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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 7:06 pm

Whether or not Sally had Stockholm Syndrome is wild speculation -- but then, all of this is, since there is no existing evidence of the true nature of their relationship (at least, none that I've heard of).

I just can't help but think of the female slaves, especially those who were attractive, as the equivalent of a Middle Eastern harem. Yes, there were those who tried to make the most of it for themselves and their children, but at the end of the day they were still merely the owned property of their master, there for his pleasure (and to do other work, besides) and with no real rights of their own.

As to the reasons Jefferson sought a relationship with her -- well, my guess would be simply that sometimes testosterone trumps even the highest ideals. :)

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu August 18th, 2011, 7:13 pm

This got me thinking about the relationships of women and men in power in general. I think we get so hung up on the race issue that we put it in a separate class, which it isn't. Despite current angst about it, black and white are just people, acting and reacting like people.

for instance, why would Sally Hemming's relationship with her master be different than that of a poor woman with a nobleman? in Medieval times, they were in much the same position as an owner of black slaves, but nobody insists that a relationship between the lord and a poor woman could only have been forced because 'she wasn't free to choose'.

Hogwash. Even my llamas choose whatever they think is to their advantage, within the limits of their power and intelligence. Of course people are much more capable of manipulating their environment to their advantage than animals.

People want to impute to an eighteenth century woman feelings that will support their personal views. I can only guess the odds, and I'm guessing them the other direction.

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Matt Phillips
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Post by Matt Phillips » Thu August 18th, 2011, 7:58 pm

Actually I think we can infer a few things about the nature of their likely relationship based on circumstantial evidence.

As mentioned before, Sally was probably Martha Jefferson's half-sister, and Jefferson suffered crippling grief when Martha died when he was 39. (And, by the way, I'm confident Jefferson did not sleep with Sally during his marriage - she was only 9 when Martha died! All evidence points to Jefferson's marriage as a happy one, and its end when she died devastated him.)

And historians say Jefferson's relationship with Sally lasted 38 years, until his death, when she was about 53. If Jefferson wanted nothing more than a sexual liaison with a woman who couldn't say no, wouldn't he have found another, younger slave at some point in those 38 years? (That's not to say it's impossible he slept with his other slaves, but serious allegations of other liaisons have never been made, to my knowledge.) Also, Jefferson gave the Hemings children special treatment and eventually freed them all, the only slave family for whom he did that.

MLE brings up another interesting angle on the racial dimension. An interesting tidbit in that vein is that some of the Hemings descendants integrated into white society (Sally was probably 3/4 white), including one who became a Union general in the Civil War, while others remained in the black community.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 8:20 pm

[quote=""Matt Phillips""]Actually I think we can infer a few things about the nature of their likely relationship based on circumstantial evidence.

[/quote] You bring up very interesting points, Matt, and while I agree they allow us to infer how Jefferson might have felt about the relationship, they tell us nothing at all about how Sally felt about it. After all, he was free to choose and he chose her. But how did she really feel about it? Had she been free to choose would she have chose Jefferson? We'll probably never know.

I realize that even free white women in those days didn't have freedom of choice on the scale that we enjoy today. Still, they had more power of choice than the slaves, who had none.

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Post by Matt Phillips » Thu August 18th, 2011, 8:22 pm

[quote=""Michy""]You bring up very interesting points, Matt, and while I agree they allow us to infer how Jefferson might have felt about the relationship, they tell us nothing at all about how Sally felt about it. After all, he was free to choose and he chose her. But how did she really feel about it? Had she been free to choose would she have chose Jefferson? We'll probably never know.

I realize that even free white women in those days didn't have freedom of choice on the scale that we enjoy today. Still, they had more power of choice than the slaves, who had none.[/quote]

Agreed. I meant only to refer to inferences we might make about Jefferson's feelings.

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Thu August 18th, 2011, 8:27 pm

[quote=""Michy""]
As to the reasons Jefferson sought a relationship with her -- well, my guess would be simply that sometimes testosterone trumps even the highest ideals. :) [/quote]

Ain't that the truth! :D

[quote=""MLE""]This got me thinking about the relationships of women and men in power in general. I think we get so hung up on the race issue that we put it in a separate class, which it isn't. Despite current angst about it, black and white are just people, acting and reacting like people.

for instance, why would Sally Hemming's relationship with her master be different than that of a poor woman with a nobleman? in Medieval times, they were in much the same position as an owner of black slaves, but nobody insists that a relationship between the lord and a poor woman could only have been forced because 'she wasn't free to choose'.


People want to impute to an eighteenth century woman feelings that will support their personal views. I can only guess the odds, and I'm guessing them the other direction.[/quote]

Could a lord in the middle ages sell of a family to another lord? Granted my Medieval history knowledge isn't as strong as my American stuff but I cannot recall this happening. And how often did those lords mingle with some farmer girl out in the fields? If you had a house slave you were with them constantly. They were there in your face. Even if they were a field hand you'd have more interaction with them.


[quote=""Matt Phillips""]Actually I think we can infer a few things about the nature of their likely relationship based on circumstantial evidence.

And historians say Jefferson's relationship with Sally lasted 38 years, until his death, when she was about 53. If Jefferson wanted nothing more than a sexual liaison with a woman who couldn't say no, wouldn't he have found another, younger slave at some point in those 38 years? (That's not to say it's impossible he slept with his other slaves, but serious allegations of other liaisons have never been made, to my knowledge.) Also, Jefferson gave the Hemings children special treatment and eventually freed them all, the only slave family for whom he did that.

