This is another guest posting by Jim Lynch, our favorite English teacher from Bishop O’Reilly.
In 1998 it was revealed that DNA testing determined that Thomas Jefferson could have fathered as many as six children with a slave in his household at Monticello. That news generated controversy about the circumstances under which those children were conceived. Was the author of the Declaration of Independence – which included the phrase, “all men are created equal” – really a racist hypocrite? Did the third President of the United States cruelly use his social status and political prestige to abuse a woman of color who he owned?
There is no primary documentary evidence – letters, diaries, birth certificates, etc. – from the individuals to clarify the details of their relationship. In the 1990’s, however, DNA testing and some circumstantial evidence suggests that she bore him multiple children. That information ignited a debate about Jefferson’s behavior. He was a slave owner, as were his contemporaries in his new country, and in many other parts of the world as well. Although the evidence provides a near certainty of his paternity, the nature of their relationship remains a speculative mystery.
It is of primary importance to first scrutinize Jefferson’s opinions and judgments regarding the black race. Because he was born and raised in a Virginia family of slave owners, the slaves he knew in that time and place were, as a matter of course, uneducated and isolated from white culture and knowledge. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which deals with similar circumstances, the author’s characterization of the slave Jim offers an ignorant, superstitious and child-like adult whose stunted social development belies his decency, kindness and loyalty.
In such an environment, it is understandable that Jefferson’s would render “a suspicion” that slaves were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Despite such sentiments, however, he was a consistent opponent of slavery, a condition he called “a moral depravity” and “a hideous blot.” In both moral and intellectual judgment, he maintained that slavery was the greatest single threat to the survival of the new American nation. Despite owning slaves, he advocated the right of personal liberty and stated that the institution was contrary to the laws of nature.
Since the beginning of slavery in Virginia, the institution had grown and become firmly established. By the time Jefferson was born in 1743, it had existed in the state for seventy-five years, and was thoroughly intertwined into the social and economic fabric. Raised on a plantation, Jefferson came to realize two facts: that ownership of human beings is a despicable evil, and that, “Where the disease [of slavery] is most deeply seated, it will be the slowest in eradication. . . . In the Southern [states] it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience and perseverance in the curative process.”
In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “As it is we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Throughout his life, therefore, Jefferson sought ways to gradually end slavery by enacting laws banning the slave trade itself, prohibiting its expansion into new territories, and by providing the means for the social and economic assimilation of freed slaves into the population as a whole.
He feared that immediate emancipation would cause violence in the South and prejudice in the North. In addition, he advocated the option of repatriation to Africa, the continent from which slaves had been abducted. He feared an understandable retaliation by freed slaves because of the “unremitting despotism “ and “degrading submissions” they had suffered, and worried that they would not be able to survive economically without necessary education and occupational training. The 1831 Virginia slave insurrection known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, five years after his death, demonstrates Jefferson’s prescience.
Historical evidence clearly indicates that Jefferson’s life was filled with attempts to abolish slavery and find ways to facilitate equitable options for the recipients of abolition. In 1784 he proposed on ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest Territories; in 1798 he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans; his original draft of the Declaration of Independence included strong language opposing the slave trade; as President he signed a bill outlawing that trade. In his 1821 autobiography he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
When his wife, Martha, died in 1782, an inconsolable Jefferson continued his efforts to create a national government, as well as to provide a means for a step-by-step elimination of slavery. From 1784 to 1789 he lived in Paris with his daughter Patsy as the United States Minister to France. In 1787, his youngest daughter, Polly, arrived, accompanied by slaves who included James Hemings and his fourteen-year-old sister, Sally. Jefferson funded James’ training to become a French chef, and hired a tutor to teach Sally French, English and writing skills.
He paid both a wage commensurate with French citizens who rendered the same domestic duties. According her son Madison’s later testimony, Sally and Jefferson became lovers two years after her arrival. Oral accounts indicate that she bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. She is said to have had very light skin and long, straight black hair. Such descriptions are not surprising, given that she was Martha Jefferson’s half sister.
Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles and Elizabeth Hemings, one of his bi-racial slaves, were her parents. The children of that union were, therefore, 3/4 European ancestry. Because slavery was abolished in France during Jefferson’s stay, both James and Sally could easily have opted to walk away from their status and embrace freedom. Instead, they decided to return to Monticello with him, along with the promise that he would free them when they reached adulthood. Any children Jefferson and Sally were to produce would be 7/8th European ancestry. In fact, three of their sons, Beverly, Harriet and Eston, lived as members of white society as adults.
