Search the Encyclopedia
James Hemings (1765-1801) became the property of Thomas Jefferson in January of 1774 when the estate of John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law, was settled. He was nine years old at this time. Later that year, James and his brother Robert were taken to Monticello. Known also as Jemmy, Jim, Jamey, and Jame, this young slave would grow up serving Jefferson as house servant, messenger, driver, traveling attendant, and eventually chef. He was freed by Jefferson in 1796 and died five years later, an apparent suicide.
James Hemings was one of twelve children of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. James's mother was said to be the daughter of a "full-blooded African" and a white sea captain, and the property of John Wayles, "a Welchman."  Wayles was a lawyer, wealthy Virginia landowner, and involved with the slave trade. Madison stated that Betty Hemings became Wayles's concubine sometime following the death of his third wife. James was the second oldest of the six children that union was said to have produced.
John Wayles was the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha, through his first marriage to Martha Eppes. Thus, Martha Jefferson was half-sister to James and his five full siblings, including Sally Hemings. Upon Wayles's death in 1773, Jefferson inherited through his wife 135 slaves, including Betty Hemings and her children.
Within a very talented family, James was described as "perhaps the most talented." by Monticello’s curator James A. Bear, Jr. He traveled extensively with Jefferson and on his own. When Jefferson was elected Virginia's governor in 1779, he took both James and Robert to Williamsburg and then to Richmond as his personal servants.. It is evident that Jefferson placed great trust in these teenaged slaves. He directed them to lead his wife, Martha, and their daughters away from Richmond in 1781 when British forces under Benedict Arnold threatened the capital. Later the same year the Hemings brothers probably also guided Jefferson's family to safety when they fled Monticello as enemy troops commanded by Banastre Tarleton approached.
James benefitted from the special status accorded by Jefferson to many members of the Hemings family. He received better apparel than other slaves and was assigned to household duties rather than to work in the fields. Only Betty Hemings's sons were permitted to hire themselves out to other masters and keep the wages they earned. Perhaps the most rewarding time of James's service began in 1784 when Jefferson was appointed minister plenipotentiary in Paris by Congress. Together with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson had the responsibility of negotiating treaties of amity and commerce with European countries.
On the same day Jefferson assumed his diplomatic role he wrote to his future secretary William Short that he wished to take his servant James with him to France "for a particular purpose." He asked Short to notify James, and if possible to bring James with him when Short traveled to Philadelphia to meet Jefferson. If that was not possible then Short was to direct James to "immediately come on to me at Philadelphia." The particular purpose Jefferson had in mind was to have James trained in the art of French cookery.
James was nineteen when he sailed from Boston with Jefferson and his daughter Martha, familiarly called Patsy, early on the morning of July 5, 1784. The cross-Atlantic trip was uneventful and the trio, after five days on the Isle of Wight, arrived at Le Havre on July 31. Jefferson gave James money to travel alone to Rouen and arrange for their lodgings in that city. Although not knowing the language, the young servant apparently accomplished his task efficiently, since he later returned some of the money to Jefferson. The early experiences of the Hemings males while in Virginia and when traveling through other parts of the country, in the words of one historian, likely "taught them how to function - and that they could function - in the world outside of slavery at Monticello." James continued to learn these lessons in France where he again enjoyed freedom of movement and acquired skills that one day would earn him a living as a free man.
The travelers arrived in Paris on August 6, 1784. Following a brief illness, James was apprenticed to a traiteur (caterer) named Combeaux who provided Jefferson's meals during the first year of his stay in Paris. He subsequently trained under Jefferson's female cook, and also a pastry chef, as well as with a chef of the Prince de Condé. James learned quickly and in 1787 became the chef de cuisine at the Hôtel de Langeac which was Jefferson's private residence on the Champs-Elysées. He received wages, albeit half those of the previous cuisinière, and used a portion to pay a tutor for French lessons.
