Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

I responded to various posters on columnist Jay Bookman’s blog, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 4th, 2015, as follows:

 If you had read the book by black historian Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed of Rutgers University, as I have, you would realize how wrong your assessments are. I concur with the analyses of Dr. Gordon-Reed, which I had speculated, prior to having read this well researched book, would be truth as related to Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, especially regarding his relationship with Sally Hemings.

Sally Hemings was free while she was in France..  She “demurred” (word used by her son with Jefferson, Madison Hemings), but they had come to a negotiated agreement.  Hemings would go back to America with Jefferson and return to her mother Elizabeth Hemings and other siblings who were also the half-brothers and sisters of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, if he would agree to free her children when they turned 21 – which he did except for his oldest son with Sally, Beverley Hemings, who was probably 23 when he left Monticello with Jefferson’s approval.  In terms of why Jefferson did not free Sally Hemings legally, and instead had his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, release her informally after his death by giving her “her time,” I will repost information that I shared from Dr. Gordon-Reed’s book earlier on this blog, next for you to read.

Another poster had stated that she was quite knowledgeable in how the masters of slaves of that era treated their chattel slavery, and she made assumptions that Jefferson would have  reacted (and thought) as did the slave masters about whom she had studied.  You and and a third poster had concurred with her.  But, the three of you were wrong according the information in Dr. Gordon-Reed’s book.  To label Jefferson as a ‘rapist’ and a ‘hypocrite’ based on what other masters did in that era shows a lack of refinement in one’s thinking processes, in my opinion.  Every human being deserves to be seen as an individual.  Dr. Gordon-Reed analyzed with that kind of nuanced thinking with Thomas Jefferson and with Sally Hemings based on the research she has ascertained. Her book will stretch your preconceived and generalized conceptions, I believe.  I will give one example:  Gordon-Reed wrote that there was no written contract of the agreement between Hemings and Jefferson but that Sally Hemings had trusted him to be true to his word for 37 years until he died in his 80s.  She wrote that it was highly unlikely that if Sally Hemings had been raped by Jefferson (and all that that implies) that she would have trusted him to that extent without legal documentation to back up his words.  And, her instincts were correct for Jefferson freed all four of their living children, two about a decade before Jefferson died and two more through his Will upon his death when they were 18 and 21 years old.  Of the two oldest living children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Jefferson allowed them leave Monticello and pass for white in probably Philadelphia or Baltimore.  One was his oldest living son, Beverley Hemings, with Sally Hemings, who was about 23 when he left Monticello, and Harriet Hemings, Beverley Hemings’ his younger sister, who 21 years of age when Jefferson gave her money and saw her off in her carriage to leave Monticello to join her older brother, Beverley, in Philadelphia or Baltimore. This was at least a decade before Jefferson died. These two children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings never returned to Monticello because they had passed for white, thereafter.  The other two sons were 21 and 18 when Jefferson died, and he had had them to be apprentices with their uncle, John Hemings, Sally’s brother, so that they could earn a living on their own when they left.  He wrote in his Will that both of these Hemings’ slaves, Madison and Thomas Eston, would be free at ages 21; however in reality Eston was freed at 18.  Jefferson also freed their uncle John Hemings in his Will, probably so that the uncle could watch over the young Madison and Thomas Eston after they became free men.  Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s oldest daughter, gave Sally Hemings “her time” (as she was instructed to do by Jefferson) which meant she was given her freedom soon after Jefferson’s death in order that she might live with her freed sons by Jefferson until she died, 9 years later. Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s daughter, freed Sally Hemings legally eight years after Jefferson’s death.  There was a law in Virginia at the time which said that freed slaves had to leave Virginia within a year of their freedom, and I suspect Martha Randolph did not want that to happen to Sally Hemings, whose entire family were in Virginia.  Sally died the next year, nine years after Jefferson.  She was in her early 60s.  Jefferson was a man true to himself and true to his word with Sally Hemings, with whom he had a 37 year relationship.  She saved his eyeglasses, his pen and inkwell, and his shoe buckle when she left with which to remember him.  Her progeny tried to have these items placed in a museum in a generation or two later. Jefferson was hardly a ‘rapist.’  Read in more abundance, please, before you assume.

If one thinks in stereotypical ways, without nuance, then one misses the truth.


