Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Dissent

A few weeks ago, one of the Ricochet regulars noticed an article that had appeared in The Washington Times, which reported the publication of a volume entitled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. According to the article, as he pointed out,

the book disputes the conventional wisdom that Thomas Jefferson sired offspring with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. With one lone dissenter, the panel of 13 scholars on the Scholars Commission doubted the claim and said the evidence points instead to Jefferson’s brother Randolph as the father. The lone dissenter was Professor Paul Rahe.

He posted on the Member’s Feed a brief squib, asking that I explain my dissent, and I agreed to do so. I have, however, been dilatory in keeping my promise. For that, I apologize. As you will see, however, the question is a bit complicated, and I now think it makes sense simply to reprint the dissent (without the footnotes) here – which I do with the permission of the editor of that volume and its publisher. I hope that the piece is intelligible on its own. Sorting through the evidence concerning this matter is a bit like trying to figure out a murder mystery.


Regarding the relations that existed between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, lies were told long ago, and today, some two centuries after it was first suggested in print that the author of the Declaration of Independence fathered children with one of his slaves, we still cannot be certain as to who told the truth.

On 1 September 1802, James T. Callender, an investigative journalist with a taste for scandal, a gift for invective, and a grudge against Jefferson, published an article in a Richmond paper called The Recorder; or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany charging that it was “well known” that the man then holding office as President of the United States “for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.” He identified this slave as “Sally” and “her eldest son” as “Tom,”  and he reported that the latter was “ten or twelve years of age” and that “his features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”  “By this wench Sally,” he added, “our president has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story.”

It was not Jefferson’s practice to countenance charges of this sort by responding directly to them, but in a letter of July, 1805, now lost, directed to “particular friends,” he appears to have denied “all” of the various “allegations” directed against him in the press apart from one referring to a youthful indiscretion involving indelicate behavior on his part towards a married woman. His friends tended to regard the story told by Callender as preposterous. James Madison told its author “that he had known Mr. Jefferson for the greater part of his life; and that he knew so much about the excellence of his heart, as to make this allegation incredible.” But there were those tolerably well-acquainted with Jefferson who came to think otherwise. His friend John Hartwell Cocke referred in his diary in late January, 1853 to “Mr. Jeffersons notorious example” in a context in which he was discussing the fact that it was commonplace for slaveowners to father children with their slaves. “In Virginia,” he wrote more than six years thereafter, “this damnable practice prevails as much as anywhere—and probably more— as Mr. Jefferson’s example can be [cited?] for its defence.” 

On her deathbed, Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph, who had long resided with her father at Monticello, is said fiercely to have denied the charge and to have drawn the attention of her two sons to the fact that one of Sally Hemings’s children—“the slave,” her elder son later noted, “who most resembled” her father in appearance—was born at a time when her father and Sally Hemings had been “far distant from each other” for some “fifteen months.” Years later, Henry S. Randall, the historian to whom Martha’s son Thomas Jefferson Randolph related this story, reported to a correspondent that he was able “from well known circumstances to prove the fifteen months separation” when he came across the pertinent slave’s date of birth in “an old account book” belonging to Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who had charge of Monticello at the time that a number of Sally Hemings’s children were born, acknowledged to Randall that “she had children which resembled” his grandfather “so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins.” Their paternity, however, he attributed not to Jefferson himself but to Peter Carr, one of the sons of Jefferson’s sister and his close friend, her late husband Dabney Carr. Peter Carr’s connection with Sally Hemings was, he averred, “perfectly notorious at Monticello,” “scarcely disguised,” “never disavowed,” and on one occasion in his presence openly confessed.

There need be no doubt that Jefferson’s grandson told Randall that one of the two Carr brothers was responsible. In October,1858, when his younger sister Ellen Randolph Coolidge came to visit, he told her much the same tale. “There is a general impression,” she wrote her husband, “that the four children of Sally Hemmings were all the children of Col. [Samuel] Carr, the most notorious good-natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense.” To believe the calumnies spread concerning her grandfather, she observed, one must be willing to suppose that “he must have been carrying on his intrigues in the midst of his daughters family and insulting the sanctity of the home by his profligacy. But he had a large family of grandchildren of all ages, older & younger. Young men and young girls. He lived, whenever he was at Monticello, and entirely for the last fifteen years of his life, in the midst of these young people, surrounded by them, his intercourse with them of the freest and most affectionate kind. How comes it that his immoralities were never suspected by his own family—that his daughter and her children rejected with horror and contempt the charges brought against him. That my brother, then a young man certain to know all that was going on behind the scenes, positively declares his indignant belief in the imputation and solemnly affirms that he never saw or heard the smallest thing which could lead him to suspect that his grandfather’s life was other than perfectly pure. His apartments had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze. But again I put it to any fair mind to decide if a man so admirable to his domestic character as Mr. Jefferson, so devoted to his daughters and their children, so fond of their society, so tender, considerate, refined in his intercourse with them, so watchful over them in all respects, would be likely to rear a race of half-breeds under their eyes and carry on his low amours in the circle of his family.”

The claims advanced by Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his sister are confirmed in part by the testimony of Edmund Bacon, who served Jefferson for a time as overseer. Years after his departure from Monticello, he told a minister of the Gospel in Kentucky that Jefferson was not the father of Harriet Hemings, whom he himself had put on a stagecoach for Philadelphia “when she was nearly grown” and to whom he had given, on Jefferson’s instructions, fifty dollars to start her on her way. “She was as white as anybody,” he reported, “and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ___ ___’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early.”

In 1873, however, Sally Hemings’s penultimate son Madison, then a man of advanced age, told the editor of the Pike County Republican in Ohio that his mother had become “Mr. Jefferson’s concubine” in Paris where, for eighteen months, she served as “body servant” to his daughter Maria. When Jefferson was summoned home, Madison Hemings reported, his mother was already pregnant by him. “He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time. She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston—three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born.”

Madison Hemings’s fellow former Monticello slave Israel (Gillette) Jefferson later gave an interview to the editor of the same newspaper and confirmed, in part, his friend’s story—that Madison Hemings’s mother was Jefferson’s “concubine” and that Jefferson was the father of Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings. The former claim he knew as a house servant from his “intimacy with both parties”; the latter he could  “as conscientiously confirm . . . as any other fact which I believe from circumstances but do not positively know.”

Until quite recently, historians were inclined to dismiss the allegations of James Callender as irresponsible journalism, to discount the story told by Madison Hemings and confirmed in part by Israel Jefferson as self-serving, and to credit Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s assertion that one of the Carr brothers fathered the children of Sally Hemings. It seemed inconceivable that a man of Thomas Jefferson’s character would have been guilty as charged.

In 1968, in his book White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan did observe, if only in passing, that Jefferson’s account books failed to bear out the testimony of Marthan Jefferson Randolph, her son Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and Herman S. Randall. In fact, he noted, Thomas Jefferson was present at Monticello on each and every occasion when Sally Hemings is known to have conceived, and he could therefore have been the father of all her known children, as Madison Hemings alleged. Apart, however, from psychobiographer Fawn Brodie, no one seems until quite recently to have reflected in print on the implications of Jordan’s discovery, and her highly speculative approach to Jefferson’s psychology did not recommend her book to academic historians.

It was only in 1997, when law professor Annette Gordon-Reed published her Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, that the tide began to turn. By that time, students of slavery were almost all inclined to acknowledge that slave concubinage was as common as John Hartwell Cocke had supposed and that public silence regarding one’s follies in this regard was part of the unwritten social code of the slaveholding class. Only those who lived openly with their concubines were subject to stern disapproval. It also helped a great deal that Gordon-Reed’s reassessment of the evidence was careful, thorough, and, for the most part, dispassionate.

In consequence, when the storm broke in 1998 with the publication of a DNA study by a Charlottesville physician showing that Eston Hemings was a direct male descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather, the great majority of historians were quick to conclude that Madison Hemings’s testimony was largely true. I know whereof I speak, for I was one such—inclined, like most of my brethren, to suppose Callender’s charges improbable; stunned by the DNA data, and more than willing, in the immediate aftermath, to believe Madison Hemings’s claims. Only since consenting to review the evidence for the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission have I begun to wonder whether the indictment against Thomas Jefferson is really true. I am still inclined, on balance, to think it more likely than not that he was the father of Eston Hemings, but I can now understand why honest and reasonable human beings can be deeply skeptical. On the available evidence, the charge remains unproven. The question of the relations of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is an historical puzzle of considerable complexity, and in the end we are forced to resort to educated guesswork.

Before resorting to such guesswork, I want to acknowledge a very considerable debt to Annette Gordon-Reed, whose book makes for compelling reading; to Dan Jordan and the staff of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation who have gathered and analyzed the available evidence in a manner that is highly professional, generally cautious, and exceedingly helpful to anyone wanting to review it for the purpose of making up his own mind; and to Professor Robert F. Turner of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, who organized the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission and led its members in a reassessment of the available evidence item by item.