James's sister, Sally, was about fourteen when she accompanied Jefferson's younger daughter, 8-year-old Mary (called Polly, and later Maria), to Paris in July of 1787. France adhered to the "Freedom Principle," which held that any slave stepping onto French soil was free. Thus, both James and his sister could have gained their freedom if they had chosen to pursue the necessary legal steps.  Why the siblings did not do so has been the subject of much speculation. Staying in France would, of course, mean severing their family ties in Virginia. Interestingly, there is evidence that both Hemingses negotiated an agreement with Jefferson regarding their fate should they return to Virginia. Sally's son Madison told a newspaper reporter in 1873 that Jefferson induced his mother to return to Virginia with promises of "extraordinary privileges" and freedom for her children when they reached the age of twenty-one. Subsequent events also suggest that before leaving Paris, James also reached an understanding with Jefferson about his eventual status. For instance, James would later receive wages comparable to a free servant and later his freedom. Whatever their reasons for leaving France, James and his sister returned as slaves to Monticello on December 23, 1789.
In 1790 James went with Jefferson first to New York City and then to Philadelphia, where the two would remain for the majority of time during the next few years. There was a brief visit to Monticello and a month-long tour of New York and New England in 1791 with Jefferson and James Madison. During this period James assumed several roles. While chiefly managing the kitchen and cooking meals he at times also served as Jefferson's household manager, butler, personal attendant, and as riding valet when traveling with Jefferson and Madison. He was paid a monthly wage of six dollars, raised over the years to eight dollars. Moreover, Jefferson also gave him extra money for clothes and spending money.
In 1793 Jefferson made plans for his retirement from public life and a return to Monticello. After living and working for much of the last ten years in several of the world's greatest cities, James apparently did not share his master's desire for a rural escape. Perhaps honoring an agreement reached in France, Jefferson prepared a written document stating that if James would return to Monticello and "shall continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free." Jefferson's justification for making this condition was that he had incurred "great expense in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery." This document was witnessed by James's friend and co-worker from France, Adrien Petit, whom Jefferson earlier had persuaded to come to this country to act as maître-d’hôtel. The document had no legal binding but James must have trusted Jefferson. Based on "a decade of knowledge and experience," he consequently spent more than two years at Monticello preparing French meals and training his younger brother Peter.
On February 5, 1796, Jefferson signed a deed of manumission for James Hemings. He was thirty-one years of age. The freed slave left an inventory of kitchen utensils in beautiful script and departed Monticello toward the end of the month. What is known of the next five years of James Hemings' life suggests a man unable to find a purpose for his existence. Although originally headed to Philadelphia, he soon may have traveled to Paris. Jefferson spoke with him more than a year later when James returned to Philadelphia. He wrote to his daughter, Mary, worrying that James's "journeys will end in the moon," and stating that he tried to persuade him to remain in Philadelphia and save some money.
Jefferson was elected President by the House of Representatives on February 17, 1801. A few days later he wrote to his friend William Evans in Baltimore, asking him to inform James, who was working as a cook in a Baltimore tavern, that he would like him to come to Washington. Jefferson desired James to be the chef de cuisine in the President's House. However, Evans soon notified Jefferson that Hemings said he "would not go until you should write to himself." A "power struggle between Hemings and Jefferson" seemed to be going on, perhaps arising from past miscues that may have been aroused by Jefferson's method of communication with his freed slave, "more of a summons than an invitation." Jefferson suggested to Evans that James's reluctance to leave Baltimore may have been because he had formed an "attachment" there. Whatever the reasons at this time for the failure of the former master and his former slave to agree on terms of employment in the President's House, a few months later "ruffled feathers must have been smoothed" since James turned up at Monticello to run the kitchen during Jefferson's long summer vacation. He was paid twenty dollars a month which was more than double his previous wage.
James left Monticello in September. A little over a month later Jefferson received a report that he had committed suicide. A letter from William Evans confirmed this was true and relayed the message that people believed "drinking too freely was the cause."