Jefferson’s wife died when he was 39 and he promised her that he would never marry again (probably for the inheritance of their daughters as much as for sentiment).  Jefferson was beside himself with her death for weeks and that is one reason he took the Ambassorship to France in order to have a change for environment to gather his emotional resources again.  He stayed in France for 5 years.  He honored his promise to his wife, Martha.  When her half-sister, Sally Hemings, joined him and his daughter Martha (Patsy) as the escort over the ocean to his younger daughter Maria (Molly) even though she was only 14, Jefferson made a match – after several years – with Sally Hemings, a beautiful, 3/4s white slave of his which lasted for 37 years until his death and produced 6 children, 4 of whom lived.  Sally Hemings did not have to return to America with him in 1789 for she was free in France, but she did so and remained his concubine (word of that day) until his death.  He also honored his word to Hemings in that he freed all 4 of their children together in their early 20s, two in his will, finessed to be hidden for reasons of his paternity so that the public would not catch on for two centuries. He lived a code of honor all his own because he did not see the world as most people, and he knew it.  He believed in God, but refused to have a minister at his bedside as he was dying but only as his neighbor.  Much was written about his relationship with Sally Hemings in newspapers in his day, however except for a rare denial, he chose to ignore those attacks for propriety and shrewdness.  But, the conventions of others never affected how he chose to live his moral life. He told his legitimate daughter, Martha, in his last days, as he was dying, “Take care of Sally,” and Martha did do so, freeing Sally without legal documentation which would cast their relationship back in the public eye, to live out her days with her freed sons by Jefferson, the youngest of whom was only 18 years old and the other 21. Sally Hemings told their story to her children and their children told their story to their progeny.  A very unorthodox but very caring story, in which Sally Hemings passed to her children 3 of Jefferson’s personal items upon her death only 8 years after Jefferson had died at 82 and she died in her early 60s.  Her two sons, Madison Hemings who gave an interview in his older years to a newspaper to confirm what I have written, and Thomas Eston Hemings (named by Jefferson himself) left VA for Ohio and then Eston left for Wisconsin where he assumed a white identity and took the name Eston Hemings Jefferson. Eston’s children today identify as white and take the Jefferson surname.  Their cousins, the progeny of Madison (named for James Madison) Hemings, identify as black today and take the name Hemings.  Go to the website for Monticello to read more.  I have read about 5 books on Jefferson by some outstanding biographers.  And I am presently reading the 6 volume biography of Jefferson by Dumas Malone.


(Added words by me to Jay Bookman’s  Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog article of July 7, 2015:

Bookman: “. . . fathered children with a slave and held some of those children as slaves until his death. . .”


Mary Elizabeth: “Yes, Thomas Jefferson did keep Thomas Eston Hemings,  until age 18 (later surnamed “Jefferson” by Eston himself at age 44 when he passed for white with his whole family in Wisconsin) and named by Thomas Jefferson himself, as well as Madison Hemings, until age 21 (named for Jefferson’s friend James Madison by Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson) until he freed them at those ages when he died in his Will.  Both Eston and Madison were being taught as apprentices to be skilled craftsmen under their Hemings’ Uncle John, a slave at Monticello at the time of Jefferson’s death, but also freed in Jefferson’s Will, so that they could both earn their livings when freed upon Jefferson’s death in his probated Will, as he had promised his concubine Sally Hemings, half-sister to his deceased wife, with whom he had had six children, 4 having lived past toddler stage, and with whom he had had a 37 year relationship.

Thank you for that photo of Jefferson looking down upon the living leaders of our nation in the 1960s.  I have no doubt that LBJ was following the spiritual leadership of Thomas Jefferson when he almost single-handedly insured that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be passed into law, a historical, momentous decision for our nation, one Jefferson had dreamed of happening and hoped would happen as early as possible in America.

I agree with the thoughts you expressed in this commentary, Jay Bookman.  I must also add that the racist leaders of the South, whom you cited, were representatives of the consciousness of most of the Southern people at that time in our history.  The consciousness of most the Southern people, as well as all Americans, has now finally caught up with the consciousnesses of Jefferson and Washington, of 2 centuries earlier. . .We must learn, as an educated American populace, how to contain paradoxical and complicated situations and persons, within our minds, without simplifying them to absurdity.

Hence, the reason Jefferson advocated so strongly for an educated populace of all citizens of this nation – poor and rich.  He had placed on his tombstone that he was ‘Author of the Declaration of Independence, Author of the Rights of Religious Liberty in Virginia, and Founder of the University of Virginia’ – and that that was all that Thomas Jefferson had placed upon his tombstone.” )

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