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Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson


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Initial post: Feb 7, 2013 12:34:09 PM PST
Astrocat says:
Years ago I read Fawn Brodie's book on Thomas Jefferson, and found other materials on Sally Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson. I'm in the middle of a book by Annette Gordon-Reed, titled "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, and am finding it compelling. I've always been convinced that there was a 38 year sexual relationship between them, and that it produced six children, four of which grew to adulthood. Is there any interest in this subject, or has it all been said?

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 1:57:34 PM PST
Bubba says:
I think that it is water under the bridge.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 1:58:29 PM PST
John M. Lane says:
It's an interesting story. As I recall, Jefferson was lonely and Sally filled the void.

I've often wondered about the relationship. Fawn Brodie described some aspects of it, but I always wondered what it was really like. Was it a simple love story?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 4:22:20 PM PST
Astrocat says:
In a non-slave culture, John, it might have been simple love story, but then, in that non-slave culture they wouldn't have met. It's fairly complex and Gordon-Reed's book is a fascinating look at how the historians of that day and even into the last century have written it to provide Jefferson with a white-washing. The evidence accumulates to the point where it's obvious he was the father of her children, six of them, over a period of 38 years, and that there must have been a good deal of affection for it to continue that long. The fact that he freed her children, especially the young woman, Harriet, when he had done nothing of the sort before, is virtual proof of their relationship.

In those days master-slave relationships were not at all uncommon, but the slave-holders were pretty conflicted about it, and tried to hide it as much as possible. At any rate, I've been interested in it for years and just wondered if there was any more mileage to be traveled.

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 5:04:23 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 7, 2013 5:04:53 PM PST
DarthRad says:
Considering how many slaves the ancient Romans had, procreation between masters and slaves has always been my favorite theory as to how the fierce and determined Roman people evolved into Italians.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 5:12:49 PM PST
Astrocat says:
Darth, I've always thought that a mixture of ethnicities is a good thing, if, for no other reason, different genetic strains can't help but strengthen the next generations.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 6:00:36 PM PST
John M. Lane says:
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Nancy Davison. I read Fawn Brodie in graduate school, but that was four decades ago and she was ambivalent about its true nature as I recall.

I'm always suspicious of a relationship between a somebody with power and somebody without it, like the master/slave. It was never clear to me if Jefferson was exploiting her or if they really loved each other.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 7:47:15 PM PST
While they were in France the relationship had a chance to be more natural and I think the fact that Sally, who could have remained in France and been free, came back with Thomas, speaks to it being one with perhaps some depth. (Of course it's been so long since I read the Gordon-Reed book that I don't remember all the details.)

There was some discussion of this topic on some Civil War thread or other about a year ago. I got into some hot water with a black fellow because I said that the DNA evidence that they had was not conclusive as to who the father of Sally's children actually was. I was just looking at it scientifically but I think the gentleman thought I was in denial. His wife was very much involved with the Jefferson-Hemings controversy.

There is a match between a descendant of Eston Hemings and the Jefferson male line, but that's all it is, a match in the male line. It does not prove that Thomas Jefferson was actually the father. But circumstantial evidence certainly points in that direction.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 7:50:17 PM PST
LOL. I hear you.

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 8:03:39 PM PST
Like many of the Founding Fathers (especially Virginians), Jefferson was hypnotized by the concept of playing the role of a Roman-type Patriarch who would have lived during the time of the Roman Republic. As such, he had no problems per se in holding slaves, since Romans had slaves, too. I am not entirely certain whether he was racist against Africans or not, but that too may have been a contributing factor in his personality. It is important to understand this connection to Ancient Rome that these landed Southern gentry maintained.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 9:24:32 PM PST
Astrocat says:
One of the pieces of evidence that was so striking to me is the story of a group from Ohio who saw a bronze bust of Jefferson and thought at first it was of Eston, who they knew very well. The politics of denial are, as shown by Gordon-Reed, so implausible as to be completely unbelievable.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 9:25:12 PM PST
Astrocat says:
That's an interesting point, Curtis. I hadn't run across that before. Thanks.

