This is the top question that arises when the subject of Thomas Jefferson and racism is broached, so I’ve heeded the complaints regarding the omission of Ms. Hemings from the latest Just Facts video and article.
It is worth explaining that the alleged sexual relationship between Jefferson and his slave and former half-sister-in-law, Sally Hemings, is based on the oral history of Hemings’ descendants, sensational newspaper articles by James Callender (1758-1803), eyewitness reports of familial resemblance, and circumstantial deduction in light of DNA evidence that a male Jefferson sired her youngest son. While it appears almost certain that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the father and thus had an illicit relationship with his bondwoman, it doesn’t necessarily reach the level of proof that makes it relevant to a fact-checking analysis of Jefferson’s worldview. Hemings’ connection to his late wife also makes the issue more complex than a matter of master-slave relations. But the story is still worthy of investigation and pondering.
In my U.S. presidency class during graduate school, the subject of Jefferson’s sexual sin appeared for class discussion. The professor believed that it was, interestingly enough, rooted in Jefferson’s strict code of honor and morality: Jefferson upheld his oath to his wife that he would never remarry, and then selectively interpreted descriptive portions of Scripture that regulated conduct towards concubines as justification for gratifying sexual urges with his slave Sally Hemings, who happened to be his late wife’s half-sister.
This made me wonder aloud if, had it not been for his dying wife making him promise to not remarry, Jefferson would have actually been so revolutionary as to marry Sally, incidentally making her the first black first lady (one quarter black, at least).
The professor doubted this, because he figured Jefferson had experienced forbidden matrimonial interest more strongly in other women (i.e. Mrs. Maria Cosway). But Jefferson clearly had some sort of attachment to Sally. If you’ve seen my personal video commentary on Jefferson, you know that I see the death of Jefferson’s wife to be the traumatic incident that had repercussions on his judgment for decades.
Perhaps Sally’s enslaved status gave the emotionally ill Jefferson a sense of security; a visage of his beloved Martha who could never abandon him. If the testimony of her son, Madison Hemings, is to be taken seriously in the least, Sally was an intelligent and strong-willed woman who might have negotiated with Jefferson for her children’s freedom. Jefferson did indeed free all of her children, and as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation observes, he “did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.”
I see no evidence that Jefferson’s conduct towards Sally and her children contradicts his already well-established philosophical conundrum about race relations. While maintaining any sexual relationship outside of marriage is immoral according to Christianity, it graphically demonstrates that Jefferson believed blacks and whites to be equally human at the most basic, biological level.
HEADER PHOTO: Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) and Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo) in the television miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000).
Credit: Cliff Lipson, CBS