Moonday’s Heroic Hunk in History: Jefferson & His Sally

Happy President’s Day!  Thomas Jefferson is our Heroic Hunk in History and his affair with his slave Sally Hemings is our topic. Jefferson’s affair with Sally was first revealed when he ran for President. Sally Hemings was alleged to be the quadroon half-sister of Jefferson’s beloved wife, Martha who died in 1782 when she was 34 years old.  Contemporary accounts note that Sally had a remarkable resemblance to her half-sister.

Sally’s six children were alleged to have been fathered by Jefferson. This was only an unproven accusation until performed DNA testing which concluded that Jefferson was the probable father of some, if not all, of the children. There is no evidence to the contrary, including Jefferson’s location at the time of the children’s conception.

Two of Sally’s children – Madison and Eston – indicated that Jefferson was their father, and relayed their belief through generations of their descendants. Sally Hemings’ children were light-skinned, and three of them (daughter Harriet and sons Beverly and Eston) lived as members of white society as adults. According to contemporary accounts, some of Sally Hemings’ children strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’ children when they came of age. Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will. Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family. Thomas Jefferson did not free Sally Hemings. She was permitted to leave Monticello by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph not long after Jefferson’s death in 1826, and went to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville until her death.

Personal Opinion: Jefferson’s “affair” with his slave mistress was a scandal at the time. His political opponents attempted to use it against him unsuccessfully. Even today, Jefferson is condemned for the affair as abusive toward a slave woman. If he had freed Sally or his children by law they would have been forced to leave the state within the year. Jefferson attempted unsuccessfully to have a special law enacted to allow them to remain inVirginia. The older children left the plantation at 21 and the younger ones left after his death. Sally remained at Monticello until after his death. She left Monticello to live with her sons until her death in 1835. Her children then left the area and, all but one, lived their lives as white. (See pic of Madison’s granddaughter and her family) When Sally could have left, she didn’t. When Thomas could have remarried, he didn’t. I couldn’t even find a record of Jefferson keeping mistresses. Why can’t folks accept that Thomas and Sally lived in a committed relationship for 37 years and raised a family as best they could within the laws of the time?  Next week, 2012 Silken Sands Self-Published Star Contest finalists. Rita Bay


5 Responses

  1. Indeed, it should absolutely be accepted. AND he did what he had to do to keep her with him.

  2. One of the most difficult things to teach in history is the ability (willingness?) to see events in the context of laws and social mores at the time those events too place. What we accept freely today took much courage then.

    Wasn’t there some rumor about Jefferson’s younger brother learning to play fiddle from one of the slaves, and returning often to play music together for days on end, possibly being the father to some of the children? Or was that just one of those tacky rumors from back then? (Or am I mixing up two separate historical matters?)

    • There were several relatives of Jefferson who could have been candidates for parents. That, in fact, was the claim of Jefferson’s descedents. However, most of them were excluded based on where they were when the children were conceived. Don’t know about “fiddling around” but Sally as the “family seamstress” lived in the main house.
      When Mama visited Monticello, one of the most interesting sites was Jefferson’s bed. It was partially in one room and partially in another. Convenient and interesting. Won’t even comment on the large, hidden cubby ABOVE his bed. Rita Bay

  3. That should have been ‘events took place’. Sorry for the dyslexic fingers! lol

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