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THOMAS JEFFERSON & SALLY HEMINGS

THOMAS JEFFERSON & SALLY HEMINGS

Their Intimacy Is No Longer a Controversy.

Thomas_JeffersonSally Hemings was one of six children of white master John Wayles and his half-black slave concubine Elizabeth Hemings. Elizabeth in turn was the issue of a white sea captain and a black slave. Therefore, Sally Hemings was a quadroon – her heritage was one -quarter black and three – quarters Caucasian. She was very light-skinned and when she was freed shortly after the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826, she was categorized as white on the United States census of 1830.

John Wayles was married to Martha Eppes previous to his relationship with Elizabeth. The Wayles/Eppes marriage produced many children, one of whom was Martha Eppes. This Martha married Thomas Jefferson. Hence Sally Hemings and Mrs. Martha Jefferson were half sisters. Martha Jefferson inherited the Hemings slave family upon the death of John Wayles, her father, and brought them to the Jefferson home at Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson was serving as the American ambassador to France when he requested that his sister-in-law arrange transatlantic passage for his younger daughter Mary (also called Polly) so she could join him in Paris. Mary’s travel companion was the slave Sally Hemings, who was then only fourteen years of age.

Fawn Brodie speculated that Sally became her master’s concubine during her two years in Paris (1787-89). Since slavery was prohibited in France at this time, Sally had the option to remain there as a free woman. Jefferson persuaded her to return with him to Virginia, where her status would revert to that of a slave. In return, she was promised protection and very good treatment for life. Moreover Jefferson pledged to free all their children. The ex-president fulfilled these promises. Sally was freed shortly after the death of Thomas Jefferson. She died in 1835 at the age of sixty-two.

Their sexual liaison spawned either six or seven children. This ambiguity is based upon whether or not Sally bore a male child in 1790 after she returned to Virginia. This birth never has been substantiated. However, six births have been substantiated, and four of their children survived into adulthood. A son Beverley was born in 1795; sons Eston and Madison and daughter Harriet followed. Since all were octoroons (one-eighth black) they all could pass for white.

References:

Fawn Brodie, Thomas Jefferson. An Intimate History (New York: WW Norton, 1974)

Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997)

Jon Kukla, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (New York: Vintage Books, 2008)

Virginia Scharff, The Women Jefferson Loved (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010)

First Ladies of America
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