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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

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LoveHistory
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Post by LoveHistory » Fri August 19th, 2011, 12:38 am

Alright. Time for me to weigh in with my rose-colored glasses. Though I should point out that I am not an optimist.

There's a lot of discussion on here about the way things were seen by white society at large, and ascribing that to Jefferson. Based on his writings it seems to me he found slavery horrible and a invitation to divine wrath. So if he didn't believe slavery was right, why on earth would he share beliefs about slaves having no choice in things like physical relationships? This man was not simply in line with the flow of everyone around him in thought. Why make him out to be like everyone else when it's entirely possible that he was different?

Yes, if he wanted something techincally there was no one to stop him. But maybe he could have stopped him. Maybe he gave Sally a choice. Why is that so hard to believe? If he believed slavery was wrong when everyone else believed it was a God-given right, then why is it so hard to believe that he saw his slaves as people when everyone else saw them as property?

It seems to me that the tendency is to accuse him of not living up to his high ideals. I suppose it's normal considering the world in which we currently live to not bother thinking the best of leaders past or present. And sometimes it's satisfying (in a mean way) to see those who espouse the noblest ideals proven to be human and even hypocrites. We like seeing hypocrites fall. That's human nature. But the fact that the majority of argument in this debate is in that line is saddening.

Here's what I think (and no I don't need anyone to tell me that I lack evidence, we all lack evidence, this is all conjecture): Sally and Tom may very well have been in love. He would have married her had it been legal to do so. Since it wasn't, and life would have been hell for both of them and their children if they'd been open about the true nature of their relationship, they simply allowed everyone to think that it was a typical master and slave affair. Letting people think the worst was a protection.

I may be just a tad touchy. I got the short end of a volcanic eruption yesterday and I'm a bit annoyed. I just don't see why so many people are unwilling to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Jumping to condemnation is quicker but it's rarely just.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Fri August 19th, 2011, 1:26 am

[quote=""LoveHistory""]Alright. Time for me to weigh in with my rose-colored glasses. Though I should point out that I am not an optimist.[/quote] Actually, your summation at the end does sound pretty rosy to me. :) But that's ok, it's your opinion and you're entitled to it. :)

Yes, if he wanted something techincally there was no one to stop him. But maybe he could have stopped him. Maybe he gave Sally a choice. Why is that so hard to believe? If he believed slavery was wrong when everyone else believed it was a God-given right, then why is it so hard to believe that he saw his slaves as people when everyone else saw them as property?
I am a person who gives far more weight to what a person (living or dead) does than what they say (or write). That is why I wrestle with the paradox of the founding fathers being slaveholders. I do not consider them hypocrites (and never used that word anywhere in this thread), but simply men of their times. Nor do I feel glad when any of them "fall"; my feeling about slavery is that it is abhorrent for one person to own another person like property. The abhorrence is the same whether the slaveowner is the writer of the Declaration of Independence or not. It's just harder for me to wrap my mind around the conundrum when it's a writer of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution -- i.e. all men are created equal, except for blacks who are only 3/5 of a person.

From what I've read of U.S. history, by the time of American independence many if not all of the founding fathers believed that slavery was wrong. But of course, they couldn't just free their slaves because they were as entrapped in the system as anyone else. They truly believed it was an inefficient system that would die out over time. I just have to wonder if they tossed and turned at night, wrestling with the contradiction of the ideals they were expressing vs. the reality of their lives.

However, I'm inclined to think that if Jefferson had seen his slaves, or Sally in particular, as people rather than property, he would have freed more than just a few of them in his lifetime or in his will. He did allow a couple of his children with Sally to "run away." Why didn't he even grant Sally her freedom in his will? It seems like the least he could have done. Oh, well, at least his daughter gave Sally her freedom, and she was able to live out the rest of her life near some of her children.
It seems to me that the tendency is to accuse him of not living up to his high ideals. I suppose it's normal considering the world in which we currently live to not bother thinking the best of leaders past or present. And sometimes it's satisfying (in a mean way) to see those who espouse the noblest ideals proven to be human and even hypocrites. We like seeing hypocrites fall. That's human nature. But the fact that the majority of argument in this debate is in that line is saddening.
I'm not trying to vilify Jefferson in any way. I don't think he was worse than any other slaveholder. I guess that, given who he was, I just would have expected him to do a little better than he did, that's all. I do know he lived largely beyond his means and died at or near bankruptcy, so I'm sure that complicated his situation.