MLE brings up another interesting angle on the racial dimension. An interesting tidbit in that vein is that some of the Hemings descendants integrated into white society (Sally was probably 3/4 white), including one who became a Union general in the Civil War, while others remained in the black community.[/quote]

Guilt could have made him free them. One doesnt have to think it was a warm fuzzy moment. But we dont know. And we can speculate either way. Maybe he also just wanted them gone. The stain of his sins can go somewhere else.

I personally dont think it was a union out of love but one out of convenience. She was there, she was a half sister, she may have reminded him of his wife and he was lonely and horny. It was easier for her to go his bed then it was for him to go out and find another woman.


If I could have passed for white back then I would have too! Common! Who wouldn't have? Its a lovely thought that we want to hold onto our identity but if my identity could get me killed or raped and get me crappy housing and everyone hated me or looked down on me then I'd fake it, or pretend I was someone else. If I was "white" my life would be better with more opportunities. If I was "black" my life would suck. Hmmm, going with the better life here.

The thing is people will take away what they want between this relationship. there is great debate on it. Like MLE said we all look at it differently depending on our views.

As for Sally, who knows. I find it interesting that there is no written record. No journal? None. Hmm. So, I wonder if she was illiterate. Very interesting, and telling if this is true. One of the smartest men in the world, who loved reading kept his slave uneducated.
Last edited by Divia on Thu August 18th, 2011, 8:31 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 8:39 pm

[quote=""Divia""]Could a lord in the middle ages sell of a family to another lord? Granted my Medieval history knowledge isn't as strong as my American stuff but I cannot recall this happening. And how often did those lords mingle with some farmer girl out in the fields? If you had a house slave you were with them constantly. They were there in your face. Even if they were a field hand you'd have more interaction with them.


[/quote] I don't think, either, that Medieval peasants were regarded as an inhuman commodity in quite the same the way that the American slaves were. Granted, the peasants and serfs didn't have it easy, and they suffered much oppression by those who held the money and the power. But I don't think their situation could truly be compared to the slaves in America (and perhaps in other places, as well, I'm just not as familiar with slavery in other places).

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu August 18th, 2011, 10:12 pm

Serfs were tied to the land. If the land was sold, they went with it. And of course some of them were required to spend a certain amount of time serving in the Lord's household, and would have been as much at his disposal as any negro slave.

They were very much treated as an inhuman commodity. Slaves were valuable. Serfs and people of the lower class were routinely expected to starve in years of bad harvests.

for that matter, there have always been slaves, and there still are. (click on the link in my signature.) Conditions did not change because it was the American South. I suppose the gist of my argument is that to look at the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship as though it were shockingly awful for the time and place is a misconception. I've seen shockingly awful; it's still around. Sally came out of it pretty well, given the norms of the time, and we can leave room for the likelihood that she chose her mate instead of just being a helpless victim.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 10:21 pm

[quote=""Divia""]As for Sally, who knows. I find it interesting that there is no written record. No journal? None. Hmm. So, I wonder if she was illiterate. Very interesting, and telling if this is true. One of the smartest men in the world, who loved reading kept his slave uneducated.[/quote]

I have no idea whether or not Jefferson allowed any of his slaves to learn to read and write --it would be interesting to know. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, but I don't know if that law was in place during Jefferson's time, or came later.

But let's say Sally could read and write, and had kept a journal, it still might not tell us a whole lot. If she were less than truly happy in her relationship with Jefferson, and/or really loved someone else do you think she would put that in writing? I don't think so, it would be too risky and dangerous. Yes, Jefferson was enlightened in many ways, but something like that would be terribly incriminating and damning evidence against him and likely to bring punishment on her in some form were it discovered. So if I were in her shoes I wouldn't take that chance!

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu August 18th, 2011, 10:46 pm

[quote=""MLE""]
for that matter, there have always been slaves, and there still are. (click on the link in my signature.) Conditions did not change because it was the American South.

[/quote] I agree. For me, and perhaps for many Americans, slavery in the South is more of an "issue" than medieval serfdom or anything else similar, because it is far more recent than the Middle Ages, it happened here on our own soil, and we wrestle with the painful paradox of our founding fathers, who founded our country on such high and beautiful ideals of human liberty and freedom, being themselves slaveholders. It also seems uglier to me than Medieval serfdom because American slave families were regularly split apart and because they were truly treated as a commodity (i.e. once importation of slaves became illegal they started breeding them here like cattle solely in order to keep up a steady supply of slaves to replace those who died). Perhaps those things were also done to Medieval peasants, and serfs, I don't know. I've never heard of it, but I'm definitely not a Medieval scholar.
I suppose the gist of my argument is that to look at the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship as though it were shockingly awful for the time and place is a misconception.
That is not what I think at all -- in fact, at the beginning of this debate I stated that Jefferson just did what pretty much all the other slave owners were doing. I also agree that Sally no doubt made the best of their relationship in order to make things as good as she could for herself and her kids. But I still can't see their relationship as anything equalling that between Jefferson and a free woman because, at the end of the day, she was a slave and didn't have the liberty to say "no," even had she wanted to. Jefferson owned her and had total control over her, and you just can't take that out of the equation.

But that is just the view from where I stand; as you and Divia both said, we all see things differently depending on our own experiences, values, etc. etc.
Last edited by Michy on Thu August 18th, 2011, 10:58 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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