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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

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Matt Phillips
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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Post by Matt Phillips » Wed August 17th, 2011, 6:47 pm

[quote=""Divia""]I don't mind the different interpretations because we really don tknow what they thought in their daily lives. So writers have to make it up.

Even with historians you see this. One of my professors in undergrand was sure that Jefferson was a man dedicated to his books, thinking and trying to expand his knowledge and had no time for slave concubines.


Someone else I knew was sure Jefferson was a sexual man who had issues and thats why he went with that chick whose name escapes me now.


Maybe both are true. Or maybe Jefferson was a busy man who needed a distraction and found it in the arms of a slave woman.[/quote]

Speculative explanations of Jefferson's motivation for his likely (according to DNA analysis) liaison with Sally Hemings often cite his grief and loneliness after his wife's death and Sally's resemblance to her (most historians believe they were half-sisters).

Your professor's reasoning seems odd: Jefferson certainly had a great thirst for knowledge, but it seems a stretch to argue his work left no time for a concubine!

Jefferson was a brilliant but complicated, enigmatic man. It's probably why few novelists have tried to tackle him as a major character.

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Wed August 17th, 2011, 7:44 pm

[quote=""Matt Phillips""]Speculative explanations of Jefferson's motivation for his likely (according to DNA analysis) liaison with Sally Hemings often cite his grief and loneliness after his wife's death and Sally's resemblance to her (most historians believe they were half-sisters).

Your professor's reasoning seems odd: Jefferson certainly had a great thirst for knowledge, but it seems a stretch to argue his work left no time for a concubine!

Jefferson was a brilliant but complicated, enigmatic man. It's probably why few novelists have tried to tackle him as a major character.[/quote]

Well, not with a black concubine anyway! I argued with him about this numerous times. My professor believed that Jefferson wouldn't allow himself to be with a black woman because of his ideals. I said nah it happened. He was devastated when he found out, and so he had to rewrite an entire chapter in one of his books. :D

Anyway, my professor is highly regarded in his field of Early American history but I think his own idle worship winged him on this one. It happens though. And I can easily see how it would happen to a writer of historical fiction.

Besides, just because people think Jefferson was lonely doesnt mean thats the whole story. Maybe he was just a twisted perv and poor Sally couldn't say no or else she faced death. :p Or maybe he called Sally by his wife's name? No one really knows.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed August 17th, 2011, 8:01 pm

White masters having sexual relationships with their black female slaves was, as you know, very, very common. I think Jefferson's reasons for doing it were probably pretty much the same reasons that others did it. It just shows that, his high and lofty ideals notwithstanding, Jefferson wasn't much different from other white slave owners.

I'm sure your professor wasn't the only one who was crushed. I think prior to the conclusive DNA evidence, many people thought Jefferson too noble to ever engage in such behavior.
Last edited by Michy on Wed August 17th, 2011, 8:15 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed August 17th, 2011, 9:06 pm

Why does everyone assume that Jefferson's (assumed) relationship with Sally Hemmings had to be entirely one-sided? Maybe he was a tender lover and Sally was glad to enjoy his company. He seems to have been a kind and devoted husband to his first wife, so there is every reason to think that was his norm with women. Humans are creatures of habit.

However horrible this seems to people of our era (and it would have been sniggered at in a prurient way by those of Jefferson's own time and class) if the liaison happened, it was much more likely to be two people who wanted and enjoyed each other but were forced by social mores to keep the details private. Which would be one argument for Jefferson not freeing Sally at the time -- it would have made their affair much more difficult, arrangement-wise. Maybe (dare I suggest it in today's PC climate?) she didn't want to be freed.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Wed August 17th, 2011, 9:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Margaret » Thu August 18th, 2011, 4:31 pm

Well, not with a black concubine anyway! I argued with him about this numerous times. My professor believed that Jefferson wouldn't allow himself to be with a black woman because of his ideals. I said nah it happened. He was devastated when he found out, and so he had to rewrite an entire chapter in one of his books.

Anyway, my professor is highly regarded in his field of Early American history but I think his own idle worship winged him on this one. It happens though. And I can easily see how it would happen to a writer of historical fiction.
Good for you, Divia! Plenty of idealists have flaws in their personal lives. It's even possible that Jefferson's ideals in regard to slavery grew stronger (even though he gave up some of his ideals about freeing his own slaves - life is so complicated) because of his relationship with Sally Hemings, making him see her as a person rather than in her role as a slave.

I enjoyed Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings (see review). She published this novel about Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson quite a few years before the DNA analysis came as close as anything can come, I think, to proving Jefferson and Hemings had children together, and she took a lot of grief for it. The latest edition of her novel includes a Q&A with the author in which she tells a fascinating story about her discovery of a hidden stairway in Jefferson's bedroom at Montecello (which would have allowed Hemings to come and go in privacy). The stairway was torn out some time after Chase-Riboud started inquiring about it - a horrible desecration of a historic building, IMHO. This novel is a fine example of how novelists are able to explore theories in fiction that might not be justified (yet) in terms of the historical record, but which prove themselves over time. Sometimes a novelist, attuned to the psychology of the characters, can get closer to what they might really have been like than a historian can. (But I, too, love reading and comparing novels that take wildly different approaches to historical personalities.)
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Divia
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Post by Divia » Thu August 18th, 2011, 4:56 pm

[quote=""MLE""]However horrible this seems to people of our era (and it would have been sniggered at in a prurient way by those of Jefferson's own time and class) if the liaison happened, it was much more likely to be two people who wanted and enjoyed each other but were forced by social mores to keep the details private. Which would be one argument for Jefferson not freeing Sally at the time -- it would have made their affair much more difficult, arrangement-wise. Maybe (dare I suggest it in today's PC climate?) she didn't want to be freed.[/quote]

The problem is that Sally was a slave. I doubt she had a choice. When the master comes knocking you do what he says. What was she going to tell him? No? She was a slave. She didn't have that right. Jefferson was a white man, and a white man of wealth. On the hierarchy he was the top gun. No woman. No black woman is going to tell him no.