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Fri August 19th, 2011, 2:28 am

Jefferson didn't believe slavery was wrong. More like a necessary evil. Who was gonig to do the work on the farm if it wasn't for slaves? He never thought they were equal to him, and they needed a job, why not do the work around the farm. That way he could think the grand thoughts and be a learner.

Jefferson was a complex person. No doubt about that.

Jefferson was a man of his time. The only men that counted back in the day were wealthy men. Men who own property. So I always get a kick out if when people yell "All men are created equal!" at some rally or something and I"m like yeah dude, rich men. Not poor men. Not women. Not white men with no land. No indians and most certainly no blacks.


But he never freed poor Sally when he died. Nor did he free her before he died. Why? was he worried she wouldn't stay? Was it only a one sided relationship? There are no writings left from her. Why? Was she illiterate? Does that mean he wanted to keep her in the dark. He loved learning, why wouldn't he teach her?

BTW lovin the different theories being thrown around Good stuff :)
Last edited by Divia on Fri August 19th, 2011, 2:30 am, edited 1 time in total.
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Fri August 19th, 2011, 4:24 am

Maybe he suggested she learn, and Sally said, "Honey, I got along fine without book learnin' up till now, and I got better things to be botherin' my head with raising these kids."

Or maybe she was dyslexic, and they both tried with a will and gave up.

Or maybe she did learn to read and write, and she used it for reading recipes and making laundry lists.

Or maybe she was super-literate and wrote half of what is imputed to Jefferson, but preferred to keep her name out of it.

For the record, elderly slaves were often freed when their keep exceeded their working ability. It was thought to be a contemptible practice by the more humane slave-owners, because it was essentially a way for the owner to wash his hands of an expense. If Sally was 58 when Jefferson died, he may very well NOT have freed her so that his heirs would continue to support her. If his daughter did free her, I hope it was not under the circumstances or for the reasons above.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Fri August 19th, 2011, 5:30 am

[quote=""Divia""]

BTW lovin the different theories being thrown around Good stuff :) [/quote]

Yes, this has been a fun discussion. I just can't bring myself to view Jefferson through rose-tinted glasses and find it difficult to give him the "benefit of the doubt," and that may be due in part to the fact that he is not my favorite of the founding fathers (can't say that I actually have a favorite, only that it's not him). A local radio station used to air a program by a renowned Jefferson scholar that I listened to occasionally. The man lives, breathes, eats and sleeps Jefferson. I guess I was just exposed to too many of Jefferson's warts. :) He was, as you say, an immensely complex and even a contradictory person, and more than a little eccentric. I would love to visit Monticello someday.


[quote=""MLE""]

Or maybe she was super-literate and wrote half of what is imputed to Jefferson, but preferred to keep her name out of it.[/quote] LOL!!! The ghost writer of the Declaration of Independence!
If Sally was 58 when Jefferson died, he may very well NOT have freed her so that his heirs would continue to support her. If his daughter did free her, I hope it was not under the circumstances or for the reasons above.
I believe that at least one of her daughters made a good marriage and was somewhat prosperous, so I'm sure Sally was taken care of. Again, I come back to Jefferson's actions speaking louder than anything else; if he had truly loved Sally then why didn't he free her, at least at his death if nothing else? Especially knowing she had a daughter to take care of her. Seems to me that would have been his final loving act to her. To me, his actions say he didn't truly love her, at least not in the way he loved his wife or would have love some other white woman who was his equal. He may have had some degree of affection for Sally, but she was his property, plain and simple.

Knowing the state of his finances, I'm more inclined to speculate the reason that Jefferson freed almost none of his slaves was because that way his heirs would inherit them, and could sell them if need be to help pay some of the debts he left behind.