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 9:32:27 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 7, 2013 9:38:34 PM PST
DarthRad says:
Nancy,

I wasn't referring to the genetic benefits of cross-breeding, but specifically the social implications.

The great, great majority of the official Roman wives of the famous leaders of Rome generally had few children, with one or two or three children, a very modern sort of birthrate pattern. Many had no children at all.

I've always wondered why. Were the Roman men and women just not interested in sex? Highly doubtful.

For a well to do woman, getting pregnant and having children was probably viewed as a real bother and highly stressful, not to mention potentially life threatening in ancient times. Well-to-do women almost certainly had access to means to limit pregnancies or births.

And the men? Off porking the slaves. It had to be what was going on, unrecorded by history. Under Roman law, these children would also be slaves, and so it would be a cheap way to breed more slaves.

The slave underclass in Roman society must have become huge over time, probably outnumbering pure breed Romans, if they all kept to lower birthrates. Those slaves who were children of the masters were, like in American slave society, much more likely to gain education or other benefits, and perhaps eventually freedom.

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 9:37:47 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 7, 2013 9:40:02 PM PST
DarthRad says:
The final piece of that puzzle would be that as the warrior Roman society came to be outnumbered by the freed children of the slave underclass, the entire ethos of Roman culture would have changed.

When Hannibal sent a messenger into a besieged Rome to negotiate surrender, the Roman reply was to demand that Hannibal surrender.

Contrast that with the latter days of the Roman Empire, when Rome was sacked by Germanic tribes, because Romans had long ago stopped manning Roman armies, and few Romans still possessed the willpower or mentality of warriors.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 9:38:57 PM PST
Astrocat says:
So back to Jefferson and the children of Sally Hemings. Since they were the only slaves he freed at the prime of life (age twenty-one), and since Harriet and, later, Sally, were the only women slaves he ever freed, there's another very firm piece of evidence that he and Sally had a special relationship.

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 9:40:57 PM PST
DarthRad says:
Sally Hemings and TJ's official wife were also half-sisters, having the same father.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 9:51:07 PM PST
Astrocat says:
Yes, Martha Wayles, Jefferson's wife, was the offspring of John Wayles, and Sally Hemings was the offspring of J. Wayles and his slave mistress, Elizabeth Hemings. In fact, most of the Hemings family that came under Jefferson's control were his wife's half-siblings and the like. That's something that it's hard for me to get my head around, that one would feel perfectly comfortable (I guess) holding your own half-siblings as slaves. Yes, this was a very different culture, but doesn't that take a strange kind of self-justification or just plain blind acceptance?

Posted on Feb 7, 2013 10:07:03 PM PST
Yes, and when T.J,'s wife died he went into a mammoth depression. I don't find it hard to imagine that, given some time, Sally (who must have looked mightily like T.J.'s wife) was able to give him comfort, and I don't mean that salaciously.

As I said I don't remember the details anymore, but I seem to recall an incident where one of the male children of Sally's was assisting with the drinks at a dinner party once and a guest who was not terribly close to the Jeffersons was scandalized at the notion that T.J. would actually let his son wait on tables, not realizing that it was actually Sally's son. The boy looked that much like Thomas, red hair and all.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 10:17:25 PM PST
I would say it was "just plain blind acceptance" of the social mores of the time. I can't imagine that they had any really socially acceptable reason to buck the trend. If they had any pangs of conscience, or felt any love, I imaging freeing those they felt love and responsibility for was the way to handle the situation.

I also imagine that T.J. and Sally probably lived almost as closely with each other as many other couples did in those days. The fact that she didn't actually share a bedroom with him wasn't unusual. Most married people had seperate bedrooms. And with his his wife being dead, he didn't really have to hide Sally and her children away, as it were. He could have a much closer relationship with them than would have been normally possible. Or am I just engaging in wishful thinking here, imagining this cozy little family scene?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2013 3:02:29 AM PST
Astrocat says:
The fact that she did look so much like Martha Wayles may have been one of the reasons Jefferson was so attracted to her. Before he went to Paris she was still just a little girl, but when she came over with Maria she was by then a young woman, and, as you say, the resemblance may have just tipped the scales. And he was, by all accounts, a man who loved the company of women. To have Sally, as a slave, though white, at his beck and call....

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2013 3:06:23 AM PST
Astrocat says:
O.M., I'm thinking it was a kind of "blind acceptance" of the way things were, with no real will to change them, or even see the need for change, although I do think Jefferson realized how evil slavery was. Still, at that time slavery was seen as an absolute necessity by the white farmers. Not so much in the North, where slavery was much more easily abolished, since the large numbers of workers that were needed on the farms and plantations were just not necessary in the small businesses.

At the same time, there must have been plenty of large farms in the North, so, the "peculiar institution" was more than just necessity for the Southerners, it was tradition, and that can be very powerful.

Posted on Feb 8, 2013 5:48:49 AM PST
Nancy, you say: "At the same time, there must have been plenty of large farms in the North, so, the "peculiar institution" was more than just necessity for the Southerners, it was tradition, and that can be very powerful."

I'm also thinking that it was the type of crops grown that dictated whether or not you had slaves. Cotton and tobacco require a certain climate, type of soil and terrain which were not present in New England. Even in the south not all areas were conducive to growing cotton and tobacco. In the hilly country cattle and hogs were the primary "crops" along with the fodder grains. It simply wasn't economical to keep slaves for 12 months of the year when their labor was only need for one month, at harvest time. In these cases all the men of the neighborhood banded together to assist each with the harvest rendering slaves unnecessary.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2013 7:33:14 AM PST
Nancy Davison says: "That's an interesting point, Curtis. I hadn't run across that before. Thanks."

My reply: You're most welcome. :)

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2013 7:37:24 AM PST
DarthRad says: "The great, great majority of the official Roman wives of the famous leaders of Rome generally had few children, with one or two or three children, a very modern sort of birthrate pattern. Many had no children at all."

My reply: A valid point you make, Darth. And I probably would hazard a guess that you have an accurate perspective regarding the proclivity of Roman patriarchs in engaging in sowing their seed amongst the house slaves. Indeed, we have records of how some female slaves were sold on the block with the auctioneer touting their fecund and virile virtues to the male buyers. It seems that golden red-headed women of the northern European extraction commanded the highest premium...

However, there may be another compelling reason for the low birth rate among the Romans - the fact that they drank lead-contaminated water.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2013 7:47:01 AM PST
Nancy says: "At the same time, there must have been plenty of large farms in the North, so, the "peculiar institution" was more than just necessity for the Southerners, it was tradition, and that can be very powerful."

My reply: The South (i.e.: the Southern U.S.) was established with an entirely different society than the North. I would suggest that this division can also be traced to a division within British society, namely what I would call Anglo-Saxon vs. Norman; the society that developed in the North was more akin to the Anglo-Saxons, and the society in the South to the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons (before The Conquest of 1066) were by-and-large free landowners with a couple of house servants/slaves, but with the emphasis on people being mostly free. Once the Normans came they brought with them the institution of serfdom, and all those free Anglo-Saxon yeomen became slaves and forfeitted their land to some Lord who happened to have been a buddy of William the Bastard back in France. This dual tradition was carried on - it is responsible for the Magna Carta, the Peasants' Revolt, the English Civil Wars, etc. And it was the Anglo-Saxon tradition that compelled people to seek freedom on the shores of New England. Likewise, it was the Norman tradition that compelled fortune seekers to go to the Caribbean and South and establish plantations run by large groups of slaves captured and forced to work. America inherited both of these systems, and as a result has continued this age-old conflict of freeman vs master down to the present day.
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Discussion in:  History forum
Participants:  18
Total posts:  105
Initial post:  Feb 7, 2013
Latest post:  Feb 22, 2013

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