Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account

The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson's first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries. Based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic.  Ten years later, TJF and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings. 

Historical Background

In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disaffected former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." "Her name is Sally," Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had "several children" by her.

Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman before 1802, Callender's article spread the story widely. It was taken up by Jefferson's Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson's presidency.

Jefferson's policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts.

Jefferson's daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph privately denied the published reports. Two of her children, Ellen Randolph Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, maintained many years later that such a liaison was not possible, on both moral and practical grounds. They also stated that Jefferson's nephews Peter and Samuel Carr were the fathers of the light-skinned Monticello slaves some thought to be Jefferson's children because they ressembled him.

The Jefferson-Hemings story was sustained through the 19th century by Northern abolitionists, British critics of American democracy, and others. Its vitality among the American population at large was recorded by European travelers of the time. Through the 20th century, some historians accepted the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings connection and a few gave it credence, but most Jefferson scholars found the case for such a relationship unpersuasive.

Over the years, however, belief in a Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship was perpetuated in private. Two of her children--Madison and Eston--indicated that Jefferson was their father, and this belief has been  perpetuated in the oral histories of  generations of their descendants as an important family truth.

DNA Evidence and Response

The results of DNA tests conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists in 1998 challenged the view that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship could be neither refuted nor substantiated . The study--which tested Y-chromosomal DNA samples from male-line descendants of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's uncle), John Carr (grandfather of Jefferson's Carr nephews), Eston Hemings, and Thomas Woodson--indicated a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings descendants. The results of the study established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last known child born to Sally Hemings. There were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, and a few of them are known to have visited Monticello. The study's authors, however, said "the simplest and most probable" conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings.

The DNA testing  found no genetic link between the Hemings and Carr descendants, refuting Jefferson’s grandchildren’s assertion that his Carr nephews fathered Sally Hemings’s children.

Additionally, the DNA study found no link between the descendants of Field Jefferson and Thomas Woodson (1790-1879), whose family members have long held that he was the first son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings, Sally's second-youngest son, said in 1873 that his mother had been pregnant with Jefferson's child (who, he said, lived "but a short time") when she returned from France in 1789. There is no indication in Jefferson's records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, and there are no known documents to support that Thomas Woodson was Hemings's first child.

Shortly after the DNA test results were released in November 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee consisting of nine members of the foundation staff, including four with Ph.D.s. In January 2000, the committee reported  that the weight of all known evidence--from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data--indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children listed in Monticello records--Harriet (born 1795; died in infancy); Beverly (born 1798); an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy); Harriet (born 1801); Madison (born 1805); and Eston (born 1808).

Since then, a committee commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, after reviewing essentially the same material, reached different conclusions, namely that Sally Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life and that it is very unlikely he fathered any of her children. This committee also suggested in its report, issued in April 2001 and revised in 2011, that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph (1755-1815) was more likely the father of at least some of Sally Hemings's children.

From the Historical Record

The following summarizes what is known about Sally Hemings and her family.

  • Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave at Monticello; she lived in Paris with Jefferson and two of his daughters from 1787 to 1789; and she had at least six children.
  • Sally Hemings's duties included being a nursemaid-companion to Thomas Jefferson's daughter Maria (ca. 1784-1787), lady's maid to daughters Martha and Maria (1787-1797), and chambermaid and seamstress (1790s-1827).
  • There are no known images of Sally Hemings and only four known descriptions of her appearance or demeanor.
  • Sally Hemings left no known written accounts. It is not known if she was literate.
  • In the few scattered references to Sally Hemings in Thomas Jefferson's records and correspondence, there is nothing to distinguish her from other members of her family.
  • Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello at the likely conception times of Sally Hemings's six known children. There are no records suggesting that she was elsewhere at these times, or records of any births at times that would exclude Jefferson paternity.
  • There are no indications in contemporary accounts by people familiar with Monticello that Sally Hemings's children had different fathers.
  • Sally Hemings's children were light-skinned, and three of them (daughter Harriet and sons Beverly and Eston) lived as members of white society as adults.
  • According to contemporary accounts, some of Sally Hemings's children strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  • Thomas Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings's children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson's 1826 will. Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family.
  • Thomas Jefferson did not free Sally Hemings. She was permitted to leave Monticello by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph not long after Jefferson's death in 1826, and went to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.
  • Several people close to Thomas Jefferson or the Monticello community believed that he was the father of Sally Hemings's children.
  • Eston Hemings changed his name to Eston Hemings Jefferson in 1852.
  • Madison Hemings stated in 1873 that he and his siblings Beverly, Harriet, and Eston were Thomas Jefferson's children.
  • The descendants of Madison Hemings who have lived as African-Americans have passed a family history of descent from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings down through the generations.
  • Eston Hemings's descendants, who have lived as whites, have passed down a family history of being related to Thomas Jefferson. In the 1940s, family members changed this history to state that an uncle of Jefferson's, rather than Jefferson himself, was their ancestor.

According to Madison Hemings, Sally's mother Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807) was the daughter of an African woman and an English sea captain. By Madison Hemings's and other accounts, Sally Hemings and some of her siblings were the children of John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law, making her the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748-1782). Elizabeth Hemings and her children lived at John Wayles' plantation during his lifetime.

Questions remain about the nature of the relationship that existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; whether she had a child at Monticello shortly after they returned from France in 1789; and whether there is anything to connect Jefferson, Hemings, and Thomas  Woodson.

To learn more, consult the readings, some with differing points of view, listed here.

RELATED RESOURCES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Accounts:

1847. Jefferson, Isaac. "Memoirs of a Monticello Slave." In Jefferson at Monticello, edited by James A. Bear, Jr., 1-24. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1967. See p. 4.

1858. Coolidge, Ellen Randolph. Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, 24 October 1858. In Malone, Dumas. "Mr. Jefferson's Private Life." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 84 (1974): 1-8.

1862. Bacon, Edmund. "Jefferson at Monticello" In Jefferson at Monticello, edited by James A. Bear, Jr., 25-117. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1967. See pp. 99-100, 102.

1868. Randall, Henry S. Henry S. Randall to James Parton, 1 June 1868. In Flower, Milton E. James Parton: the Father of Modern Biography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1951. See pp. 236-9.

1873. Hemings, Madison. "Life Among the Lowly, No. 1." Pike County Republican, March 13, 1873. In Reed, Annette-Gordon. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

1873. Jefferson, Israel. "Life Among the Lowly, No. 3." Pike County Republican, December 25, 1873. In Reed, Annette-Gordon. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Secondary Accounts:

Adair, Douglass. "The Jefferson Scandals." In Fame and the Founding Fathers, edited by Trevor Colbourn, 160-91. New York: Norton, 1974.

Bear, James A., Jr. "The Hemings Family of Monticello." Virginia Cavalcade 29, no. 2 (1979): 78-87.

Bennett, Lerone. "Thomas Jefferson's Negro Grandchildren." Ebony, November 1954, 78-80.

Brodie, Fawn M. "The Great Jefferson Taboo." American Heritage 23, no. 4 (1979): 48-57, 97-100.

---. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Norton, 1974.

---. "Thomas Jefferson's Unknown Grandchildren: A Study in Historical Silence." American Heritage 27, no. 6 (1976): 23-33, 94-99.

Onuf, Peter S., and Jan E. Lewis, eds. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. Charlottesville, Va.:University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Burstein, Andrew. Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Burton, Cynthia H. Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search. Keswick, Va.: Cynthia H. Burton, 2005.

Dabney, Virginius. The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981.

---. "The Monticello Scandals: History and Fiction." Virginia Cavalcade 29, no. 2 (1979): 52-61.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf, 1997. See pp. 303-307.