Don't get me wrong. Some slaves saw their masters affections as a way to increase their status. It was a dangerous game, but one that was no doubt played. Gee, working in the tobacco fields or the sugar fields(which killed you off quicker than anything) or a house slave. Hmm. Not saying house slaves had it easier, but it was a little better.

There were also slaves after the Civil War who didn't know what to do with their freedom once they got it. They are like ok now what? And thats why many went back to work for their owners on the plantation.

The staircase is really interesting to me. I didn't know about that. Thanks for the info. :)


My theory is that Jefferson was upset by the death of his wife. He was lonely and saw his wife in Sally. He made advances and got what he wanted. I personally find it hard to believe that Jefferson loved her. I think he used her. I mean this was a man who hated Indians too. he wasn't the friend of the minority, for sure. But who knows. Thats for writers to figure out . :)
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Post by Ludmilla » Thu August 18th, 2011, 5:01 pm

[quote=""Margaret""]The latest edition of her novel includes a Q&A with the author in which she tells a fascinating story about her discovery of a hidden stairway in Jefferson's bedroom at Montecello (which would have allowed Hemings to come and go in privacy). The stairway was torn out some time after Chase-Riboud started inquiring about it - a horrible desecration of a historic building, IMHO. [/quote]

Interesting story... We toured Monticello this summer and I don't remember mention of the staircase, but the tour is very informative with lots of information about what has been changed and preserved from Jefferson's own time. They don't gloss over the relationship with Sally Hemings there. It's the position of the Jefferson Foundation, which manages the property, that he did have an affair with Sally. Jefferson's white descendants are still balking at the idea, though. Both the Hemings and Jefferson families hold separate family reunions there.

I'm trying to imagine where that hidden staircase could have been. Jefferson's bedroom is on the main floor and the layout of the rooms gives you the sense of walking in a large circle from room-to-room. However, there are spaces closed off (no upstairs, e.g.) that aren't included in the basic tour.

BTW - the tour is definitely worth it. Monticello is a very special place.
Last edited by Ludmilla on Thu August 18th, 2011, 5:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 5:29 pm

[quote=""MLE""]Why does everyone assume that Jefferson's (assumed) relationship with Sally Hemmings had to be entirely one-sided? Maybe he was a tender lover and Sally was glad to enjoy his company. [/quote] It's pretty much as Divia said -- in the absence of any evidence, it's pretty hard to imagine a relationship between two people, where one is literally the owned property of the other, as being one of mutual consent.

That is not to say Jefferson wasn't as tender and loving as you suggest. But even if he were, his relationship with a slave could never be considered comparable to a relationship with a free woman who had at least some degree of choice in the matter. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu August 18th, 2011, 6:18 pm

It is very likely that Sally held up her part of the relationship. Regardless of whether she sought it in the first place -- and why wouldn't she? Biology is about making sure that your offspring thrive and survive, and her children by Jefferson would definitely have (and did have) a better start in life than her children by some black field hand -- but even if she was originally forced into it, haven't you heard of Stockholm syndrome? This is where victims of kidnappings and/or abuse become their captors' most ardent supporters.

Good grief, I have seen this happen over and over in abuse cases with women raised to be feminists with many other options, who had every opportunity to get out of the relationship. What would make anybody think a slave of two hundred years ago wouldn't find a way to make a liason with a powerful man work to her advantage?

If I were Sally, I'd have seduced him. Even if he were old, ugly, and mean--none of which was the case.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Thu August 18th, 2011, 6:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Divia » Thu August 18th, 2011, 6:43 pm

I'm not saying that Sally couldn't have said, oh the eye is on the prize now. I'm seducing him! Plus we dont know if they weren't going at it while Jefferson's wife was a live. Who knows. It wouldn't be the first time a slave owner has went off to the slave cabin while his wife was bent over her sewing.

Children of plantation owners didnt' always have a get out of jail free card. Sometimes their lives weren't better off. Sometimes they were sold off because the mistress couldn't look at them. Since there was no mistress in this circumstance then she could have been calculating enough to think hey better life for me and the kids. But then again just because you were the kid of the plantation owner doenst mean you are going to get your papers and become free obviously.

During their relationship they would have lived separate lives. Obviously Sally being a slave wasn't allowed into Jeffersons world, and I dont think he would have wanted her there. She was a woman. And a black woman. Seen but not heard. would she have developed the Stockholm syndrome MLE spoke of. I dunno, but if it were the case then it should be extended to other slaves who were in a similar situation, which i'm sure is more than most care to think about
Last edited by Divia on Thu August 18th, 2011, 6:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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