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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

A place to debate issues or to rant about what's on your mind. In addition to discussions about historical fiction, books, the publishing industry, and history, discussions about current political, social, and religious issues and other topics are allowed, so those who are easily offended by certain topics may want to avoid such threads. Members are expected to keep the discussions friendly and polite and to avoid personal attacks on other members. The moderators reserve the right to shut down a thread without warning if they believe it necessary.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Sat August 20th, 2011, 11:48 pm

[quote=""Ludmilla""]True, but the economy of the north had never been as dependent on slavery as in the south. The black population in the south was huge compared to the north. Many northerners were quite simply unwilling to live with and employ blacks that moved there. [/quote] The main reason that slavery took such a strong hold in the south but not in the north, was the plantation system. The large plantations in the south required lots of manual labor. In the north, neither the climate nor the soil were conducive to large-scale agriculture. As a result, there was never a need for so many slaves.

From what I've read, the founding fathers felt that slavery was an inefficient system that would die out on its own. And it was indeed headed in that direction -- until the invention of the cotton gin changed everything.
I haven't read enough about Sally Hemings to form a well educated opinion on the kind of relationship she had with Jefferson. Obviously a relationship between master and slave would be different than between white husband and wife. Jefferson was ahead of his time in many respects, but still very human and a man of his times with respect to slavery. I don't think that means that the relationship could not have been a caring one.
Me, either, my opinions expressed here are just speculation and interpretation based on what I know of Jefferson. And he was such an intensely private man, that probably not even the foremost scholars of his life know what he really felt.

One thing interesting -- last night I went back and re-read some of the earlier posts in this thread. Taking the numbers Matt cited I did the math and calculated that Jefferson began his relationship with Sally when he was approximately 45 and she was 15. For me, that puts an additional twist on it.

[quote=""Divia""]But here's the thing. I'm not making Jefferson a villain. He was a man of his time. Nothing more nothing less.[/quote] Me, neither. I understand the dilemma he and the other founding fathers (and others of that time) were caught in. They didn't create the slavery system, it had developed over more than 100 years and they inherited it. It was a real quagmire and there was no fast and easy way to end it.

I do think, though, as I have stated before, that all things considered, even within the context of the times in which he lived Jefferson could have done better by his slaves (and Sally in particular) than he did. I'm not calling him a hypocrite nor do I think he was a villain -- I just think he could have done better.
Last edited by Michy on Sun August 21st, 2011, 12:07 am, edited 1 time in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sun August 21st, 2011, 3:53 am

[quote=""Michy""] They didn't create the slavery system, it had developed over more than 100 years and they inherited it. [/quote]

This is one of the problems with the modern American view of slavery. We think it popped up around the time of the colonial push and then was done away with after the civil war.

Wrong. Slavery has always been with us. What happened around the Colonial era was that PART of the slavery system had been dismantled. That is, it was no longer legal in most European countries to buy and sell other Europeans. (Russia excluded; their serf system was truly horrible and getting worse, thanks to Catherine 'the Great')

What was left was slavery of other races by Europeans, and of course everywhere else in the world--India, Native Americans, Africa-- both inter- and intra-racial slavery was still the norm. Wilberforce, by 1830, had succeeded in making slave-shipping illegal everywhere in the British Empire. (It took him his entire life, and was a major cause of the war of 1812, not that you get any of that in American history.)

The other development was that this age-old institution was beginning to make people uncomfortable. None of the great thinkers of Rome or Greece had a qualm about the idea of men and women being owned like cattle.

This leads people to the complacency that slavery is a historic thing we have done away with. It is not. The more I learn about human trafficking today, the more I want to recruit all the people who wring their hands over feral cats and show them a way they can REALLY change the world.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Sun August 21st, 2011, 5:20 am

[quote=""MLE""]This is one of the problems with the modern American view of slavery. We think it popped up around the time of the colonial push and then was done away with after the civil war.

[/quote] I suppose I should have been more specific and said "black slavery in the U.S.;" I just thought it was understood that was the slavery we were speaking of in this thread.

The 100 years I was referring to was from when the first 20 blacks were sold into slavery in America, at Jamestown in 1619 (so it was actually more like 150 years).

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Post by LoveHistory » Mon August 22nd, 2011, 1:39 am

[quote=""Divia""] :confused:
What were these ridiculous ideas? [/quote]

Gone With The Wind mentions some. Like thinking all black people were dangerous, or dirty, or stupid. A lot of northerners were far more uncomfortable around black people than southerners were, and just as racist. The difference being that people in the south grew up seeing black people, and most of the people in the north didn't. Different = bad and all that provincialism.

I think it was in Roots that there's an explanation of having changed from slaves from Scotland to slaves from Africa. Basically the gist of the explanation given was that an escaped white slave just had to keep his mouth shut to hide his accent and he could be free. The African slaves couldn't blend in that way. That and being accustomed to subtropical climates already made them a good fit for working in the south.

I actually don't have a problem with the age difference. I've known many 15 year old girls who went after older guys with a vengeance. And I guarantee a girl growing up as a slave was nowhere near as innocent and sheltered as the standard issue girl of the same age. Not by choice, of course. She would have been exposed to more things and so less idealistic. Old for her age.

