Everybody knows the passage in the box above. Thomas Jefferson wrote it. It is logical to think that he believed what he wrote, and yet he held Sally Hemings and his children by her in slavery.
Odd? By the standards of our day, certainly. By the standards of his day, it was odd that he freed any of them. His father-in-law also had a black concubine and children, and freed none of them.
If you have read anything I posted from mid-January to the end of February of this year, you know I am no apologist for slavery, Jim Crow, or resistance to interracial marriage. However, if you plan to understand historical events and beliefs, you have to examine them in their own context. The Sally Hemings story gives us a lens through which to examine both slavery and women as child bearers, whether wife or concubine, in the days when our nation was being created.
The story begins two generations before Jefferson. A slave name Susanna bore a child to a white man named Hemings; the child was named Betty. Both were owned by Francis Eppes, then were inherited by Eppes’ daughter Martha. When Martha Eppes married John Wayles, the slaves, mother and daughter, went with her.
Martha Eppes Wayles had a daughter, also named Martha, before her death. Wayles was widowed twice more, and also had several children by the slave Betty Hemings. The youngest of these was named Sally.
Martha Wayles (the daughter) married Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was her half-sister (they shared a father) and was three-quarters white. When John Wayles died, Thomas and Martha Jefferson inherited his slaves, including Betty and Sally Hemings.
Martha Jefferson had a daughter, also Martha. Thankfully, for ease of reading this post, she was called Patsy. Jefferson’s wife Martha died. When Thomas Jefferson was appointed American envoy to France, he took Patsy with him, and took Sally Hemings as her companion. It appears that the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings affair began in France.
Accurate research is difficult on affairs that are semi-hidden. As best we know, Sally Hemings bore Jefferson six children: two daughters who died in infancy, one daughter and three sons who live to adulthood. All these children were seven-eighths white, and all were slaves.
The children and their mother remained house slaves. They never worked the fields; the male children were given training to become artisans. At age 24, the eldest son was allowed to “escape” to the North. The daughter followed shortly after. The younger sons were given their freedom in Jefferson’s will. Sally Hemings was inherited by Patsy and informally freed.
Why did Jefferson, the champion of unalienable rights, hold his “wife” and children in slavery? Let’s look for answers.
Sally Hemings was legally negro, genetic heritage notwithstanding. That could not be changed. She could have been freed, but Jefferson could not have married her, even if the thought had ever occurred to him. If freed, she would have not become a full citizen of Virginia or of the United States. If freed, she would have passed completely out of Jefferson’s control, and she would also have passed out from under his protection. Which of those two factors weighed more heavily on Jefferson? We cannot know.
We can speculate, however, based on how he treated his children. They were legally negro, although actually seven-eighths white. They could not be given the rights of white children. They could not inherit, which was something of a moot point since Jefferson died deeply in debt and his estate went to his creditors. He allowed his elder two to “escape” to the North after they were adult. He freed his younger two in his will; they were just reaching legal maturity at the time of his death.
He did not free Sally Hemings in his will. Why? Was he unable to let go, or was he depending on his daughter Patsy to take care of her in her old age? She was in her mid-fifties when Jefferson died. Again, we cannot know.
A lot of scholarship has been devoted to Sally Hemings. We know quite a few facts, but from this distance, understanding comes hard. Did Jefferson do the best he could under the circumstances? Do we even have the right to be disappointed that he didn’t do more? We have more questions than answers.
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It is important to consider what happened to Sally Hemings’ offspring, but that will require a future post.