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The Enduring Importance of Sally Hemings

Last night, I attended a conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello and widely regarded as being responsible for uncovering the hereditary link between the third President and a slave family on his plantation. I was moderately interested in the Hemings story when it first broke (not super excited about seemingly coercive master-slave relationships between old men and teenagers) but Gordon-Reed’s explanation of her own fascination with Sally Hemings and her family brought a new level of analysis to (what has become) an ordinary storyline.

For one, the Hemings family represents a unique version of plantation slavery. This was a family that was so intricately connected to the Jeffersons that they enjoyed a bizarre position somewhere between moderated freedom and typical oppressive possession. Sally Hemings and her siblings were the children of Jefferson’s wife’s father and an enslaved woman on his plantation. Martha Wayles Jefferson brought her half-siblings with her to Monticello when she married Thomas Jefferson. So, yes, you see where this is going. After Martha’s death, Jefferson took Sally (his wife’s half-sister) as a mistress and (probably) fathered her seven children. There were Hemingses all over Monticello occupying the highest ranks of slave labor on the plantation. Some of the Hemings brothers were highly skilled laborers and could come and go somewhat freely. While seven hundred slaves passed through Monticello during its history, Gordon-Reed claims Sally Hemings’ family was the only one to leave the plantation in tact (meaning Jefferson never sold any of her children). In short, Sally Hemings, her children, and siblings had a very different slave experience. 

All of this makes it very hard to characterize the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Was it coercive? Was it loving? Was it ever consensual? Did she alter his virulently racist views? Did he love his children with her? The answers to these questions aren’t nearly as interesting as modern-day views on the topic. Gordon-Reed tells the story of Jefferson historian Dumas Malone, who in a 1984 New York Times interview at the end of his life, stated that a sexual interaction may have happened “once or twice” between Hemings and Jefferson but a prolonged (30+ year) relationship was “without foundation and is wholly out of character.” Entire conferences and books have been devoted to debunking Gordon-Reed’s research and the subsequent 1998 Nature magazine study establishing a DNA link between Jefferson and Hemings’ last child, Eston.

The interesting thing about Gordon-Reed’s opponents is that they seem totally willing to acknowledge that a casual rape may have occurred between Jefferson (or a Jefferson relative) and Hemings but the idea of something resembling a relationship is abhorrent. Let’s go over that again. Rape of a sixteen-year old slave is old news but a thirty-year relationship involving multiple children is offensive to the notion of this upstanding founding father? The idea that a man of extreme principle and intelligence could have prolonged interest in an enslaved woman of African descent is evidently, preposterous.

I’ve always been generally uncomfortable with the way master/slave relationships are discussed in contemporary discussion and the Hemings-Jefferson situation exemplifies my discomfort. We accept rape as part of plantation culture but in accepting it, we normalize it and deemphasize the horror of it. So Thomas Jefferson could have raped Sally Hemings and that’s okay because everyone was doing it? It is incredible that in the pursuit of protecting the virtue of a President that historians would seek to make slave/slavemaster rape a de rigueur consequence of slave life.

Gordon-Reed warns that many of the themes present in the Hemings-Jefferson situation; possession, autonomy, agency, the degradation of the black female/male body, are ones we still grapple with today. One might only think back to the brouhaha over Lebron James leaving Cleveland to see some similar questions arise.  Unfortunately, in an era of racelessness and color-blindness, these discussions remain far too few and far between.

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