Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thinking About the Jefferson-Hemings Question

In Thursday's class, I tasked my students with designing an 3-5 panel "exhibit" on Thomas Jefferson, slavery, and Sally Hemings -- explain this group of topics to a public audience.  They were surprised to discover just how difficult it is to distill a LOT of complicated information into concise exhibit panels.  You present the content, raise the questions, but how do you deal with the "answer"?  While the task of the historian is to come up with a compelling and evidence-based argument, museum exhibitors frequently find that sometimes the most effective way to engage the public is to leave the question open-ended, to give your visitor the questions and the tools but let them piece it together.  But what do they need to piece it together?  And where will they go with the answer...?

This class got me thinking about my own explorations of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy...

Some of the facts. You can read a brief "just the facts, ma'am" account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings at or go back in time and read Madison Hemings' 1873 memoir of his mother's relationship with Jefferson.  While serving as minister in Paris in 1787, Thomas Jefferson developed a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old slave (and the half-sister of his dead wife) who had accompanied his daughter Maria to Paris.  Then the young teenager was confronted with a terrible dilemma.  According to Madison Hemings: 

[Jefferson] 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 promise, 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. It lived but a short time. She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston--three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. We all married and have raised families.

The history of the history.  Until very recently, most Jefferson scholars routinely dismissed the possibility that Jefferson had fathered children with Hemings--this despite longstanding oral history tradition among Hemings descendents and Madison Hemings' memoir.  Annette Gordon-Reed's 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, challenged over a century of scholarly denial, arguing, based on close work with manuscript sources, that Jefferson was in fact the father of all of Hemings' children.  Then in 1998, there was the DNA evidence that proved to 99% accuracy that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Easton Hemings.  For most Americans, the DNA evidence confirmed what would otherwise have always remained a matter of conjecture--and in some circles, bitter denial.  (Reed has since published a complete study of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family -- it won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant.") 

Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings raises a lot of questions, questions that many Americans might answer with denial, disgust, or anger at his "hypocrisy," or a romantic narrative of "star-crossed lovers."  In fact, historian Lois Horton conducted a study at Monticello in 1999 about visitors' reactions to the representation of slavery.  She identified precisely these patterns of response.  In the context of growing national awareness and interest in American slavery, Monticello was featuring slavery more prominently, not only in a separate tour of Mulberry Row, the slave quarters, but museum interpreters were also discussing slavery more in their house tours.  Horton summarized the  range of reactions to the exhibition of slavery, which was generally a sincere interest in and recognition of the importance of slavery in American history.

Most visitors, when confronting Jefferson's status as a slaveholder, struggled to redefine the way they felt about him.  Should Jefferson be recognized as a "man of his time" or should this take him down off his pedestal?  And what of Jefferson's nearly 40-year relationship with Hemings?  As Horton explains, some concluded that "Jefferson was just a man" and most slaveholders sexually exploited enslaved women, while others felt that the relationship should be understood in terms of Hemings' resemblance to Jefferson's dead wife Martha Wayles--Hemings was her half-sister.  Others chose the romantic narrative -- also found in the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris -- of Jefferson and Hemings as star-crossed lovers.

The love question. I've always be fascinated by that question -- Did Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings love each other? It's a question that tells us more about ourselves and our own needs but really misses much of the really complicated and messy reality of the 1700s.  We care a lot about love.  We also evaluate relationships based on concepts like consent that weren't present at the time and in fact are completely meaningless in the context of slavery.  Can a woman owned by a man give consent to sex?

Here's the piece that I puzzle over: when we ask whether Jefferson and Hemings loved each other, we seem to be implying that the existence of love might change the way we see the exploitation of slavery, and more generally, sex in the context of unequal power relations.  But does love make right?  Can love meliorate the grotesque abuses of power under slavery?  I think when we ask that question -- Did Jefferson and Hemings love each other? -- we're implying that if we find some evidence of love and affection in there, we can rest a bit easier with the baldfaced reality that 14 year-old-girl entered into a sexual relationship with a middle-aged man, was coerced away from the prospect of her own freedom (had she remained in Paris) by the promise of freedom for her children, and lived a life in bondage, tied to this man who only ever freed those children--not her and not any of his other slaves.  (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with asking this question. It's a very human question to ask, but we should think reflectively about what is behind it...)

Why should we want to make it easier on ourselves?  Why do we want this relationship to be "better" than other exploitative sexual relationships that occurred in the context of slavery?  Perhaps we are more comfortable with the (false) dichotomy of the bad versus good slaveholder than with a fundamental set of moral ambiguities at the heart of the every-day relationships under slavery, ambiguities and hypocrisies that our great "founding father" lived and epitomized.  (One way of thinking about this: One of my favorite scenes in Twelve Years a Slave that cuts to heart of these questions is the tea party between Patsey and Mrs. Shaw -- read an excerpt from the screenplay.)

And of course, this question is also driven by our desire to understand her -- we want to reach inside Sally Hemings' decades with this man and understand what went on inside this enslaved woman's heart.  Annette Gordon-Reed concluded that Jefferson probably did love Hemings, but did it work both ways?  The fact that we will never know how she felt about this man is a product of history -- enslaved women weren't asked about their feelings, their ideas, their lives.

What do you think about it...?

If you're still out looking for answers to the unanswerable, I think the most satisfying response comes from Annette Gordon-Reed:
Judging Hemings’s feelings about Jefferson proves more difficult, because she exercised no legal power over him. While she did abandon her plan to stay in France and then came home to live and have children with him, Hemings may well have had second thoughts about leaving her large and intensely connected family back home. Several of their great-grandchildren explain that Hemings returned to America because Jefferson “loved her dearly,” as if that meant something to her. Upon their return, Hemings’s relatives, both enslaved and free, behaved as if Jefferson was an in-law of sorts. After he died in 1826, Hemings left Monticello with several of Jefferson’s personal items, including pairs of his glasses, an inkwell, and shoe buckles, which she gave to her children as mementos.
While marriage is generally taken as a proof of love between a given man and woman, the quality of the relationship between couples who are not married, or cannot marry because of legal restrictions, may be better than that of men and women whose unions are recognized by law.
The most that can be said is that Hemings and Jefferson lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Jefferson kept his promises to Hemings, and their offspring got a four-decade head start on emancipation, making the most of it by leading prosperous and stable lives. That, I think, is about as much as one can expect from love in the context of life during American slavery.
Read the complete essay in the February 2008 issue of American Heritage magazine.

Additional Sources: Lois Horton's account of her 1999 study can be found in James Horton and Lois Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (UNC Press, 2008).  For a rich array of sources and teaching modules check out History on Trial: The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy.

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