It is not known why James, one of the most talented of the Hemings family, witness to world-changing revolutions on two continents, skilled in a promising career path, and a free man while at a relatively young age, was not able to live out the lessons first learned at Monticello and then elsewhere, and function in a world outside slavery. He leaves as his only material legacy an inventory of kitchen utensils and four cooking recipes. While there is much to regret about James Hemings's life, perhaps one regret expressed by a Monticello curator and historian is truly poignant: specifically, that there are no written reminiscences from this intelligent and literate man.
- Gene Zechmeister, July 11, 2012
Primary Source References
1784 May 7. (Jefferson to William Short). "I propose for a particular purpose to carry my servant Jame with me. I must therefore ask the favor of you to hire an express at my expence to carry the inclosed to Capt. Key with your instructions to him, adapted to the event of your own determination. If you conclude to join me I would wish you to order Jame to join and attend you without a moment's delay. If you decline the trip, be so good as to direct that he shall immediately come on to me at Philadelphia."
1784 May 7. (Jefferson to John Key). "To send Jame."
1784 May 14. (William Short to Jefferson). "The Moment I recieved [sic] your Letter, I looked out for an Express to send to Albemarle. Whilst in this Search I was informed Jame was in Town with a Mr. Martin whome he accompanied as a riding valet. I sent immediately to his Lodgings and was told he had set out that Morning to some Place and would return probably in a Day or two. To-day he returned. To-morrow Jame goes off on his Way to Albemarle."
1784 May 15. (William Short to Jefferson). "Jame sets out to Albemarle this Morning. My Intention was, as it was impossible for me to set out immediately that he should go on from Monticello to the Northward. But a Gentleman who is going from hence immediately to [[Philadelphia]] wishes very much that he should accompany him. As it will be much more secure for him to travel under his Wing than alone, I have agreed, if the Gentleman, whether he can await his Return from Monticello and this is to determine his Route...Jame has this Moment come here and says Capt. Bohannon cannot set out as soon as he had intended by 10 or 12 Days. He will therefore go on from Albemarle. He has been Yesterday Evening and this Morning in Search of an Horse to hire. I understood from him last Night that he had procured one, but this Mornings he tells me the Man of whome he was to have the Horse has disappointed him."
1784 May 15. (Henry Martin to Jefferson). "Your servant James has attended me some time ( a boy which I had being ill) and conducted himself much to my satisfaction as he has been very careful and assiduous. Immediately upon hearing your intention I put him under the direction of Mr. Short."
1786 February 5. (Jefferson to Anthony Giannini). "James is well. He has forgot how to speak English, and has not learnt to speak French."
1786 June 9. (Anthony Giannini to Jefferson). "Betty Hamen...dara i suoi compliment a James da parta sua."
1786 August 25. (Jefferson to Paul Bentalou). "I have made enquiries on the subject of the negro boy you have brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it, and that it will be difficult, if not impossible, ti interrupt the course of the law. Nevertheless, I have known an instance where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession. I think it will be easier in your case to pursue the same plan, as the boy is so young that it is not probably he will think of claiming freedom..."
1787 April 17. (Philip Mazzei to Jefferson). "On the subject of Jams, the Prince de Conde's cook because of the Prince's absence took James to the place of a pupil of his, who gave him lessons for one day in the city, 5 days in the country, and 4 more days after returning. James says that in the country he learned that the cost, including room and board, would be 12 francs per day. The other fellow says that he told him before they left. I knew nothing except when it was all over. I explained to James that even if it was true that he was not told before going to the country, his staying four days more after his return is not excusable. The new cook says that he will take him for 100 francs monthly for a full year, or for 200 by the month. The Price de Conde's cook will continue to have him on the same terms as before when the Prince is in Paris and will try to take him to Burgundy when that Parlement [sic] is in session. My opinion would be to opt for the latter and let the other go by paying him the five louis which James's carelessness and indiscretion have made, I ttink, unavoidable. I beg you to let me have your opinion or decision."
