An Affair to Remember?

By Rebecca C

For years it was denied being possible and it still is by some adamant, cynical people. What I'm referring to is the relationship between former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. Through DNA testing it has been proven that not only were they romantically involved, but that he fathered at least one of her children.

The descendants of Eston Hemmings have long suspected the connection between them and Jefferson, despite many objections by some historians. They soon had their day of glory however. The method used was that of tracking unchangeable Y-chromosome markers that pass from father to son, continuing from generation to generation. The blood of descendants of Jefferson's paternal uncle was compared to that of some of the male descendants of Eston Hemmings. The results proved virtually conclusive. The connection was made.

Thomas Jefferson the
third U.S. President

At the time of Jefferson's Presidency, the possession of slaves was not only normal, but many in the United States felt this was the only use for African-Americans. Jefferson himself was a slave-holder, and he broke the master-slave relationship, becoming romantically involved with Hemmings.

This is a controversial and confusing paradox. On one hand we have the testimony of the Declaration of Independance, where Thomas Jefferson stated,"...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Yet, on the other hand we have his words in an 1814 letter, "The amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent." Was Jefferson going against his 'moral character' in having a relationship with Sally Hemmings? Or did he resign himself to trying to receive the approval of his fellow countrymen?

Sally Hemmings, born in 1773, was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemmings and John Wayles, the father-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson received Sally as an inheritance in 1774 and she and her mother came to Monticello in 1776. Her job as a child was most likely the duty of 'nurse' to Jefferson's daughter Mary. At the age of 14, Sally accompanied 8 year old Mary to France, who was going there to be closer to her father. There she was trained in needlework and how to care for clothing, in order to be a true lady's maid. Sally was treated well, even paid a small amount of money. As Mary's sister Martha, began to go out into French society both she and Sally were afforded more expensive clothing.

Upon the family's return to Monticello in 1789, Sally maintained her position as lady's maid, but also had the responsibility of caring for Jefferson's chamber and clothes, the children, and other light duties such as sewing. She eventually had her own room in the house itself, not with the other slaves. This was unusual treatment for a slave in the late1700's. Perhaps some of the attraction that Jefferson felt was partly because she was very light in complexion, with long straight, dark hair, and apparently very beautiful. Some believe that it wasn't just attraction, that love was involved. Whatever the case may be, while at Monticello, Sally had four surviving children. Eventually they were allowed to leave the plantation and were passed into white society.

This illegal liaison was certainly looked down upon, both at the time, and now as well, by some, and denied possible as well. However, with the near-conclusive genetic testing that also corroborates with historical evidence (such as Jefferson was the only Jefferson male at Monticello each time Sally conceived, eliminating the possibility of the children being fathered by another Jefferson), historians who once "felt strongly that Jefferson was morally incapable of coupling with a slave" have had to at their words. It was not uncommon for a white man to force himself upon a female slave at this time, however this affair seems to involve something more, something mutually consensual. Love perhaps?

The only inescapable fact that taints their relationship is the fact that indeed, Jefferson owned Hemmings. He had in his power the ability to treat her any way that he pleased, could control her to the enth degree and she had no laws to protect her from even being murdered. In the words of one documentary film-maker, "...We need no DNA to remind us of the stain of slavery." This shameful period in American history enveloped Thomas Jefferson, and being the President of the country that promoted slavery, was he in the position to be setting new precedents, making many powerful enemies? Unfortunately, it seems as though in order for him to maintain his standing in government that he couldn't, or at least it seemed impossible.

The story of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson reminds us of times gone past, of deep-set prejudices we see in the world around us today. There are those who would romanticize their relationship, and there are those who would disqualify any possibility of love between them. The debate will probably continue as long as there are narrow-minded people willing to challenge the family legacies of their descendants. The truth lies only in the minds of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. There it will stay for eternity while we are fascinated by the complexities and complications of their memorable affair.