The Sally Hemings story

One of the questions that historians of the US ponder is how Thomas Jefferson could write stirring words about the equality of all men in the Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, while himself owning hundreds of slaves himself. He is often pointed to as embodying the hypocrisy that has existed in the US at its inception and continues to this day. After all, he knew that slavery was wrong and frequently condemned it. Furthermore, he fathered six children with one of his slaves Sally Hemings, something that was disputed by the white descendants of Jefferson until his paternity was settled conclusively following DNA tests in 1998.

But while I was familiar with these facts, I knew little else about Hemings and so was intrigued by an episode of the radio program Hidden Brain where host Shankar Vedantam interviewed historian Annette Gordon-Reed who has written extensively about Hemings and Jefferson. It turns out that Hemings’s story is quite fascinating.

I learned that Hemings was not just any slave on the Jefferson plantation but was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles. Martha’s father John Wayles had six children with his slave Elizabeth Hemings and Jefferson inherited all of them upon their father’s death. This would explain why the Hemings children had a preferred place among Jefferson’s slaves, with Sally’s oldest brother Robert being his personal assistant. Most children of slave owners would sell or otherwise remove the children fathered by their father with slaves from their vicinity, so Martha’s action in bringing them actually closer is unusual. Martha’s story would be interesting too.

When Jefferson was sent as US ambassador to France in 1784, he took with him Sally’s brother James to have him trained as a French chef. In 1787, when she was just 14, Sally also went to France as a maid to accompany Jefferson’s daughter. That is when she became Jefferson’s ‘concubine’, as was the term used then.

There was no slavery in France and so one question is why Sally and James returned with Jefferson to the US in 1789 when they could claim freedom in France. She and James did want to stay in France. While there are no conclusive answers as to why she changed her mind, it appears that Sally, even though just sixteen, proved to be resourceful and negotiated with Jefferson, who promised her a good life in Monticello and promised to free her future children. It is also possible that the two Hemings siblings felt the pull of their families back home.

Madison Hemings [Sally’s son] recounted that his mother “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine” in France. When Jefferson prepared to return to America, Hemings said his mother refused to come back, and only did so upon negotiating “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her future children. He also noted that she was pregnant when she arrived in Virginia, and that the child “lived but a short time.” No other record of that child has been found.

We don’t know if she tried to negotiate for her personal freedom, or why she trusted Jefferson would keep his promise.

Sally Hemings had at least six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Four survived to adulthood. Decades after their negotiation, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’s children – Beverly and Harriet left Monticello in the early 1820s; Madison and Eston were freed in his will and left Monticello in 1826. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.

[1822] Beverly and Harriet Hemings were allowed to leave Monticello without being legally freed. Madison Hemings later reported that both passed into white society and that neither their connection to Monticello nor their “African blood” was ever discovered.

[1826] Thomas Jefferson died.

Sally Hemings was never legally emancipated. Instead, she was unofficially freed—or “given her time”—by Jefferson’s daughter Martha after his death.

[1830] Sally Hemings and her sons Madison and Eston are listed as free white people in the 1830 census. Three years later, in a special census taken following the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, Hemings described herself as a free mulatto who had lived in Charlottesville since 1826.

Why was Sally never formally freed by Jefferson in his will? It could be because under the laws of that time, a freed slave had to leave the state within a year unless the state government gave her an exemption. Also a slave over the age of 45 who was freed had to be provided for by the slave owner and Jefferson probably did not want to specify this in his will because that would be a public acknowledgment of the relationship even though it was well known. So she was quietly and informally freed by his daughter. Beverly and Harriet probably did not want to be formally freed because they wanted to pass a white people and having such papers would be to concede their slave background.

Sally Hemings died in 1835 at the age of 62.

Coming back to the question of how Jefferson could reconcile his owning slaves with his professed values, Reed-Gordon thinks that Jefferson likely saw himself as a ‘good’ slave owner who treated his slaves well and that slavery would eventually end as society progressed, without any action on his part, and thus was able to rationalize his actions. But we do not really know.

History is complicated.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    While Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy is undeniable, another set of complicating (if not mitigating) factors must also be considered.

    When Jefferson inherited his wife’s father’s progeny, and a slew of other property human and otherwise, he also acquired Wayles’s massive debts. Not an outstanding businessman or farmer, with unexceptional and already-depleted soils, and too honest or too closely watched to profit greatly from his presidency, Jefferson never managed to satisfy those obligations. Some very damaging and expensive floods added to his financial woes; friends organized an 1820s version of GoFundMe to help him out. At his death, all his properties, including all the humans except those noted above, were auctioned off to pay his creditors.

    Had he somehow come into more money, would he have honored his promises? We can imagine countless scenarios, but it seems inescapable that Jefferson felt some burden from his failure to handle the situation better.

  2. Owlmirror says

    Had he somehow come into more money, would he have honored his promises?

    Tadeuz Kościuszko offered $15,000 to free slaves. “I do hereby declare and direct that should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States I hereby authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others.”

