Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jungle Fever? Or the Story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?

It is a widely accepted fact that Thomas Jefferson might be the greatest of all the American Presidents. He was the a graduate of the College of William and Mary, a successful lawyer, holder of a large plantation, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, a member of both Continental Congresses. He was also Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, Minister to Franc and oh yea... President. During his time as President, Jefferson worked the Louisiana Purchase, funded the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and ended the importing of slaves from Africa. He had a deep interest in the sciences, math and philosophy which led to him forming the University of Virginia. Jefferson's resume is pretty stacked and is missing many faults we expect from politicians for the past and especially from the present. However, there is one part of Jefferson's life that came under fire. What could Jefferson have done that was so bad that someone tried to demonize him? Well, it would be a forbidden love between himself and Sally Hemings.

I will fast forward a bit through Jefferson's Presidency which was pretty much picture perfect, to the death of his wife Martha. Martha Wayles married Jefferson in 1772 after her first husband Bathurst Skelton mysteriously died. Ok, he didn't mysteriously die I just was trying to spice things up a bit. Now the important part about Martha is not her and Jefferson's love for each other but it is her father, John Wayles, which is key to this puzzle of the Jefferson and Hemings relationship. So how does John fit into this situation? Well John was a wealthy lawyer, but more importantly he was a major player in the Virginia slave trade scene. John Wayles was married three times and all three times his wives passed away. So what is a man to do...well I guess he could have a super secret romance with one of his slaves. And guess what that is exactly what he did! After the loss of his last wife he started a relationship with Elizabeth Hemings, a mulatto slave. It was from this relationship that Sally Hemings would be born and thus making her half sisters with Martha Wayles. I hope you can follow along so far because although it is a little confusing, just wait because it is about to get a lot more interesting.

Pictured above is the beautiful home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. It is here that another forbidden love would grow, but not until after the death of Martha Jefferson. It would be here that Thomas and Martha would begin their family, having four children, make a boat load of money of the plantation they owned and watch Jefferson's political career continue to be successful. It wouldn't be until 1773 that things would change. That change came after the death of Martha's father John. After his death, the Jefferson's would inherit all of Wayles slaves, including Elizabeth, Sally Hemings and Martha's five other half siblings. Now, this isn't one of those trashy stories where Jefferson would have midnight rendezvous with Sally in the corners of Monticello. Jefferson had class. The relationship between Jefferson and Hemings wouldn't begin until 1782, after his wife Martha passed away. Now it wasn't like Jefferson hopped right in the sack with Sally either. It was recorded that, after the death of Martha, Jefferson "withdrew to his room for three weeks," and it was well known in Virginia and D.C. that the Jefferson's were in a picture perfect, happy and devoted marriage. Jefferson properly mourned the death of his wife and did not move on until he had grieved. Anyhow, after her passing, Jefferson moved on and followed in a tradition very common in early America.

There is a little known practice that was used from per-colonial time up until the mid 20th century known as the sororate relationship. A sororate relationship is as follows; it is marriage between a man to his sister-in-law, after his wife has passed or has been proven infertile. Now lets recap, Jefferson married Martha Wayles, Martha was the daughter of John Wayles, John Wayles had an affair with Elizabeth Hemings in which Sally Hemings was born making Sally and Martha half sisters and the only sisters of the Wayles family. Now there is no record of Jefferson or Hemings knowing that Hemings was related to Martha as Sally was kept as a slave by her father. So this is kind of an indirect sororate relationship. However, it seems evident that there was a relationship between the two which would produce six children together. Now how could this relationship come to light? Why would it be important? Also, who would put Jefferson's business on blast? Well it all started in the early stages of Jefferson's Presidency and was caused by the temper tantrum of a journalist.