French, Scot A. and Edward L. Ayers. "The Strange Career of Thomas Jefferson: Race and Slavery in American Memory, 1943-1993." In Jeffersonian Legacies, edited by Peter S. Onuf, 418-56. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: Norton, 2008.

---. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Graham, Pearl M. "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings." Journal of Negro History 46, no. 2 (1961): 89-103.

Hyland, William G., Jr. In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009.

Justus, Judith. Down From the Mountain: An Oral History of the Hemings Family. Perrysburg, Ohio: Jeskurtara, 1990.

Leary, Helen F. M. "Sally Hemings's Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 89, no. 3 (2001): 165-207. There are other relevant articles in this issue.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. See Appendix II, pp. 494-8.

Malone, Dumas, and Steven Hochman. "A Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings." Journal of Southern History 41 (1975): 523-8.

McMurry, Rebecca L., and James F. McMurry, Jr. Anatomy of a Scandal: Thomas Jefferson & the SALLY Story. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane, 2002.

Moss, Sidney P., and Carolyn Moss. "The Jefferson Miscegenation Legend in British Travel Books." Journal of the Early Republic 7, no. 3 (1987): 253-74.

Neiman, Fraser D. "Coincidence or Causal Connection? The Relationship between Thomas Jefferson's Visits to Monticello and Sally Hemings's Conceptions." William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 1 (2000): 198-210.

Randolph, Laura B. "Thomas Jefferson's Black and White Descendants Debate His Lineage and Legacy." Ebony, July 1993, 25-29.

Turner, Robert F., ed. Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission Report on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter. Charlottesville, Va.: Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001. (New edition to be published in fall 2009.)

Wilson, Douglas L. "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue." Atlantic Monthly, November 1992, 57-74.

Woodson, Byron W. A President in the Family: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.

Woodson, Minnie Shumate. The Sable Curtain. Washington, D.C.: Stafford Lowery, 1987. See appendix.

Discussion

says

Having read the very balanced narrative of monticello.org, I am bound to say I simply don't know. Those with strong reason to want it be one way or another are the ones most sure of themselves.

says

The ownership of humans is no new discovery. In fact, that many of us are in denial regarding the continual mistreatment of humans by other humans is astonishing. Every race and ethnic group has determined itself better than another and therefore tend to keep the 'lesser than us' or the "conquered" as 'slaves' or controlled in some sort of servitude. All members of the human race who have come before us and owned humans may lessen the sting to those may be 'shocked'. Slavery was a socially acceptable and an important social construct that built great nations that evolved into improved societies.

The moral and social norms that existed at the time of "our "Founding Fathers" were fortunately not the ones we try to uphold today. In may ways, we have achieved in the present, was because they grappled with the contradictions they wrote down. All of the men who were created equal were the "men" as defined in those times. Subsequently, many of them were the 'men' in charge" and the 'owners.' Everyone else was in some way 'owned' or certainly not 'free' according to our current standards.

Some men succeeded by their own merit and achieved success in different ways and perhaps with the help of others. In that sense, Alexander Hamilton was a keen contrast to Thomas Jefferson. George Washington's Cabinet demonstrated that variety of personal heritage with Secretary of Treasury Hamilton (born out of wedlock, orphaned in the West Indies, lawyer, banker and military officer) Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (Virginia planter, lawyer, governor, diplomat, intellectual, died in debt) , Secretary of War, Henry Knox (abandoned by his destitute Boston father, bookstore owner, manufacturer of artillery,aide-de-camp to General George Washington in the Continental Army) and Attorney General Edmund Randolph (from a very successful Virginia plantation owning family, lawyer and career politician).

