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

Whenever I'm giving a tour in the house, I will ask my group, "Is the name Sally Hemings familiar to you?" Inevitably, there is a mixed reaction - some nods, some startled looks ("Is she really going to talk about Sally Hemings?"), and some curious stares. Regardless, all eyes look at me a bit more intently for what's to come next. I state that most historians believe that Jefferson - years after his wife's death - was the father of his enslaved maid's many children. What most visitors want to know next is the character of that relationship. Then I have to give the hardest answer a guide anywhere must give: "We don't know." The Thomas Jefferson Foundation website has a number of primary and secondary resources to help those interested in learning more about the relationship discover what evidence exists, and how historians have used documents and scientific evidence over time to talk about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

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