As should be clear from the material presented above, virtually every piece of available testimony on this subject can be impeached; virtually everyone who commented had an interest in saying what he or she said. James Callender believed that Jefferson had betrayed him and wanted revenge. Madison Hemings wanted to make himself more important by tracing his paternity to a famous man, and Israel Jefferson came to the support of a friend. Such are the charges that can be made. By the same token, it could be said that Martha Jefferson Randolph and her children were eager to protect the reputation of her father. They certainly had a personal stake in doing so, and it was not uncommon for members of their class to try to cover up the sort of misdeed with which Thomas Jefferson was charged. Something of the sort can be said concerning Jefferson’s onetime overseer Edmund Bacon, who could and did dine out on his connection with the great man. As for Herman S. Randall, he was among the initiators of the Jefferson cult. The value of his biography of the statesman depended on his compatriots’ estimation of Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments and character. In the aftermath of the Civil War, southerners were looking for a useable history, and it made more sense to dwell on Jefferson’s apparently unimpeachable example than to credit the charges once made against him. Monticello, as visitors are wont to comment, is a very small place. To believe that Thomas Jefferson carried on an extended affair with one of his slaves under the noses of his grandchildren would require that we rethink from the ground up our inherited image of the man.

I find two pieces of evidence impressive—first, the fact that the beginning of Sally Hemings’s pregnancies coincided with Thomas Jefferson’s sojourns at Monticello, and, second, the fact that at least one of her children was fathered by a direct male descendant of Jefferson’s grandfather.

It is, of course, possible that Hemings was elsewhere during one or more of the pertinent visits by her master, but, in the absence of contrary evidence, it is unreasonable to think her anywhere other than her home. In a recent article in The William and Mary Quarterly, Monticello archaeologist Fraser D. Neiman has sought to demonstrate statistically, on the basis of Jefferson’s presence each time she conceived, that he must have been the father. This he has failed to achieve. What he has accomplished, however, is to show the very high likelihood that Sally Hemings’s pregnancies are somehow due to Jefferson’s presence. One can go even further. Given that she tended to get pregnant in the first month after his arrival, Neiman has established a correlation between Jefferson’s homecomings and her pregnancies.

The most economical explanation would be that Jefferson himself sought her out on such occasions, but we must keep in mind that there is no good reason to believe that she had only one sexual partner. For what it is worth, the gossip reported by James Callender suggests the contrary. On this question, in any case, we must keep an open mind. Slaves were generally not in a position to refuse when approached by white men. There is, then, a real possibility that some, if not all of Sally Hemings’s pregnancies were a consequence of social calls made on Jefferson by his friends and relatives on the occasions of these homecomings. We know that visits to Monticello were rare in his absence and frequent when he was present. Among those whom Jefferson could expect to make such a social call shortly after he came home was his brother Randolph, who lived twenty miles away and had four or five sons. At the time of Eston Hemings’s birth, Thomas Jefferson was 64; his brother Randolph was 52; and Randolph’s sons ranged in age from about 17 to 26. All carried the tell-tale Y chromosone. Any one of them could have been Eston Hemings’s father.

As it happens, we know that, at the very time that Sally Hemings became pregnant with her son Eston, Thomas Jefferson’s brother Randolph was expressly invited to come to Monticello on the occasion of a visit by his twin sister. The surviving correspondance, limited as it is, suggests that he was a frequent visitor to Monticello and that ordinarily he did not come alone: we can, in fact, presume that he was usually accompanied by one or more of his sons. Furthermore, we have reason to suspect that his son Thomas may have been in residence at Monticello when Harriet Hemings was conceived and that his son Robert Lewis may have been present when Eston Hemings was conceived. We know also, from the testimony of Isaac Jefferson, a slave at Monticello, that, when he did visit, Randolph Jefferson “used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” We know that Thomas Jefferson’s children and grandchildren referred to Randolph Jefferson as “Uncle Randolph”; we know that there was a somewhat confused tradition in the family that traced its descent back to Eston Hemings that they were descended from Thomas Jefferson’s uncle or cousin; and there is evidence of the existence of an oral tradition in more than one Albemarle County family that Randolph Jefferson had African-American offspring. None of this proves that either Randolph Jefferson or one of his sons was Eston Hemings’s father, but it does give one pause. And nothing in the available evidence rules out our wondering whether the charge lodged by Thomas Jefferson Randolph against the Carr brothers was not at least partially true. Despite what can be learned from the DNA evidence and what can be inferred from the apparent connection between Thomas Jefferson’s sojourns at Monticello and Sally Hemings’s pregnancies, the mystery remains unsolved.

Further light may one day be shed on this question. Sally Hemings’s eldest son Beverly Hemings ran away from Monticello when he was in his early twenties and was never found. He apparently made his way to Washington, D. C., married, and started a family, and there is reason to believe that he passed as white. Someday one of his direct male descendants may turn up and may be willing to undergo a DNA test. Furthermore, in the U. S. Military Cemetery at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, lie the remains of Madison Hemings’s son William Beverly Hemings, who has no known descendants. It may be possible to exhume his body and collect a DNA sample. If it could be shown that the son of Madison Hemings or a descendant of his elder brother Beverly was a Jefferson, we could be more confident that Thomas Jefferson Randolph had lied to Herman S. Randall and to his sister concerning the brothers Carr, and the only plausible explanation for lying on his part would be the knowledge that his grandfather was, in fact, the father of Sally Hemings’s children.