    Jefferson initially agreed, and then withdrew from that agreement.

    Why We Should All Regret Jefferson’s Broken Promise to Kościuszko

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, he inherited a lot of debts, but he also had expensive tastes that he never bothered to moderate. He loved to entertain, and all those books and fancy French wines didn’t come cheap.
    As for being a ‘good’ slave owner — he may have told himself this, but it doesn’t really jibe with Monticello records. The one project he came up with that turned out to be truly profitable was a nail-making facility, which he staffed with young teenaged enslaved people. He wasn’t exactly standing over them with a whip himself, but he was quite willing to hire overseers who would do whatever it took to ensure a high output, and look the other way at the methods they used. There are records of a kid being beaten for supposedly stealing a batch of uncut nails — and archaeologists think they recently found that very set of lost nails.
    As for freeing his enslaved people at his death — that probably would have been seen by his peers as robbing his (other) children. The reason Washington was the only one of the founding fathers to free his slaves at his death was that he was the only one with no children.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Although I have to wonder why Kościuszko waited until after his death. If he had the funds then, and really did not intend to touch his American estate funds (so that they would be available after his death), why not just use them himself to free slaves as he specified in his will before going back to Europe? Was he hoping that they would appreciate so that more could be freed?

  5. Owlmirror says

    @Mano: The link to the Declaration of Independence is broken (it currently has a “rhef” instead of “href”).

    [Thanks! I have corrected it. -- Mano]

  6. Owlmirror says

    One of the questions that historians of the US ponder is how Thomas Jefferson could write stirring words about the equality of all men in the Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, while himself owning hundreds of slaves himself.

    I have recently seen it claimed that:

    On July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the historic text drafted by Thomas Jefferson, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people, had the same rights to self-government as other nations. Because they possessed this fundamental right, Rakove said, they could establish new governments within each of the states and collectively assume their “separate and equal station” with other nations. It was only in the decades after the American Revolutionary War that the phrase acquired its compelling reputation as a statement of individual equality.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Owlmirror @ # 2 & # 6 -- Thanks for adding that!

    brucegee1962 @ # 3: … he also had expensive tastes that he never bothered to moderate. He loved to entertain, and all those books and fancy French wines didn’t come cheap.

    At the risk of seeming a Jefferson defender, I have to point out a couple of counterpoints to this. From 1809 (after leaving the District of Columbia for good), Jefferson had a steady stream of uninvited guests, and the social pressures of the day did not allow him to turn them away or feed them rice ‘n’ beans. As for the books, he sold his entire collection (as a lesser bibliophile, I know that had to hurt) to the Library of Congress after the British torched all the government buildings in DC in 1814 (having easily and thoroughly disproved at the Battle of Bladensburg Jefferson’s idea that a citizen militia would suffice to defend the country); the Library ended up with more than the ~4,000 books they’d had ($23,950 for 6,487 volumes, per Hugh Howard, Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence).

    In his younger days, Jefferson spoke out against slavery; in the strife of his political career, he coped with immediate crises and maintained the status quo; in retirement, he frankly admitted failure and explicitly left the problem to future generations.

    IIRC, Joseph Ellis, in American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, maintains that TJ never really came to grips with his financial situation: he was an educated and respected gentleman who owned several plantations, and the inconveniences of debt did not (in his mind) diminish that essential stature. We can line that up alongside his hypocrisies about slavery and other ideological extremes and inconsistencies as illustrations of his talents at lying to himself.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    How many things are there that we take for granted as morally neutral because “everybody does it” — but if nobody else did it, you’d be thought of as morally degenerate?
    Ex.: You are dropped into a society that has never heard of eating meat, and they ask you how you can justify it alongside your stance against killing.

  9. Owlmirror says

    (Everything is more complicated than it first seems)

    I was wondering if anyone had written anything else about Kościuszko and Jefferson, so I googlescholared. If you have JSTOR access (via your library system or other institution), here is A Testamentary Tragedy: Jefferson and the Wills of General Kosciuszko. It seems that Kosciuszko wrote not one simple will, but 4 of them! So Jefferson found himself having to cope with the litigation of multiple claimants, at least one of whom seems to have been a rank opportunist. The multiple rounds of litigation reached the Supreme Court, and the whole mess was complicated further because Kosciuszko had been exiled, and there was the question of which laws of which countries applied.

  10. mailliw says

    I am currently reading Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade. He states that many slave owners put forward the justification that the slaves had a better life as slaves in the New World than they would have as free women and men in Africa. It seems absurd when one thinks of the suffering the slaves had to endure, but they really seem to have believed this.

    Dr Johnson was one of the first advocates of abolition, however his biographer Boswell commented: “To abolish a status which in all ages God has sanctioned…would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow subjects, but it would be extreme cruelty to the African savages, a portion of which it saves from massacre or intolerable bondage in the own country and introduces into a much happier state of life…To abolish this trade would be to shut the gates of mercy on mankind.”

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