April 10, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times
The 1998 DNA study that linked Thomas Jefferson to the final child of his lover Sally Hemings has settled one argument and fired up another. Most historians who had argued that Jefferson was too pure of heart to bed a slave have re-evaluated 200 years of evidence and embraced the emerging consensus: that Jefferson had a long relationship with Hemings and probably fathered most, if not all of her children.
Having acknowledged the relationship, these historians are now trying to explain it. This has sent them scrambling back to the 19th-century accounts of life at Monticello by two former slaves: Jefferson’s former servant, Israel Jefferson, and the founder’s son, Madison Hemings. This represents the rehabilitation of Madison, who was being vilified as a liar even 10 years ago.
Madison’s memoir, based partly on family history conveyed to him by his mother, is as close to the voice of Sally Hemings as we will ever come. But neither of these brief accounts, published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, reveals anything about the intimate texture of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They tell us a great deal, however, about the circumstances that created the black intelligentsia that sprang to life during Reconstruction and that dominated African-American cultural, intellectual and political life through the first half of the 20th century.
This black intelligentsia did not spring fully formed from the cotton fields. It had its roots in the families of mixed-race slaves like the Hemingses, who served as house servants for generations, often in the homes of white families to whom they were related. Employed in “the big house,” these slaves often learned to read, at a time when few slaves were literate. They also absorbed patterns of speech, dress and deportment that served them well after emancipation.
Many of them were set free by their guilt-ridden slave owner fathers long before the official end of slavery. The Hemings children were all free by 1829 – or more than a third of a century before slavery was finally abolished. Not surprisingly, mixed-race offspring who were well educated became teachers, writers, newspaper editors. They formed the bedrock of an emerging black elite and were disproportionately represented in the African-American leadership during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century.
Not all of these mixed-race children fared so well, however. Many were sold or passed on as chattel to relatives in their fathers’ wills. This was in fact the case with Sally Hemings, one of several children born to a mixed-race slave named Betty Hemings and a white lawyer and businessman named John Wayles – the father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. When Wayles died, Martha inherited some of her enslaved half siblings, including Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings was just a child when she accompanied Jefferson and his daughter to France for more than two years. Madison tells us in his memoir that his mother became pregnant by Jefferson in France, where she was considered free. She refused to return to America, he said, until Jefferson agreed to free all of the children born of their relationship.
Madison recalls that he and his siblings were favored at Monticello, and allowed to spend their time in the “great house,” where they could be close to their mother. Madison further asserts that they knew of Jefferson’s plans to emancipate them. “We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy,” he says.
Jefferson’s favoritism, however, did not include affection. Jefferson’s black children, who seem never to have received so much as an embrace or a peck on the cheek, watched in what must have been painful silence as the great man doted on his white grandchildren. Madison says, “We were the only children of his by a slave woman.”
The “great house” at Monticello offered abundant opportunities for encounters with the great minds of the day. Israel Jefferson, for example, recalls being present when Jefferson and Lafayette debated the question of slavery.
Raised in such a context, the Hemings children – and others like them – were probably better prepared for middle-class life than most people, either black or white. Indeed, historians who have followed the Hemings descendants through time have found that the cultural capital acquired by Hemings children at Monticello translated into upward mobility.
Historians who are now searching for ways to understand the Jefferson-Hemings relationship have several models from which to choose. Some masters developed caring, de facto marriages with enslaved women and tried to leave their children money and property in their wills. Other masters were serial rapists or plantation potentates who made harems in their slave quarters and were profoundly indifferent to their offspring.
For the time being, however, the last word on this issue should go to Madison Hemings, who flatly and dispassionately describes the relationship as a bargain, in which his mother consented to share Jefferson’s bed in exchange for the emancipation of her children. That she had the courage to articulate this deal – and stand firm on its terms – makes her more than a mere concubine. It makes her the architect of her family’s freedom.
BRENT STAPLES – The New York Times
April 10, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times