Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home
I’d heard that Thomas Jefferson had a child with a black woman. When we visited his home, Monticello, we learned more about the story. I’ve been puzzling since how Jefferson could square his principles with his actions.
The man who wrote,
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that 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
owned the second-largest number of slaves in Virginia and during his lifetime released to liberty only a few individuals, all members of the same family, all now said to be his own children. Their mother, Sally Hemmings, was a lifelong slave of Jefferson. Sally Hemmings herself is thought to be the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife. It seems slave masters having their way with their property was a local tradition.
The original draft of the Declaration of Independence included a passage about slavery:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither
which makes Jefferson’s slave-ownership all the more puzzling.
Too be charitable to him it might be he that he imagined the new country could not bear the struggle for independence and the abolition of slavery; he had, early in his career, failed to push through a bill of emancipation in Virginia and he was later successful in passing a law blocking the importation of slaves into the state.
In his public life he was clearly against slavery; but as a private landowner he was pleased to live off the proceeds of slave-labour, and worse. Molly Secours says of the relationship with Hemmings, for us to call it anything but ‘rape’ is disingenuous and dangerous and DeWayne Wickham wrote, to imply that the sex between him and his slave was consensual … is a cruelly dishonest portrayal of the dirtiest secret of American slavery
The claims of the Hemmings family were long pooh-poohed by academics and amateur historians alike until DNA evidence strongly supported the story that Jefferson himself was the father of Sally Hemmings’s children. That (white) historians rallied around Jefferson in the face of quite significant, although circumstantial, evidence despite the firm record of Jefferson’s dishonesty is tediously predictable. As a guide at Lincoln’s birthplace said to me when we discussed Lincoln and Jefferson, if Jefferson was around today he’d be paying maintenance for Sally Hemmings’s children.
Worse, though, now that most expert opinion accepts the Jefferson-Hemmings connection, is the reprehensible attitude of the Members of the Monticello Association (who claim descent from Jefferson), who have voted not to admit Hemings’s descendants.
The Monticello Association’s website claims to be studying the issues but is extremely misleading about the facts. For example, their ‘interim’ report produced in 2000 says,
Several eminent historians, including Dumas Malone, have examined the available facts and concluded that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of any of the Hemings children
but the DNA evidence was first obtained in 1998 whereas Dumas Malone, a biographer of Jefferson, died 12 years earlier, in 1986.
America’s need for heroic myths has obscured the the truth about the paternalist, bourgeois, contradictory gentlemen who signed the Declaration of Independence. As Dr Johnson said, of the country,
Slavery is now nowhere more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty