The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Hemings has caused controversy and debate among their descendants as well as historians and scholars for almost two hundred years.
The general story of the life of Sally Hemings a mulatto (a person of mixed black and white ancestry) slave who served her master as a domestic servant and possibly his concubine (mistress) was not all that unusual in late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century United States. What makes Sally Hemings's tale especially interesting is that her white master, and some argue, the likely father of at least six of her seven children, was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States (1801-1809). Hemings's relationship with Jefferson probably began sometime in 1788, when the two of them were in Paris, France, and lasted until his death in 1826.
Although she was three-fourths white, Sally Hemings was born a slave. In colonial America, the status of the mother free or slave determined the status of the child. Sally Hemings's father, John Wayles, was white but her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was a mulatto slave, the child of a white father (Captain Hemings) and a full-blooded African mother (a slave owned by John Wayles). Elizabeth Hemings was John Wayles's slave from birth, and after the death of Wayles's wife, she became his concubine. Together they had six children: Robert, James, Peter, Critty, Sally, and Thena.
John Wayles died in 1773, the same year that his illegitimate daughter Sally was born. Sally Hemings, her mother, and her five siblings (along with about 125 other slaves and 11,000 acres of land), were inherited at that time by John Wayles's legitimate daughter, Martha. At the time, Martha Wayles was the wife of Thomas Jefferson (a wealthy Virginia planter and statesman). Sally Hemings was Martha Wayles Jefferson's half-sister, or step-sister, both having been fathered by the same man.
The Hemings were brought to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia farming estate, and given privileged positions as house slaves. James Hemings, Sally's older brother, became Thomas Jefferson's personal servant.
In September of 1782, Martha Jefferson died, leaving Thomas Jefferson a widower at the age of thirty-nine, and the father of two girls, Martha (about to turn ten years old) and Maria (four years old). In 1784 Thomas Jefferson was sent as a diplomat to France by the American colonial government. James Hemings went with him. Jefferson's eldest daughter Martha joined him in Paris a short time later, and was enrolled in a convent school for a formal education. In 1787 Jefferson sent for his other daughter, Maria, who made the voyage from Virginia escorted by Sally Hemings, who was either fourteen or fifteen at the time.
It is impossible for historians to say with any certainty exactly what happened in Paris between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Legally, Sally Hemings was a free person in Paris, and so was her brother James, as slavery had been abolished in France. While in France, Jefferson paid Sally and James a monthly salary for their services. James Hemings, with Jefferson's support, apprenticed under French cooks and became a skilled chef.
In the fall of 1789, Jefferson and his two daughters, as well as Sally and James Hemings, returned to America. By all accounts, Sally Hemings was visibly pregnant at the time of their homecoming to Monticello. Many years later, in 1873, Madison Hemings (1805-77), the sixth child of Sally Hemings, described the circumstances of his mother's return from Paris. Madison is considered the most important historical witness in this story by some, but others point to minor errors and inconsistencies in his rendering of the facts. His account was published in the Pike County Republican, a newspaper in Ohio. The following excerpt from Madison's published story sheds light on his mother's trip to France and its result:
Their stay (my mother's and Maria's) was just about eighteen months [it was really twenty-six months]. But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente [pregnant] 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. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.
Between 1790 and 1808, Sally Hemings gave birth to seven children, all while residing at Monticello: Thomas, Harriet, Edy, Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Hemings' first-born took the name Thomas Woodson and is conspicuously absent from Jefferson's personal records. He was born in 1790, shortly after Hemings and Jefferson returned from France. Thomas Woodson was probably gone from Monticello by the time Madison was born in 1805, although the age of his departure is unknown. Hemings's second child, Harriet was born in 1795 but only lived two years. Edy was born in 1796 and died in her infancy. Hemings's second son, Beverly, was born in 1798, followed by Harriet in 1801, Madison in 1805, and Eston in 1808.
Life at Monticello for the Hemings family is best described by Madison Hemings in his 1873 memoir:
My brothers, sister Harriet and myself were used alike. They were put to some mechanical trade at age fourteen. Till then we were permitted to stay about the 'great house,' and only required to do such light work as going on errands. Harriet learned to spin and weave in a little factory on the home plantation. We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy. We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of our father's death, to take care of his [Jefferson's] chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing, &c. Provision was made in the will of our father that we should be free when we arrived at the age of 21 years.