During the rest of their thirty-seven years together at Monticello, Sally had five children, all recorded by Jefferson: Harriet – 1795 (died 1797); Beverly – 1798; an unnamed daughter who died shortly after birth – 1799; a second Harriet – 1801; Madison – 1805; and Eston – 1808. There is no indication in Jefferson’s records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, although it is possible she suffered a miscarriage shortly after returning from Paris. Given the tenor of the times, an acknowledged relationship, let alone marriage, was beyond possibility. Their children were given free run of Monticello, with light work. At 14, they were trained as carpenters or, in Harriet’s case, as a spinner and weaver. Like their father, the boys learned to play the violin.
Although the assertion of Jefferson’s paternity can neither be fully substantiated nor refuted, it is almost certain, based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, that he fathered Heming’s children. Because Jefferson remained silent on the issue when it became a campaign topic during his political life, we can only speculate on the nature of their relationship. Was the champion of personal liberty a hypocritical sexual predator, or a partner in a loving relationship, and a caring father?
History is replete with stories of lovers separated by racial, cultural, social, religious, ethnic, and family hatred: Lancelot and Guinevere; Abelard and Heloise; Orpheus and Eurydice; Anthony and Cleopatra; Romeo and Juliet; Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. It is not difficult to believe that Jefferson and Hemings belong on that list. Lest modern analysts disavow the power of the cultural taboos surrounding colonial society, consider the contemporary treatment of Muslim women, who are subject to stoning and honor killings for merely being seen in public with males who are not their husbands.
It is a fact that all of Sally Hemings’ children were given their freedom by their father, a man who time, circumstance and an intimate relationship had convinced that his earlier estimation of slaves as inferior in body and mind was erroneous. Their servitude, he came to understand, had impacted their abilities and deprived them of the means for intellectual growth. Shortly after Jefferson’s death in 1826, his daughter Martha (and Sally’s niece) freed Sally to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.
It is further known that his children were educated and prepared for economic independence while growing to adulthood, and that Sally and her brother James returned to Virginia with him in 1789, rather than live as free individuals in France. Moreover, would a son for whom Jefferson had no parental feelings be named after James Madison, his dear friend of fifty years? Madison Hemings confirmed in 1873 that he and his siblings, Beverly, Harriet and Eston (who later changed his legal name to Jefferson), were Jefferson’s children.
During his long and productive life as a patriot, politician and farmer, Jefferson indulged in studies and pastimes that demonstrate his genius. He was an inventor, a multilingual (Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian), and a musician, whose passions included architecture (he designed and built Monticello), astronomy (he used a telescope to calculate the meridian at Monticello and to view the solar eclipse of 1811), physics, botany, mathematics (he raised the subject to a position of prominence at the University of Virginia), archaeology, and book collecting (in 1814, his 6,487 volumes were enough to restock the Library of Congress after in had been burned down by the British during the War of 1812).
From the time of the European settlement of North America until the Civil War, slavery was a cancer that metastasized until it was impervious to a rational cure. Although the bloodletting of the Civil War was successful in ending the national ignominy, post war black citizens were left with many horrific racial scars. After the cost of 620,000 lives, a legacy of Jim Crow and racial animus were the legacies of the state vs. state and brother vs. brother war. In the painful century and a half which followed, reconciliation and social amelioration have been painfully slow.
Despite serious and ongoing problems between the races, however, the abundance of high profile African-American musicians, novelists, entertainers, politicians, athletes, journalists, entrepreneurs, scientists, intellectuals, and educators – together with the ongoing normalization of inter-racial couples and marriages – are evidence of genuine progress. The cost has been, and in many cases continues to be, high for such improvement, but the progress is self-evident.
In 1962, President John Kennedy gave remarks at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere. “I think,” he said, “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
From 2008 until 2016, an African-American First Lady and a bi-racial President dined together in that residence. Because he lived at a time when such an accommodation was impossible, the third President of the United States dined alone in the executive mansion. Jefferson’s shadow intimacy two centuries ago was the price he paid to serve a young country not yet able to fully understand, as he most certainly did, the full value of human freedom, or the cost of failing to do so.
September 7, 2018
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