Whether Jefferson or one of his relatives sired Sally Hemings child or children only reflects that the behavior was acceptable for that time. Jefferson was a conflicted man of his time, a great man in that hew held high ideals and a flawed man because he could not achieve all of them in his personal and public life before his death. Just think of how long and how many of us it took us to change our times over the world and over the centuries. Still working at it!

says

There seems to be evidence on both sides, but no proof either way that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings were intimate. Rather than entertain a detailed argument forming one opinion or another, I would simply say, there is no proof, only circumstantial evidence. Consequently, I may accept the possibility, but choose to conclude, based on lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jefferson did not father the children of Sally Hemmings.

says

My God! It's amazing how centuries later this topic creates such emotion, such dislike and denial among caucasians. Learn your history Americans. The truth is whatever type of President he was, Jefferson was a hypocrite, like thousands of white men at that time and some in our time who used Sally Hemmings and helpless black women for their own selfish and egotistical purposes. What do you expect from people who kept people as property? When he and his ilk said 'all men are created equal', Jefferson did not mean all humans, he meant all white men... not women, not blacks. Like Strom Thurmond, the infamous US lawmaker, who oozed and embraced racism and segregation and battled against civil rights 'for black people' WHILE he raped black women, (these liaisons were not romantic), AND FATHERED BLACK CHILDREN. His quote: "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement." Imagine that!! The truth always comes to light as it did for him. You should not try to rewrite and twist history to soothe your consciences and dress up the truth to appear like something else. Back then, ALL white men did it. Jefferson was no different.

says

Why after two hundred years we are still talking about this? It is because Jefferson was famous and he should have known better. He raped a 15 year old girl and takes her back to Virginia to cover up the crime. He then puts her up as his common law wife and proceeds to have eight children by her. He is a hypocrite for having relations with a black woman who could not say no. If he was totally against slavery as he professes he would have done everything in his power as President to get rid of it. But he benefited from this evil enterprise from its beginning to end. It is so sad that a man in his position kept a woman in bondage did nothing for her or their offspring but made false claims as if slavery was wrong but liked having sex with a black woman. His black children suffered the most. I can not look at him the same way. He is not a hero to me or the Black community.

says

Allegations that the "oral history" of Sally's descendants identified the president as the father of all of Sally's children are also incorrect. Eston's descendants repeatedly acknowledged—before and after the DNA tests—that as children they were told they were not descendants of Thomas Jefferson but rather of an "uncle."

A more plausible candidate is Thomas Jefferson's younger brother, known at Monticello as "Uncle Randolph."

Posted from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405270230421180457750087007672836...

Please update the site and your tours appropriately

says

Yes! That is what I thought, that Eston's family claimed descent from a near relative, an "uncle", but not from Mr. Jefferson.

Why is this fact reversed here on the TJ Foundation's "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" webpage?

It is misleading. Please correct!

says

The last bullet point under "From the Historical Record" addresses this:

"Eston Hemings's descendants, who have lived as whites, have passed down a family history of being related to Thomas Jefferson. In the 1940s, family members changed this history to state that an uncle of Jefferson's, rather than Jefferson himself, was their ancestor."

says

Chad, I have a student that would like to learn more on this topic. You are very knowledgeable, would you ever consider connecting with my class over Skype or video conferencing equipment? You can respond at maschoff@esu8.org. Thank you!

says

Personally I don't care for a many opinions in this matter as it happens to be about my family history. Plenty of slave owners fathered house slaves children; however, not all slave owners gave whole entire familys their freedom either! Arnold is a prime example of a political figure having relations with the help and resulting in a child and that's in this day and age! With all due respect Thomas Jefferson was an excellent President none the less.I respect the fact he kept his promise to his wife but that didn't mean he would not ever touch another woman, let alone one whom was as attractive as Sally Hemmings was said to be; in addition she did lived most of her life with him; although he was her master doesn't mean he wasn't capable of developing a genuwine affection or attraction to her that is basic human nature. One thing about DNA daughter cells are almost exact replicas of one another it's call mitosis and meiosis I and II Biology 101 people! Anyhow have a awesome day. Oh and Barry FYI coloured people are AFRICAN AMERICANS now !

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