But that's just me looking at it through my dark-colored glasses. :)
Last edited by Michy on Fri August 19th, 2011, 5:55 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Ludmilla » Fri August 19th, 2011, 1:39 pm

I tend to look through dark-colored glasses, too, but I guess the romantic in me believes Jefferson at the very least cared for Sally, and hopefully it was reciprocated. I don't find it hard to believe that she may have welcomed Jefferson's attentions, but it's one of those things we'll never really know, private lives being what they are.
Again, I come back to Jefferson's actions speaking louder than anything else; if he had truly loved Sally then why didn't he free her, at least at his death if nothing else? Especially knowing she had a daughter to take care of her. Seems to me that would have been his final loving act to her.
This is where I think our contemporary values and sensibilities get in the way. The founding fathers actually debated what to do with slaves once freed. Where would they go? How would they make a living? What would keep them from becoming enslaved yet again? I don't think we can measure how Jefferson felt about Sally by whether he kept her a slave or freed her.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Fri August 19th, 2011, 3:15 pm

[quote=""Ludmilla""]This is where I think our contemporary values and sensibilities get in the way. The founding fathers actually debated what to do with slaves once freed. Where would they go? How would they make a living? What would keep them from becoming enslaved yet again? I don't think we can measure how Jefferson felt about Sally by whether he kept her a slave or freed her.[/quote] I understand that dilemma, and I agree. Except that in this particular case, we're not talking about a huge group of slaves, or even a small group, but one single individual. I don't think the questions or concerns about what would happen to her if she were freed apply, since she had at least one daughter to look after her.

Perhaps it is my modern sensibilities getting in the way, but I really don't think so. The deep, core desire to be free isn't a modern thing, it's as old as mankind. The ability to express and exercise that freedom has perhaps never been as unlimited as it is today, but humans are hard-wired to want whatever freedom is available to them in whatever time and place and culture they're living in -- even if that freedom is limited to simply having the option of deciding whether to stay at Monticello or go live somewhere else near children or other family. Surely even a man in Jefferson's place and time (and especially a man of his wide reading, learning and intelligence) understood that. All I'm saying is that, for me, the fact that he didn't give her this option says that he didn't truly love her as an equal the way he would have loved another white woman. Yes, he may have had some degree of affection for her, but the owner/slave aspect was definitely evident in their relationship. The argument that he may have been concerned about her welfare should he free her doesn't hold water for me in this particular situation, because if he truly loved her as more than property, then even if he freed her and she had nowhere to go, he would have ensured that she could stay on at Monticello (should she choose to do so) and be taken care of, right? After all, she was his to do with as he pleased.

Yes, this is speculation, but so are everyone else's theories expressed here. So this is just my version. :)

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Fri August 19th, 2011, 3:20 pm

Michy, the Old Testament has an option for slaves who wish to remain slaves, even when their period of service is over. So although the desire for freedom is universal and age-old, so is the desire to belong.

Sally may have been the one who didn't want to be freed. There are two sides to any relationship.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Fri August 19th, 2011, 5:27 pm

In case anyone is interested, the website of the Jefferson scholar I mentioned above is:

http://www.jeffersonhour.com

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Matt Phillips
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Post by Matt Phillips » Fri August 19th, 2011, 7:37 pm

Speculating like everyone else, but maybe Jefferson didn't free Sally because she would've been better cared for at Monticello than with her free daughter, and maybe she knew that and agreed. Free blacks (even those who looked white) often didn't have an easy time making their way in the early 19th century.

Jefferson hated slavery. He was well aware of the contradictions in his revolutionary ideals and rhetoric and the reality of slavery, and that anguished him. But he saw no clear path toward ending it in his lifetime.

And as for his own estate, as others have said, Jefferson died deeply in debt, which was likely a major factor in his freeing only a few of his slaves. Perhaps if he weren't in debt, he would have freed all his slaves, as Washington did.

If someone sincerely espouses philosophical ideals but falls short of perfect adherence to them in personal practice because of limits on what's feasible for them to do given the time and place in which they lived, I don't think that makes them a hypocrite. It makes them human. A hypocrite is someone who espouses ideals publically that privately they don't believe at all. And as far as I know, that definition applies to none of the Founding Fathers.
Last edited by Matt Phillips on Fri August 19th, 2011, 7:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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