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Monday, September 12, 2016

The Jefferson - Hemings Scandal



Hmm. The politically correct fix may not be easy.

When I was a schoolboy, most everybody thought Thomas Jefferson was one of the greats. Me included. Jefferson is now rather in eclipse. I read from a recent visitor that the guides at Monticello now spend most of their time talking about how badly the slaves had it on his estate, rather than anything flattering about that slavemaster Jefferson. I have even seen the suggestion recently that the Jefferson Memorial ought to be pulled down.

Why this reputational turnaround?

Sure, Jefferson owned slaves. We were perfectly aware of that back in my school days. Yes, it was a stain upon his character, but it was already factored in. Washington owned slaves too. So did Ben Franklin or John Hancock. Yet Washington, Hancock, or Franklin are not facing the same re-evaluation Jefferson is.

No, the new thing, which has made so much difference in the popular appraisal of Jefferson, is Sally Hemings.

You have heard the story? Hemings was Jefferson’s slave. It is now, thanks to DNA evidence acquired in the 1990s, generally accepted that Jefferson took her as his common law wife after he was widowed, and had several children by her.

Why is this so intolerable? One would think we were past condemning misogyny. Is white on black love still forbidden? Or would it be okay if it were a black man and a white woman?

Ah, but no doubt it is because she was a slave. Power differential and all that. Like a predatory boss hitting on a pretty secretary—as used to be a common romantic motif, but is now considered intolerable. She was a slave. That means it was all involuntary on her part. That means it was really rape. Worse, he was a white man raping a black woman. If irate African-Americans were not already going to exhume him just to lynch him, the feminists would.

A few points. First, it is all just rumor.

Although it is commonly stated as fact, the claim that Jefferson took Hemings as a mistress is not, in fact, proven. The DNA test proved that some male in the Jefferson line was the father of one of Hemings’ children—descendants of her other children were not tested. But there were dozens of male Jeffersons in the neighborhood of Monticello at the time. Why assume it was Thomas? We assume it was perhaps only because that makes the most salacious story. Really, the odds it was him are only about one in twenty-five. No jury would convict.

Sally Hemings as portrayed today.


Interestingly, given the ire of African-Americans over it all, Hemings also was not black. She was three-quarters European by blood, and apparently looked, according to contemporaries, white. Not at all how she is commonly portrayed now. Her children are listed in censuses as “white.”

Finally, there is a problem with the claim that it was all forced upon her. Yes, she was a slave. But in the end, she was actually a slave by choice. if Jefferson was an oppressive slave master, or an unwelcome suitor, Hemings had a perfect opportunity to escape.

Here’s how. Sally accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to Paris when her master was appointed US Ambassador to France. While they were there, the French government abolished slavery. And, yes, this also applied to the slaves of foreign diplomats—Jefferson apparently had to start paying her regular wages.

At this point, as a practical matter, all she had to do was walk out the front door, and she was free forever. And she had been studying French.

Sally Hemings as portrayed today.


She chose instead, at the end of his tenure, to return with her employer to America, and become again his slave.

He cannot have been all that terrible to work for.

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