A journalist by the name of Jame T. Callender is the driving force behind this whole story. Callender was turned down by Jefferson when he applied for Postmaster position. So in a fit of rage, Callender sought out some dirt on Jefferson and found it in the form a of Sally Hemings and six biracial children found at Monticello. Once the story was released, it was backed up by Elijah Fletcher, a school master and friend of Jefferson, who documented proof of the relationship after a visit to Monticello in 1811. Jefferson himself never denied any of the accusations however, his family was very vocal about it not being true and they have done so up until this day. It is proven though in Jefferson's own writings that Sally did have six children of which four survived. He himself recorded their births, names and had left the children's father's name blank. Another piece of the puzzle is that two of Jefferson and Sally's children "ran away" from Monticello. Now anyone that knows anything about slavery in America would know a party would be sent out to retrieve the runaway slaves, but Jefferson did not send such a party. Jefferson even emancipated many of Sally's relatives prior to his death, just another piece of evidence that there was a relationship. However, Sally was not "freed" until after the Jefferson's death in 1826. As for Sally life after Monticello, she lived out her days in Charlottesville with her two sons. She would die in 1835, but the last piece of evidence the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings comes from an 1830 county census which list her sons as being "white."

 The above photo shows the descendents of the Jefferson and Hemings affair. According to the descendents of Jefferson and Wayles, that relationship was never true, even though they were proven wrong in 1998. That is when DNA testing began to prove legitimacy to Callender's story. In 2001 the National Park Service, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the National Genealogical Society, concluded that Jefferson fathered every one of Hemings children, so take that all you nay sayers! Historians also commented on the relationship calling it "mysterious" and "unsolvable" but could all agree that the relationship was consensual due to the evidence of the treatment of the children. But what are we are supposed to take away from this in present time? That it's okay to have an interracial relationship? Well not really, since that has been pretty well established for the last 50 or so years. What we really need to look at and see it as another accomplishment of Jefferson's. He continued on his life after the death of Martha and found love with Sally. He had a successful family and never denied the fact of the relationship or his children. We can also see this as Jefferson's way of taking a step towards the ending of slavery. For after his death every one of his slaves were freed and not passed down to his children. He ended the importing of slaves during his Presidency and perhaps we can see the relationship as Jefferson's way of thumbing his nose at the practice of slavery. Jefferson is a major icon in American History when in relation to independence and liberty. He is America's first major progressive and first to speak of the "haves" and "have nots." However, many historians point out that Jefferson never made any attempts to end slavery and felt that blacks needed to be controlled. I feel, like many of the great minds of early America, it was hard to make a stand about slavery, especially those from the southern states. Although the country did in fact benefit economically from slavery, it was absolutely the worst institution in American History. Jefferson did not abolish slavery since it was a practice of the time and he did not want to commit total career suicide. It is for this reason that people like Jefferson never took a major stand but did subtle things in the face of slavery, like having a consensual relationship with a slave. The Jefferson/Hemings relationship is a fact but whether it was for love or for a statement may never be known.


  1. 216 years, or 7 generations, exist between the time when Tom allegedly started a relationship with Sally (1782) and the time when DNA testing was done (1998). If no incest was invloved in the family, each Hemmings would have 128 foreparents. Sally and Tom are 2, so who were the other 126 foreparents? Surely the DNA God can answer that question. I do not believe that DNA testing, esp not in 1998, was advanced enough to make even a trustworthy GUESS after the 23 chromosones from each of a total of 254 foreparents where slow-cooked into a Mulligan's stew. One more question below.

    Why was no DNA testing ever done on the remains of Sally Hemmings? If the Hemmingses where white in 1830, it would have been illegal and criminal for them to marry or cohabitate with blacks. Among other laws, it would have violated the Sodomy laws, a CAPITAL crime. Blacks were still considered by the law to be less than human, and so sex between a black and a white would have exposed both to a death sentence. It should be noted that the last person executed for Sodomy was executed in 1944. Again, 1944. The law was more crazy about Sodomy before the end of the Civil War.

  2. It may also "shock you" to know that Sally Hemmings was the half sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife (Martha Jefferson). Sally is the child of John Wayles(Martha Jefferson's father)and a slave of his (Betty Hemmings). Thomas Jefferson inherited the Hemmings family after John's death and this included Martha Jefferson's sister (Sally)

  3. The descendants of John Wales(Martha Jefferson's father) can take a DNA test to disprove this Jefferson story, because They are related to the Hemmings as well.

  4. Jefferson is a nasty disgusting son of a bitch why was he president?

    1. and that's why he's "anonymous"...ignorant morons are rarely proud of the poison they spew, and thereby are perpetually embarrassed about revealing themselves. need proof? ever wonder why klansmen wear hoods that only show their beady eyes?

  5. What's your beef with Jefferson? He had a pretty sucessful Presideny.