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.
 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.
 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.
 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.