There is also the mysterious “Tom” mentioned by James Callender. Madison Hemings knew nothing of him: he was told of a child born to his mother at about the time that this Tom would have been born, but this child supposedly died in early infancy. In the records at Monticello, no such Tom appears. These records are scanty in the period stretching from 1783 to 1794, when Callender’s “Tom” would have been born, but they are more fullsome thereafter when Thomas Jefferson resumed his earlier practice of making notations in his Farm Book. The absence of any mention of the pertinent Tom therein suggests that Callender may have, in this particular, been misinformed. It is, nonetheless, true that none of Jefferson’s defenders rose to Callender’s challenge by denying the existence of his “Tom”; and when the Federalist editor of Virginia’s Frederick-Town Herald looked into the matter, he claims to have discovered what he termed “circumstances of confirmation,” reporting that there was a “Sally” and that she worked as a “seamstress” within the Jefferson household; observing that “she is an industrious and orderly creature”; and noting that “her son, whom Callender calls President Tom,” did, indeed, bear “a strong likeness to Mr. Jefferson.”

There is, moreover, a family which traces its ancestry to a freedman named Thomas C. Woodson, and in its various branches the members of this family have preserved an oral tradition that this Tom Woodson was the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. In this case, the DNA evidence rules out paternity on the part of any Jefferson (or, for that matter, any Carr). If Thomas C. Woodson was, nonetheless, a son of Sally Hemings, the “Tom” mentioned by Callender, she had more than one lover in the course of her life, and Callender was wrong about the paternity of the slave who looked so much like the President. It is also possible that further investigation will turn up another candidate more likely to have been Callender’s “Tom” and that he has direct male descendants whose DNA can be compared with the samples already collected.

As things stand, however, it all comes down to what we think of Thomas Jefferson. Was he capable of doing what Ellen Randolph Coolidge considered unthinkable—of “carrying on his intrigues in the midst of his daughters family and insulting the sanctity of the home by his profligacy?” As professional historians, Douglass Adair once noted, we have been “taught to be extremely skeptical of any purported episode in a man’s career that completely contradicts the whole tenor of his life and that requires belief in a total reversal of character.” As human beings, however, we are nonetheless acutely, even painfully aware of our own capacity for self-deception, hypocrisy, and outright deceit. If in one part of his life, Thomas Jefferson behaved in a manner at odds with the dictates of respectability that, almost without exception, he faithfully honored in the rest of his life, would it be terribly surprising?

I have long been persuaded that we do not know Thomas Jefferson at all well; that virtually all of the surviving letters written after he had entered on the public stage were composed not only for their particular correspondents but for posterity; that he donned a mask at a very early age and very rarely let it slip; that he cared far more about his future reputation than about anything else; that his conduct in public life was less than honest and forthcoming; that he was more prone to vanity and hypocrisy than figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison; and that, in contrast with John Adams, introspection was decidedly his short suit. I do not find it particularly hard to imagine that a lonely widower, who had sworn to his dying wife that he would not remarry and subject their daughters to a stepmother, should have found a beautiful young woman such as his deceased wife’s slave half-sister a temptation more than he could bear. And once he had given way to lust, what was there to prevent him, even if he sought to exercise an iron self-control, from slipping again? He was, after all, a man subject to temptation like other men, and he must have known that his family would do what it could to hide whatever dark secrets he may have harbored.

In 1781-82, prior to his extended sojourn in Paris, Thomas Jefferson remarked in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” and he then added that “the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.” Was the proprietor of Monticello such a prodigy? There were, we know, others within the slaveholding class who were, and they were more numerous than we might be inclined to think. In the end, one’s judgment really does depend on what one thinks of the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, founded the University of Virginia, denounced slavery in unequivocal terms, and yet gave sanction in his Notes on the State of Virginia to the pseudo-scientific racial doctrines that were later used to justify slavery as a positive good. To be frank, I know not what to think. Regarding the relations that existed between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, lies were told long ago, and today, even with the help of DNA analysis, we still cannot be certain as to who told the truth.

What we do know, however, is damning enough. Despite the distaste that he expressed for the propensity of slaveholders to abuse their power, Jefferson either engaged in such abuse himself or tolerated it on the part of one or more members of his extended family. In his private, as in his public, life, there was, for all his brilliance and sagacity, something dishonest, something self-serving and self-indulgent about the man.