Harriet and Beverly were listed as "runaways" in Thomas Jefferson's personal records from 1822. The reality was that they were allowed to walk away, and because of their light-colored skin, blend into the free white world of Washington, D.C. Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson's will at his death in 1826. They rented a house together in a nearby county. Sally Hemings was not mentioned in Jefferson's will, and a year later was listed on the official slave inventory as worth $50. Although Hemings was never officially freed from slavery, Jefferson's daughter, Martha, provisionally freed Sally Hemings, by giving her "her time." Unofficial freedom meant that Hemings could stay in Virginia, where the law required freed slaves to leave the state within a year of their emancipation. Hemings spent her remaining years living in a rented house with her sons Madison and Eston. She died in 1835.
The public first learned of Sally Hemings in 1802, during the second year of Jefferson's first term as president, when the Richmond Recorder published an article that contained the following: "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. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.... By this wench Sally, our president has had several children."
The possibility that one of America's founding fathers had a long-term sexual relationship with one of his slaves that resulted in the births of several children caused great controversy in 1802. At the time, the charge against Jefferson was neither proven true or false. In "gentlemanly" fashion, Jefferson himself never denied or confirmed the relationship, nor honored it with any acknowledgment whatsoever. The result was that the question has been debated by historians and scholars ever since.
Until recently many historians argued, supported by the claims of some of Jefferson's white descendants, that Thomas Jefferson could not have fathered Hemings's children because he wasn't around when conception must have taken place. On the other side, descendants of Sally Hemings have claimed from the very beginning that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of her children. They based their arguments on a well-kept oral family history, and the 1873 memoir written by one of Hemings's seven children, Madison Hemings.
Historians have more recently acknowledged that Jefferson, who traveled widely and often, was present at his Virginia plantation home, Monticello, eight or nine months before the birth of all but one of Hemings's children. That child, Thomas Woodson, was conceived when Jefferson was minister to France and Sally Hemings was living with him in Paris.
For some, the results of a 1998 DNA test on known descendants of both Jefferson and Hemings added great weight to the historical evidence for a Jefferson-Hemings connection. The purpose of the study was to compare Jefferson's Y chromosome a genetic marker passed from father to son with those of Hemings's family to see if there was a match. Since Jefferson had no adult sons, the blood from a descendant of one of his male cousins, who would have had the same Y chromosome as their mutual grandfather, was used for the study. From the Hemings side, blood samples were tested from the descendants of two of Hemings's children, Thomas Woodson, the first born, and Eston Hemings, the last born.
The results showed a definite Jefferson-Hemings genetic link, only instead of providing a clear answer to the question, the scientific evidence further complicated the debate. The study, conducted by geneticist Eugene Foster, was published in the British journal Nature in November 1998, concluded "The simplest and most probable explanations for our molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of [Jefferson's nephews], was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson, and that Thomas Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson's son." This finding disappointed the descendants of Thomas Woodson who have a very detailed oral family history that claims otherwise. Second, the test only confirms that a Jefferson, not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, fathered a child with Sally Hemings (other possible Jefferson candidates include his brother, Randolph, and his two sons, who both spent some time at Monticello).
In May of 1999, the Executive Committee of the Monticello Association of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation announced that they had enlisted a committee to further investigate all scientific and historic evidence on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship and to determine the impact of all new findings on membership in the Association and/or burial in the family graveyard at Monticello.
In January 2000, the committee reached the conclusion that Foster's 1998 DNA study was valid; that taken along with historical evidence, it showed not only that Jefferson was probably the father of Eston Hemings, but in all likelihood he was also the father of Harriet and Edy (the two deceased infants), Beverly, Harriet, and Madison; and that the paternity of Thomas Woodson is unclear. The president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation added the question on many historians' minds: "Whether it was love or lust, rape or romance, no one knows and it's unlikely that we will ever know."
Sally Hemings herself left nothing behind to enlighten us about her life or the father of her children, but the controversy has placed her life and, at the same time, the role of slavery in our nation's history, in the forefront of the American imagination. In Charlottesville, Virginia, Jefferson's hometown, a popular proposal is under review to name a street after her. A Detroit News article reporting on Charlottesville's proposal notes that "this town of 40,000 is rich with statues and road names that honor Jefferson, but it contains not a single public mention of Hemings or any other slaves from Monticello." Perceptions of who and what compromises American history may be changing.
Slavery Throughout History: Biographies, U·X·L, 1999.