholar
  6. See Jennifer Jensen Wallach, “The Vindication of Fawn Brodie,” Massachusetts Review 43 (2002) 283.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Likewise, Annette Gordon-Reed, who never denied the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, casts their relationship in a similarly romantic light. Although largely dedicated to showing that the possibility of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was supported by available evidence, her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings suggests that the relationship between the two may have been “loving” (230). Gordon-Reed expands on this suggestion in her subsequent book on the subject, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: Norton, 2008), which appeared too late to be considered in any detail in this essay. However, to the extent that Gordon-Reed portrays the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as a love affair, absent new evidence of any kind, some of this essay’s questions may well be put to this work. Indeed, historian Eric Foner raises some of them in his illuminating review of the book, which emphasizes, “Gordon-Reed’s portrait of an enduring romance between Hemings and Jefferson is one possible reading of the limited evidence. Others are equally plausible.” Foner also critiques Gordon-Reed for her suggestion that in emphasizing the nonconsensual character of many master-slave relationships, “opponents of racism and critics of slavery” run the risk of labeling female slaves as “inherently degraded.” Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 319;Google Scholar
  8. Foner, “The Master and the Mistress,” New York Times, October 5, 2008. This essay suggests that the inequality of power between young female slaves, such as Sally Hemings, and their owner might well have been degrading to both parties and provided virtually no real opportunity for such women to exercise the consent and free will usually associated with romantic relationships.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) 61; and E. M. Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 98.Google Scholar
  10. E. M. Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 98.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Virginia (Colony), Act 3, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 2, ed. William Waller Hening (1823; reprint, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1969) 493; and Virtual Jamestown, “Laws on Slavery,” http://www.virtualjamestown.org/laws1.html (accessed August 3, 2009).Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, Monticello, 1820, in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book with Comments and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings, ed. Edwin Morris Betts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953) 45f.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography” (1821), in The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson, eds. Adriene Koch and William Peden (New York: Modern Library, 1998) 37.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Jefferson’s proposed legislation read, “If any white woman shall have a child by a negro or mulatto, she and her child shall depart the commonwealth within one year thereafter.” Report of the Revisors, “A Bill Concerning Slaves,” in Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition, vol. 2, 1771–1779 (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1904–1905); and Online Library of Liberty, “Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols.,” http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/755/86132 on 2008-06-26 (accessed August 3, 2009). See also Charles Frank Robinson II, Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003) 7;Google Scholar
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    Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 65.Google Scholar
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    Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 207.Google Scholar
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    Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985) 29.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. David Waldstreicher (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002) 179.Google Scholar
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    See Peter W. Bardaglio, “Rape and the Law in the Old South: ‘Calculated to Excite Indignation in Every Heart,’” Journal of Southern History 60 (1994) 749–772;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Christina Accomando, The Regulations of Robbers: Legal Fictions on Slavery and Resistance (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001) 158Google Scholar
  22. Jennifer Wriggins, “Rape, Racism and the Law,” Harvard Women’s Law Journal 6 (1983) 759.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 17, 51.Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings” originally appeared in “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, March 13, 1873, and is reprinted in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997) 246.Google Scholar
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    Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings” [as told to S. F. Wetmore], “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, March 13, 1873, Frontline, PBS.org, “Jefferson’s Blood,” under “Chronology,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html (accessed August 28, 2009).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Acclaimed Jefferson biographer J. M. Halliday, for example, contends that the relationship that developed between Jefferson and his slave maid must be reconciled with “Jefferson’s honor and humanity and … respect for human dignity.” “What if she seduced him?” he suggests, as a way of resolving this issue. Sally’s mother, Betty, “had tremendously improved her lot as a slave by becoming John Wayles’s consort after the death of his third wife,” so she may well have wished to see her daughter do the same. Indeed, Halliday speculates, the fact that Sally accompanied Polly Jefferson could have been the result of “clever maneuvering” on her mother’s part, and “it is hard to believe that Betty Hemings failed to give her lively, pretty daughter advice on how to behave toward Master Jefferson upon entering his household.” In other words, the relationship was Sally’s choice. On his own in Paris, having failed to secure the affections of Maria Cosgrove—a married woman whom he wooed during his European sojourn—Jefferson was “vulnerable.” E. M. Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 98.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    In a letter written shortly after his younger daughter’s arrival in Paris, Jefferson told his sister that Polly was “now in the same convent with her sister and will come and see me once or twice a week.” The two girls remained in the convent school until shortly before the Jefferson family returned to Virginia. It is conceivable that Sally went with them but more probable that she remained at the Jefferson town house on the Champs-Elysées. “To Mrs. Bolling,” July 23, 1787, Paris, in Sarah Randolph Jefferson, The Domestic Life of Mrs. Jefferson (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958).Google Scholar
  28. 29.
    Joshua Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) 17.Google Scholar
  29. 30.
    Thomas Jefferson’s views on this subject were recorded by Monticello slave Israel Jefferson in his 1873 interview “Memoirs of Israel Jefferson” in “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, December 25, 1873. In practice, no Monticello slaves appear to have been offered instruction in either reading or writing by Jefferson—although some, such as Jefferson’s son Madison Hemings, who “induced the white children” to teach him how to read, managed to find other tutors; Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings.” On slave life at Monticello, see Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  30. 32.
    Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985) 38.Google Scholar
  31. 33.
    Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 74.Google Scholar
  32. 36.
    On the limitations of liberal notions of self with regard to enslaved humanity, see Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37 (2003) 112–124, 115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 37.
    Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) 535.Google Scholar
  34. 39.
    Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985) 133.Google Scholar
  35. 40.
    Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 105f.Google Scholar
  36. 41.
    Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 218.Google Scholar
  37. 43.
    Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings” [as told to S. F. Wetmore], “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, March 13, 1873, Frontline, PBS.org, “Jefferson’s Blood,” under “Chronology,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html (accessed August 28, 2009).Google Scholar
  38. 46.
    Jefferson’s instruction to Bacon are recorded in “The Private Life of Jefferson,” an account of the memories of Jefferson’s overseer Edward Bacon, recorded by Reverend Hamilton Wilcox Pierson. First published 1862, it is reprinted in James A. Bear, ed., Jefferson at Monticello (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967) 102.Google Scholar
  39. 48.
    Margaret Bayard Smith, “The Haven of Domestic Life,” in Visitors to Monticello, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989) 53.Google Scholar
  40. 51.
    Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. David Waldstreicher (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002) 176.Google Scholar
  41. Sally is described as “mighty near white” in a memoir dictated to Charles Campbell by Isaac Jefferson, “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” in James A. Bear, ed., Jefferson at Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967) 4.Google Scholar
  42. Joshua Rothman suggests that Hemings was “not really black”; see Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) 47.Google Scholar
  43. 52.
    Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings” [as told to S. F. Wetmore], “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, March 13, 1873, Frontline, PBS.org, “Jefferson’s Blood,” under “Chronology,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html (accessed August 28, 2009).Google Scholar
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    On the “fancy trade,” see Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985) 37;Google Scholar
  45. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 113–115, 154f;Google Scholar
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  47. 54.
    Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Warner, 2002) 94.Google Scholar
  48. 55.
    Jefferson to Governor John Page, June 25, 1804, in The Memoirs, Correspondence and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 4 (H. Coburn and R. Bentley, 1829; digitized on Google Books, 2007) 19.Google Scholar
  49. 56.
    Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, February 8, 1826, in Sarah Randolph Jefferson, The Domestic Life of Mrs. Jefferson (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958) 415.Google Scholar
  50. 57.
    “The Will of Thomas Jefferson,” in Samuel H. Sloan, The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson (Lynchburg, VA: Orsden, 1992) 292.Google Scholar
  51. 58.
    Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Recollections, Virginia University Library (1837), quoted in Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 142.Google Scholar
  52. 59.
    Peter Fossett, “Once a Slave of Thomas Jefferson,” New York World, January 30, 1898; reprinted, Frontline, PBS Web site, “Jefferson’s Blood,” under “Slaves Story,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/slaves/memoir.html (accessed August 4, 2009).Google Scholar
  53. 61.
    According to Madison Hemings, “Harriet married a white man of good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not for prudential reasons.” He also noted that she had children “never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lives,” and that he had not talked to her in more than ten years. Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings” [as told to S. F. Wetmore], “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” Pike County (OH) Republican, March 13, 1873, Frontline, PBS.org, “Jefferson’s Blood,” under “Chronology,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html (accessed August 28, 2009).Google Scholar
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    Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. David Waldstreicher (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002) 175, 195.Google Scholar

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© Bernadette J. Brooten 2010

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  • Mia Bay

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