Given that it’s Memorial Day, when we’re supposed to remember sacrifice, and given that we have a Black American now presiding in the White House, it struck me as an apt occasion to remember just where this mix of black and white derives from. I know of no better place to start than the recent book by Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. It fully deserves the honor, for what Gordon-Reed has done is to provide us with a look inside the once-secret life of the household run by that quintessential American, Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, designer of his Monticello residence, Jefferson was our true Renaissance man, especially in those areas related to freedom and the democratic ideal. And yet, what Gordon-Reed shows us is that that household, Monticello (itself an icon of liberty and freedom), was staffed by over 80 slaves (Jefferson owned 200 for his various estates), and more, was inhabited by Jefferson’s personal concubine and slave, the beautiful Sally Hemings, who bore him several children.
Notwithstanding such sensational facts, this is not a history that revels in what in Jefferson’s time amounted to a public scandal. Quietly, and in beautifully shaped prose, Gordon-Reed simply takes us through the domestic history of Jefferson’s family, including the family of his first wife Martha Wayles (who was “given” Sally Hemings as a wedding present), and shows us how slavery worked in those days in Virginia. In so doing, she leads us to an appreciation of what it must have been like to have endured the conflicts and agonies of decision that faced not only Jefferson himself, but those of his concubine, her enslaved family who lived at Monticello as well, and the children she bore him. Along the way, we learn amazing, and to most of us, little-known facts about slavery, how it worked, and the diabolical logic that kept it intact for more than half of our history.
Consider, for example, how convenient it was for Virginia to change its inheritance laws: where English tradition stipulated that you “were what your father was,” Virginia, in 1662, adopted the Roman rule "partus sequitur ventrem", which says that you "were what your mother was.” And why? Because slave owners, realizing that large numbers of African women had been impregnated (raped) by their white owners, would have borne children who, under the English law, would have been free like their white fathers. Under the new law, however, they remained slaves like their black mothers, and hence property owned by the master. The Hemingses of the title were a case in point: Elizaberth Hemings, herself the offspring of a white father, became the concubine of her owner, John Wayles, a white landowner who had earned money in the slave trade. Wayles and Hemings produced six “mulatto” children, among them Sally Hemings, born in 1773 (even with three white grandparents, she remained “black” and a slave.) Adding to the legal plight of slaves was the fact that not only could no word said by a black person be used against a white person in court, but a child born out of wedlock was “filius nullius,” the child of no one.
Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was John Wayles’ legal daughter, and hence the beneficiary of much of the Wayles estate. This came, with their marriage in 1772, to Jefferson, along with most of the Hemingses including Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. When Martha Wayles Jefferson died in childbirth in 1782, she left three children by Jefferson, as well as her half-sister, Sally, then nine years old. A year before he was named minister to France in 1785, Jefferson moved to Paris. He brought with him Sally’s older brother James, to be trained as his chef in French cuisine. But while he was away, Jefferson’s daughter, Lucy, then a two- year-old, died of whooping cough. Distraught, Jefferson insisted on having his remaining daughter, Polly, brought to Paris to be with him and her sister Patsy. Polly’s traveling companion would be none other than Sally Hemings, then about 14 years old.
It was during this Paris interlude, according to most biographers, that the slave-girl Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s half sister-in-law, became his concubine. We know this partly because of reports that when Jefferson and his family returned to Monticello, Sally Hemings was pregnant. The situation, already deliciously complex, was further complicated by the fact that French laws decreed that any New World slave who set foot on French soil could, if he or she petitioned for it, become a free French citizen. Sally Hemings, though a young slave girl, thus had some leverage over her lover/master, knew it, and used it. Here is how Madison Hemings, one of the offspring of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, described it years later:
“But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente 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 promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” (Gordon-Reed, p. 326)
Though this child conceived in Paris died, Sally Hemings subsequently bore Thomas Jefferson several more children. Of course, neither the President nor his early biographers publicly admitted it, but in 1802, the first public disclosure appeared in a paper called the Richmond Recorder, written by one James Callender: “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” (p. 557). Until recently, this and other rumors were the only indication that the writer of the most renowned paean to human freedom, the Declaration of Independence, not only kept slaves, but had a forty-year intimate relationship with one of them.
Gordon-Reed thus takes us through one of the most richly improbable domestic dramas in our history. By juxtaposing the life of an almost sainted American founding father with the lives of the people he kept with him, working for him (he made carpenters of two of his sons by Sally, Beverly and Madison), sleeping with him, bearing his children, and finally, freeing them on his terms only after his death, she gives us a sense of the true, if hidden history of this nation. The ringing words “conceived in liberty” begin to take on new meaning. So does the title often given to Jefferson, the “apostle of freedom,” for Gordon-Reed ends with the question of why the great man did not see fit to free Sally Hemings, or any of the other Hemingses, while he was still alive, or even formally in his will. Her answer involves the benefits he derived from having Sally Hemings bound to him, and the damnation of public opinion if he freed her publicly (the law said an owner had to detail how he would provide for a freed slave, as well as petition the Virginia legislature to give that ex-slave permission to remain, freed, in the state) :
“The only way for a man to control a free woman was to marry her, which he could not do. Selfishness and self-absorption seem far too inadequate as reasons for the way Jefferson treated these members of the Hemings family. There is often great power in simplicity, and the simple terrible fact is that the law vested Jefferson, and other slave owners, with the powers of a tyrant, as he said himself. This domestic tyrant tried to mitigate the meaning of that reality by being as benign as he could. That made it easier for him to see himself as a good man as he indulged his impulses and met his needs—economic, social, and affective—through his control of these family members, to whom he was tied by years of intimate acquaintance, experiences, and blood. He created his own version of slavery that he could live in comfortably with the Hemingses. It suited him. There was never any serious chance that he would have given this up." (p. 640)
Still, Sally Hemings, because of her “bargain” with Jefferson on returning from France, did better than most enslaved Africans. She and her children were “given their time,” i.e. freed. In 1826 she went to live in Charlottsville, shortly thereafter moving into his home with her son Madison, and in the 1830 census, was counted, along with her sons, as free white persons. Three of her children would follow her to live in the white world, while one remained in the black world.
As to the other Hemingses, who lacked the same leverage, when Monticello was sold in 1831, several were sold at auction. Some ran away. The fate of others is unknown. Some sense of the inhuman obstacles facing them, and all slaves, can be gleaned from the fate of Joseph Fossett, one of the Hemings children. Fossett managed, after he was freed, to gain ownership of five of his children and four of his grandchildren. That is, in order to free his children, he had to BUY them. Gordon-Reed explains:
"To avoid application of the 1806 law, he [Fossett] kept them in legal bondage until he decided in 1837 that it was time for a change. In September, he formally emancipated his own family members."
This is one of the many benefits of this deeply revealing and troubling book—illustrating how the fiendish legal system created by the slave-owning South proved, in many ways, as binding to African Americans as their chains. A “nation of laws,” indeed.