1789 January 9. (Perrault to Jefferson translated from the French). "On 6 Jan. he came to demand the 24 livres owed him by TJ's chef de cuisine for teaching him French grammar during the past 20 months. This sum had previously been refused with the harshest insults. He then asked Adrien Pettit's aid. Gimme (James) then attacked him with kicks and punches, which forced him to take to his bed since that time, and tore an overcoat ("Redingotte") from him which is the only article of clothing he has against the rigors of the season, thus putting it out of his power to earn his living, since it is so cold and he daren't appear with his clothes in pieces. Please help him recover his salary, he having always acted well in your respectable house. Your porter was a witness, as were others of the ignominious treatment I received at your hotel."
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
- Stanton, Lucia. "The Research File: From Plantation Fare to French Cuisine." Monticello Newsletter 4, no. 2 (1993): 3.
- Stanton, Lucia. "Those Who Labor for my Happiness": Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2000.
- Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Getting Word: The African American Families of Monticello.
- Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.
- 1. "Deed of Manumission for James Hemings," 1796, in PTJ, 28: 605.
- 2. William Evans to Jefferson, November 5,1801, in ibid., 35: 569-570.
- 3. Stanton, Free Some Day, 106.
- 4. Madison Hemings, from interview published as "Life among the Lowly," No. 1, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873. Reproduced in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 245. Note that Wayles was not Welsh, but English.
- 5. Stanton, 103.
- 6. Report of the Curator to the Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1977, 9.
- 7. Isaac Jefferson, "Memoirs of Monticello Slave," in Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 4.
- 8. Ibid., 6; see also Malone, Jefferson, 1:339.
- 9. Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 138.
- 10. Stanton, 105-106.
- 11. Malone, 1: 419.
- 12. Jefferson to William Short, May 7, 1784. in PTJ, 7: 229.
- 13. Stanton, 126.
- 14. MB, 1:554.
- 15. Ibid., 1:556, 1:557; Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 160-161.
- 16. Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 155.
- 17. Howard C. Rice, Thomas Jefferson's Paris (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 13, 40.
- 18. MB, 1: 570, 1: 673, 1:680; Stanton, 126.
- 19. Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 172-176.
- 20. Hemings, in Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 246.
- 21. Stanton, 126-127.
- 22. MB, 1:749.
- 23. Stanton, 127.
- 24. MB, multiple entries; Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 452.
- 25. Stanton, 127.
- 26. Ibid.; Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 489.
- 27. "Agreement with James Hemings," September 15, 1793, in PTJ, 27:119-120.
- 28. Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 489-490.
- 29. Stanton, 127.
- 30. "Deed of Manumission for James Hemings," February 5, 1796, in PTJ, 28:605.
- 31. "James Hemings's Inventory of Kitchen Utensils at Monticello, [February 20, 1796], in ibid., 28:610-11; Stanton, 127, 128.
- 32. Ibid, 127.
- 33. Jefferson to Mary Jefferson, May 25, 1797, in PTJ, 29:399.
- 34. Jefferson to William Evans, February 22, 1801, in ibid., 33:38-39.
- 35. Evans to Jefferson, February 27, 1801, in ibid., 33:91.
- 36. Stanton, 128; see also Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, 545.
- 37. Jefferson to William Evans, March 31, 1801, in PTJ, 33:505.
- 38. Stanton, 128.
- 39. Ibid.
- 40. Jefferson to William Evans, November 1, 1801, in PTJ, 35:542.
- 41. William Evans to Jefferson, November 5, 1801, in ibid, 35:569-570.
- 42. Stanton, 127-129. The kitchen inventory can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.
- 43. Report of the Curator, 20, 54
- 44. MB, 1:343.
- 45. PTJ, 7:229.
- 46. Letter not found but sentence found in Jefferson's Summary Journal of Letters. See ibid., 7:228.
- 47. Ibid., 7:255.
- 48. Ibid., 7:256-7.
- 49. Ibid., 7:259.
- 50. Ibid., 7:279.
- 51. Ibid., 9:254.
- 52. Ibid., 9:624.
- 53. Ibid., 10:296.
- 54. Marchione, Margherita, ed. Philip Mazzei: My Life and Wanderings (Morristown, N.J.: American Institute of Italian Studies, 1980), 1:548.
- 55. PTJ, 14:426.
- 56. Ibid., 20:381.
- 57. Ibid., 20:415.