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Post by Divia » Mon August 22nd, 2011, 2:06 am

I never said that Northerners were free from hating blacks. Though I dont see how those thoughts are any different than what the southerns thought. And there wasn't slavery in the north at the time.

A lot of Notherners didn't care about ending slavery either. They wanted food on their tables and a roof over their head. They couldn't careless about slavery.

So really those feelings aren't radical. Its just a sign of the times.
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Post by Margaret » Mon August 22nd, 2011, 5:19 am

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.
When I interviewed Barbara Chase-Riboud for my website, she mentioned the location of the hidden staircase (see interview). It led upward from an alcove at the foot of Jefferson's bed, into a hallway on an upper level - someone like Sally Hemings could have used it to come and go in privacy. I'm not surprised the tour guide didn't mention the staircase - after the management destroyed it! Chase-Riboud calls that vandalism, and I would agree.
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Post by Ludmilla » Mon August 22nd, 2011, 1:21 pm

It's possible the guide could have mentioned it and I just didn't hear. I have a hard time hearing in groups like this, esp if other people are talking.

Yes, it would have to be the alcove, as you see from the photo at the Monticello website.

The Foundation that manages the property has probably changed their process quite a bit between now and the 70s when Chase-Riboud did her tour. Today, you are assigned a time, and the tours are limited to x number of people per guide. They don't leave you alone in any of the rooms. You cannot take pictures inside the house, either. Despite the staircase incident, I still think they've done a good job of maintaining the historical integrity of the property, esp when you compare it to the condition of other historical homes.

There is a museum at Monticello as well, and I remember seeing quite a bit on the Hemings family there, but I didn't have time to look at everything.

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Post by Divia » Mon August 22nd, 2011, 2:38 pm

Yeah when I was there they were shuffling people out of the rooms quickly. I hate that. I need to stand there a moment and soak it all in.
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Post by oldhousejunkie » Fri August 26th, 2011, 2:43 pm

I have a funny story about Monticello.

My sophmore year in college, I looked at transferring to a VA school. I was also looking at UVA for their architectural history graduate program. So my parents carted me up there and after being indoctrinated with the wonders of TJ's architectural skills, I asked to go to Monticello. Of course the day before, I pulled a tendon in my foot, so I was wheel chair bound throughout the tour. My dad was wheeling me through and he accidently hit one of those beautiful faux grained doors with the edge of foot rest! The tour guide just about pumelled him. Ah....good times.

I read most of the comments on this subject and I have to agree that many of us view American slavery through the 20th/21st century revisionist history that is being passed out in school. Slavery is bad, yes, but I think the brutalities were not as prolific as some historians would have us believe. From my research, it appears that the worst treatment was weathered on the large plantations that were solely for profit (meaning that the owner often lived on another plantation). But you have to remember some stories of the deep affection that male slaveowners had for their "mammies," often providing them with very comfortable existences until their deaths. The same with "body" servants. Some even accompanied their masters onto the battlefield during the war, often tending their bodies in death. Yes, these people were in slavery, but think of the thousands that escaped to "freedom" only to bascially starve in the gutter because their Northern counterparts were too prejudiced to give them proper employment. Who knows what I would prefer? I've never known slavery and so I cannot say.

But the main crux of this argument is free will in interracial relationships. Even without my rose colored glasses on, I think white master-black slave relationships were not always entirely without love and affection. In fact, I recently researched this subject for National Register of Historic Places nomination. And what I found was very interesting. The couple I was researching had their first child in October 1863. He was a white farmer and she was mulatto. I could not trace her background sadly; I found nothing more than that she born in Virginia and her parents were unknown. I think this evidence solidifies that she was most likely the product of a bi-racial relationship. I could find no evidence that showed how she ended up in South Carolina or how she ended up with the white farmer. Family oral tradition indicated that the farmer bought her a wife. Of course, that probably wasn't true given the prevailing thought patterns at the time. He could have bought her as a housekeeper and their relationships developed from there. She could have already been a freed woman when they met. We just don't know.

But in the end, they were together for over 50 years and had eight children together. They even endured being prosecuted by the local courts because they were not formally married. Of course, laws at the time varied state to state, but most bi-racial couples were unable to marry by law or because they couldn't find anyone to perform what was regarded as an "unholy" union. I believe the latter reason was why this couple never married (although the woman was listed as a widow on her death certificate, which was filled out by her youngest son. It makes me wonder...)

It was a very interesting story and I could only come to the conclusion that there was genuine feeling between the two. He even endured censure from his white family and to this day there are two factions of this one family residing in the same county.

In my research I found several accounts of white men actually marrying their black concubines and legitimizing their children. A few states did allow for this (South Carolina being one) although when the man died, it was a nightmare for his wife and children because the courts could choose to nullify the marriage, thus barring any money or property from transferring.

If anything, I found that situations greatly varied from state to state, and I believe if anything, that shows that there isn't one "correct" view of history to placed out there. And sadly, most people can't accept that as they want to believe in one universal theory that can be applied in all situations.
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Matt Phillips
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Post by Matt Phillips » Fri September 2nd, 2011, 8:40 pm

Two recent blog posts offer interesting and intelligent comment about this issue:

http://www.pinstripepress.net/PPBlog/in ... id=1429721

http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/ ... ited/30273

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