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Monticello, Slavery and Sally Hemings

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The second half of 1802 found Thomas Jefferson's ship of state on cruise control; the president's navy was getting the better of the Barbary pirates, a peace treaty between France and England opened Caribbean ports to US commerce, and West Point was established. Aside from the ominous federal debt, a strong case for optimism could be made; the bitterly contested election of 1800 with John Adams was receding from memory.

In the September 1 issue of the Richmond Recorder James Callender, a Scottish immigrant and notorious scandalmonger reported that the president of the United States owned a black slave mistress who had borne him several children. He began: 

It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the public to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to the president himself. … By this wench, Sally, our president has had several children. … THE AFRICAN VENUS is said to officiate, as housekeeper, at Monticello

Callender’s hit piece rocked the fledgling nation. Federalist newspapers rushed to report the alleged scandal, often in banner headlines; wits published scurrilous poems, mocking the president and ‘Dusky Sally’. Jefferson’s Republican allies were flummoxed by the president’s failure to address (and scarcely mention in private) the assault on his honor but as the months passed Jefferson’s avoidance strategy proved to be the right one.

By the time Jefferson died in 1826, the rumored mesalliance was more or less forgotten although Northern abolitionists revived the scandal during the Civil War era. There the story would lie until Fawn Brodie’s explosive 1974 psychobiography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, in it, she alleged that the American icon maintained a 28-year-old affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.



While still a British subject, the 26-year-old Jefferson inherited 30 slaves from his father a provincial surveyor and tobacco planter in 1764. At this time he began building the Renaissance-inspired Monticello, his ‘little mountain’, that was to become the nerve center of what later became a sprawling plantation empire.

Ten years later Jefferson married up financially. Martha Wayles Skelton was the daughter of a wealthy slave trader; miscegenation was rampant- and unremarkable- among the Southern grandees and Martha was the half-sister of Sally Hemings. She was also a diabetic. While Martha lay dying in 1782 and fearful that their seven children would be subjected to a stepfather she made Jefferson swear that he would never remarry. Grief-stricken, he would honor her request. Jefferson was 39 at the time, Sally Hemings was nine.

During his lifetime Jefferson would own 607 slaves on his various estates, over 500 of which were either inherited or the result of natural increase. At any one time, a hundred or so lived at Monticello.

Jefferson appeared every day at first light on Monticello’s long terrace, walking alone with his thoughts. From his terrace, Jefferson looked out upon an industrious, well-organized enterprise of black coopers, smiths, nailmakers, a brewer, cooks professionally trained in French cuisine, a glazier, painters, millers, and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. A team of highly skilled artisans constructed Jefferson’s coach. The household staff ran what was essentially a mid-sized hotel, where some 16 slaves waited upon the needs of a daily horde of guests.
-The Smithsonian

It appears a considerable amount of consanguinity existed among the slaves at Monticello. ‘A peculiar fact about his house servants was that we were all related to one another,’ a former slave recalled. Some of their duties were more onerous than others, mostly laborers and field workers, and a certain amount of resentment must have been present toward the few lucky (and lighter skinned) slaves who comprised the household staff. These were rewarded with better food and clothes as well as a modest monthly stipend. Sally belonged to that privileged class.


Sally Hemings' mother Betty was a bright mulatto woman, and Sally mighty near white....Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.
- Isaac Jefferson, former Monticello slave

Sally came to Monticello as a toddler in 1773. She was one-quarter black like her siblings and all were eventually assigned to the most desirable occupations on the estate; skilled artisans and domestic servants. In 1787 Jefferson, while acting as the US envoy in France, summoned his daughter Polly to join him in Paris and Sally accompanied her as chaperon. She brought along her older brother, Madison, who was to be trained in French cuisine, both studied the French language. According to Madison, Sally became pregnant for the first time during her stay in Paris.

Sally spent 26 months in France a country that had recently abolished slavery and under the law, she was entitled to petition for her freedom. Bargaining from a position of strength, she demanded that Jefferson emancipate any children of hers when they came of age if he wished to return with her to the states. He agreed and followed through. Sally’s first child died shortly after returning to the US but between 1795 and 1808 she delivered five others; another died in infancy but the rest were, as adults, perceived as white and entered seamlessly into white society.

We have no images of Sally nor do know if she was literate. Upon Jefferson’s death, she and her two youngest sons moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where she died in 1835.

Just prior to the Civil War a Jefferson descendant claimed that Peter Carr, a nephew of the president, had fathered the five children of Sally Hemings. That became the conventional wisdom among historians until the late 1990s when science arrived armed with DNA analysis. The findings failed to find a link with Carr but using Y-chromosomal DNA samples from Jefferson’s male-line descendants geneticists discovered a match: Field Jefferson, a living descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally’s last child.

The revelation unleashed rancorous controversy among historians and Jefferson-related foundations but the weight of evidence has gradually been tending to favor the ‘pro’ side. But DNA only shows that "a Jefferson" family member, one of 24 Jeffersons related by blood, could have been the father. The most plausible culprit appears to be Randolph, Jefferson’s younger brother, a rather dissolute fellow who was said to enjoy hanging out in the slave quarters. But his four recorded visits to Monticello from 1802 to 1814 never coincided with Heming’s conceptions.


Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.
- Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway


-The slave quarters at Monticello

In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as this ‘execrable commerce ...this assemblage of horrors,’ a ‘cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties’. But later his personal interests intervened; sometime during the 1790s he ceased mentioning abolition, he would live a life of cognitive dissonance.

Jefferson’s father-in-law had, along with slaves and extensive properties, saddled him with enormous debts. A high liver and addicted to extravagant projects, Jefferson struggled with money for most of his life and freeing his slaves became financially unthinkable. His creditors refrained from pressing the Architect of the Republic but would they be as gentle with his children? Aging and desperate to sell his properties Jefferson resorted to a lottery scheme. It failed. Prominent financiers in New York organized a fundraising campaign that would allow him to keep his lands but that brought in only 16,000 dollars. The third American president died bankrupt.

Jefferson emancipated only five of his slaves in his will, all males from the extended Hemings family. HIs daughter Martha inherited his estate- and his debts. She would sell off Monticello and the 130 remaining slaves.

(This essay was first published on the History Community site)


<i>Presumed Hemings descendants at Monticello</i>



Edited by Childress

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