It’s President’s Day, really, I can’t let it pass.
No, I’m not going after anyone – this is not Clinton and Monica, no Ike and Kay, no FDR and Lucy, not even Jack and ________ (insert strumpet here).
Thomas Jefferson was most likely the most brilliant man ever to be the President of the United States. But, he had his weaknesses.
One of them was Sally Hemings.
He owned her, she was his slave. Sally Hemings was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha’s father had fathered six children with Elizabeth Hemings, his slave, and when Skelton died, Jefferson and his wife inherited the slaves/siblings along with 11,000 acres of land and Skelton’s massive debts.
The Hemings children were three quarters Caucasian. They had two paternal white grandparents and one maternal one.
In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was sent to the Court of Versailles as the US Envoy. He loved Paris, made the rounds, hooked UP with a few French beauties, and played the dutiful dad to one daughter, Patsy.
The other two children were back in the US being cared for – not so well – by friends. After one daughter, Lucy, died of whooping cough, Jefferson sent for the remaining child, Polly. Polly brought Sally Hemings with her to Paris. Jefferson had already taken several family slaves, including Sally’s brother, James with him.
Jefferson loved French cuisine so much – and really, who doesn’t? – he had James trained as French Chef.
Most likely, Jefferson and Sally started their relationship while in Paris. It is doubtful that Jefferson had noticed her before, she was the youngest of his wife’s half-siblings, and was a mere child when she came to Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation. Both Sally and her brother, James, could have stayed in France and petitioned for their freedom as slavery had been abolished there ‘in principle’. But, pregnant with Jefferson’s child, and missing her mother and family, she returned with the diplomat to Monticello and slavery. She did extract a promise from Jefferson to free her children.
Sally Hemings had five children. The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy debates the paternity of the children. And historians are still fighting about it today! Most recently as 1998, DNA has found a match between the male line of the Jefferson family and that of Easton Hemings, Sally’s last son.
It is most probable that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally’s children. Plantation records show their births in the Farm Book. No other slave children were recorded there. The fact that Jefferson freed each child as they came to adulthood indicates that the connection was special. Three of the four remaining children (one died as a child) entered white society – they were seven-eights European/Caucasian/White – call it what you like.
All of Sally Hemings children and her siblings were trained as artisans and had special assignments on the plantation. Sally remained a slave in Jefferson’s home until the former President died on the 4th of July in 1826.
Jefferson’s daughter gave Sally ‘her time’, essentially freeing her. Sally lived the last nine years of her life in Charlottesville, VA in the home of her two younger sons.
She lived in a home owned by her sons. In the Albemarle County census of 1833, all three; Sally, Madison, and Easton are recorded as ‘white persons’. Beverly (a male) and Harriet left the state of Virginia, moved to DC and married into white families.
The Hemings-Jefferson Controversy rages today. Jefferson may not have been the father of his country, but he was the father of many. And, it is likely, in his own conflicted way, with the laws of the time, society as it was, Jefferson loved Sally Hemings. And she probably loved him.