This post is a reprint of a reply I sent to Bob Turner at the University of Virginia. We met online over a movie that had been made regarding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I have done considerable research on this subject as a writer, while Mr. Turner has examined it as a scholar. We exchanged several emails and I then offered a condensed treatise of my position. This is of interest because the affair between these famous people is directly related to a character in Lives of the Spirits, and some other incidents are described regarding Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Comments from readers about this are welcome.
Dear Professor Robert Turner,
About Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:
This short progression includes information we both know well, but I will try to establish a line of thought in as few words as possible.
A story writer tends to approach things differently than a scholar. For instance, when I noted that Thomas Jefferson knew little about Native Americans you referenced him dining with native “leaders.” It is my position that to understand people of a different culture you have to go among them, be with them, listen to them. TJ’s exposure to Native Americans was formal theater, as were many of his social interactions. He is a public figure of seemingly great contrasts and has been misquoted or lied about (a quote taken out of context and its meaning warped is in effect a lie) probably as much as anyone in American history.
Thomas Jefferson isn’t easy to know personally, not then or now, and this I conclude was by design. He enjoyed the advantages of being born into a family who afforded him the best education of the day. He was vigorous mentally and physically, raised to assume the position of master and slave holder, and to continue the “family line” among what was a narrow, exclusive club. In such an atmosphere he was ordained to be vain enough to assume owning other humans was all right because you were actually doing them a favor by raising them out of a heathen culture; ultimately he knew this was wrong, but could not, did not dare due to his acute sensitivities, actively embrace it. He was painfully self-conscious and so was necessarily secretive and aloof when it came to his personal life. Among the best examples of his inner musings is presented in the second half of Notes on the State of Virginia, his only published book, where his attitudes toward slaves and slavery waxes and wanes between sympathy and pragmatism, evidence of inferiority, indications of equality, fear, appreciation, and disdain at the thought that a Negro might comprehend the investigations of Euclid. And so on.
Here is a quote by Henry Adams that Joe Ellis used in Sphinx, p. 139:
He [TJ] built for himself Monticello a chateau above contact with man. The rawness of political life was an incessant torture to him, and personal attacks made him keenly unhappy . . . He shrank from whatever was rough or course, and his yearning for sympathy was almost feminine. (circa 1890)
Thomas Jefferson showed considerable physical interest in women, before Martha and after she died, as has been established in his letters, various witnesses, and by historians. The evidence indicates, however, that TJ was not very adept at pursuit until he met the widow Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha was not physically robust, yet during 10 years of marriage to Jefferson she gave birth to six children (it has been said there were miscarriages), each pregnancy noticeably weakening her. She was often ill for extended periods. Their children did not inherit their father’s strong constitution and just two survived to adulthood. It has been alluded to by people of the time that TJ had occasional relationships with Mary Hemings previous to Martha’s death. Though unsubstantiated, it is interesting that this was suggested at all considering Jefferson’s personal secrecy and the ridged moral image he maintained. But it is reasonable to see this happening when Martha was too ill to receive him, and perhaps more so after her passing. TJ was in his prime and full of energy. He was used to having all his needs and desires met and was surrounded by people that wanted to do whatever was required for that to happen. He didn’t even shave himself.
When Martha’s father, John Wayles, died, Elizabeth (often called Betty) Hemings and most of her children came to Monticello. Compared to other “southern gentlemen” of the time, John Wayles was considered coarse and of inferior linage. After Wayles’s third wife died, he had six children with E. Hemings. She knew Wayles pretty well by then and understood how life as a plantation slave worked. (For the benefit of those who read this without knowing the story: Elizabeth Hemings’s mother was raped by Captain Hemings while on a slave ship bound for America, hence Elizabeth was half white and her children by Wayles were three-quarters white. Some of her children with Wayles were described as “bright mulatos” or “near enough white,” and “strikingly handsome.”) What Elizabeth Hemings found at Monticello was a man much different from Wayles, a man of sensitivity and relative gentleness. And she recognized an opportunity for a better life.
I believe that over time Elizabeth helped educate her family in ways to satisfy TJ’s emotional needs and earn his trust, and this became one of the great symbiotic relationships between master and slaves. The Hemings were treated differently than the men and women who plowed Jefferson’s fields. They became his closest servants, cooks, craftsmen, and perhaps his friends and lovers. Or are we to believe that a man of Jefferson’s energy and appetites, a man who eschewed any wine that didn’t come from France and sent the metal parts of his phaeton (built by Johnny Hemings) all the way to England to be gilded, and who was often–by preference–isolated on his mountain while in the prime of his life, are we to accept that such a man was to never again have a woman in his bed? Such a premise makes no sense. The question should be, “Which one did he choose?”
In the Appendix of Joe Ellis’s Sphinx, ppgs. 363-367, Mr. Ellis gives a brief tour of the “Sally Hemings Scandal.” He called the “Eston match” crucial new evidence that matters greatly and concludes that the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings probably was true. Really, do we have to keep digging up bodies to establish the obvious? I understand you are in Virginia and connected to an institution designed by Thomas Jefferson, and in keeping with the historical purity of TJ’s gifts to our democracy you and others may not want to accept what is overwhelmingly a likely fact. Whether or not the relationship existed would not alter my high regard of TJ at all; what does alter it is that after 30 odd years of being his obedient slave, mistress and mother to his children, he was too concerned and fearful regarding his own historical image to somehow take care of her after his death. His surviving daughter, Martha, Sally’s half-sister, cut Sally loose after TJ died, “gave her her time,” and Sally lived out her days in a shack not far from Monticello. This hardly compares to the many atrocities slaves endured during the time in our country when people owned other people, but it’s a sad legacy for one of our most revered founders.
In my new book, Lives of the Spirits, about life in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800’s, one of the dramatic points, in several instances, alludes to Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family as it affects one of the characters. This is a small part of the story, but a pivotal one, and I would welcome your response to some of the points raised. I would like to send a book for consideration to your work address or another address as you prefer.