James Hemings (1765-1801) was a chef, trained in Paris, yet he was born into slavery and lived much of his life enslaved. At thirty years of age, he negotiated for legal manumission and began his life as a free man. He traveled and pursued his career as a chef, but unfortunately his career and life in freedom were short due to his tragic and untimely death at age thirty-six.
James Hemings was brought to Monticello as a nine year old boy, along with several of his siblings and their mother Elizabeth Hemings. They were a part of the Wayles estate, and among the many enslaved people who came into Thomas Jefferson's possession through his wife's inheritance. Six of Elizabeth Hemings's children were fathered by John Wayles, making James Hemings a younger half-brother to Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. The Hemings family was the largest family at Monticello, free or enslaved; many members of this family were tasked as domestic workers or tradespeople throughout Jefferson's lifetime.
As teenagers, James Hemings and his brother Robert were taken to Williamsburg and then Richmond as personal attendants to Thomas Jefferson following his election as wartime governor of Virginia in 1779. When British troops under Benedict Arnold threatened to attack Richmond in 1781, James and Robert Hemings were charged with taking Jefferson's wife and children to safety.
When Jefferson was away and Hemings was not required to wait on him, James Hemings was permitted to hire himself out and keep his wages. While many members of the Hemings family negotiated for and were allocated marginal levels of comparative material comfort and wages while still being held in bondage, none of these small solaces changed the fact that they were enslaved. James Hemings's future was still determined by the person who legally owned him; the direction of his life was not his to decide. Correspondence indicates that it was Jefferson's idea that Hemings travel with him to France for the primary purpose of his training in "the art of cookery."
In May 1784, James Hemings received a summons to join Jefferson in Philadelphia. From there they would travel to Paris, as Jefferson had been appointed an American minister to the French court, and he had a "particular purpose" for sending for Hemings. These instructions were sent via William Short, who would follow Jefferson to Paris to serve as his secretary, but meanwhile Short was in a flurry of activity, as he began his own travel arrangements and tried to locate Hemings.
At that moment, James Hemings was in Richmond working as a riding valet for Henry Martin, an acquaintance of Jefferson's. Writing to Jefferson, Martin provided his impression of Hemings's work ethic, stating that "James has attended me some time ... and conducted himself much to my satisfaction as he has been very careful and assiduous." Jefferson's instructions were for HEmings to travel with Short if possible, but if not, to come to PHiladelphia without delay. Hemings briefly returned to Monticello of his own volition before meeting Jefferson in Philadelphia, taking a chance to visit with his family and loved ones before being sent overseas for an unknown period of time. Despite this detour, he managed to join Jefferson and eldest daughter Martha in time to sail with them from Boston harbor in the early hours of July 5, 1784.
While in Paris, James Hemings was trained in the art of French cooking. He studied first with the caterer and restaurateur, Monsieur Combeaux, apprenticed with pastry chefs and then with a cook in the household of the Prince de Condé. After three years of study he became the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson's residence that functioned also as the American embassy. Here his dishes were served to international guests, statesmen, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats. His wages of twenty-four livres a month were a regular income (and more than the occasional gratuity he received in the United States, but that salary was half of what Jefferson paid his previous chef cuisinier.
James Hemings applied some of his earnings toward engaging a tutor to teach him the French language. With his immersion in French kitchens, working among a French-speaking staff, then with the more formal training of a tutor, it is likely that he developed a good command of the language. The importance of language skills would have been evident to him upon his initial arrival in France. From the port of Le Havre, Jefferson had sent Hemings ahead to Rouen to arrange their lodging, where he proved resourceful, as he was able to return half of the 72 francs Jefferson had given him for expenses.
Ease with the language would bode well for his work in the kitchen and his experience of the French culture around him. The political turmoil of late 18th century France elevated public discourse on human rights and personal liberty. He was likely aware of the French law that allowed a slave, even one brought in from another country, to petition the courts for freedom. His wages as chef de cuisine made retaining a lawyer a possibility, but no records indicate that Hemings pursued that option. He left Paris with Jefferson in October 1789 amidst the early days of the French Revolution and returned to the United States an enslaved man.
Chef for the Secretary of State
Hemings organized his first American kitchen in a small house at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City following their arrival there in March 1790. Secretary of State Jefferson was disappointed by the shortage of housing that forced him to lease what he considered a small, "indifferent" house. The stay in New York was brief. The seat of government moved to Philadelphia in December 1790. In Philadelphia Hemings would be called upon to prepare dinners for the President, European diplomats, Jefferson's fellow cabinet members, congressmen, and many national and international visitors. His wage of seven dollars a month was the same amount that Jefferson paid his free staff. Only Adrien Petit, Jefferson's French butler and manager of the household, received a higher wage. Hemings was often allotted "market money," indicating that he was out making purchases for the kitchen and circulating among other free and enslaved working people and tradesman. He likely knew that in Philadelphia he could lawfully become a free man.
Pennsylvania law stated that, "If a slave is brought into the State and continues therein for the space of six months, he may claim his freedom..." There were instances when Hemings was in Philadelphia over six months, such as the period from October 22, 1791, to July 13, 1792, when his name appears regularly in Jefferson's accounting records as doing much of the marketing.
According to Pennsylvania law, he could have legally claimed his freedom, but there were many conceivable challenges that prevented any enslaved person from doing so easily. No evidence suggests he attempted to claim freedom at this time. If Hemings chose not to peition for freedom in France and Philadelphia, his reasons remain lost to history.
Was this a bargaining tool for Hemings? Was he adhering to an agreement made with Jefferson in Paris? There is no evidence uncovered thus far that gives more detail than the manumission agreement drawn up by Jefferson as he prepared to leave the office of Secretary of State at the end of 1793 and retire to Monticello. The agreement reads:
Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there 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, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.
According to the dictates of his manumission, Jefferson required Hemings teach a person of Jefferson's choice to be "a good cook." Jefferson's choice was James Hemings's brother Peter Hemings, but the manumission agreement held the caveat that he must first train his replacement to Jefferson's satisfaction. On February 5, 1796, approximately two years following their return to Monticello, Jefferson drew up the document that discharged Hemings "of all duties and claims of servitude."
As a free man
Following his manumission James Hemings traveled. His destinations are not recorded, though a remark by Jefferson to his daughter Maria implies that he may have traveled internationally, perhaps journeying back to France. If so, he would have found a very different Paris with the continuing revolution and many old acquaintances dead. By May 1797, Jefferson noted that Hemings had returned to Philadelphia and was contemplating a trip to Spain, though Jefferson tried to persuade him to give up traveling and save his money. Whether he took Jefferson's advice is not known, but by 1801 and Jefferson's election to the presidency, Hemings was working in Baltimore.
Jefferson held the impression that Hemings would be willing to come and work for him again as a free man. Once he began setting up his presidential household in Washington, he sent an inquiry to Baltimore, requesting that Hemings join him. Jefferson heard back through an intermediary, William Evans, that Hemings was working at a tavern in Baltimore and did not feel he could leave immediately. Further, Hemings required that Jefferson should write to him directly. Evans wrote, "the answer he returned me, was, that he would not go untill you should write to himself." Jefferson received similar information from a former employee, Francis Sayes, who had worked with Hemings when they were in New York and in Philadelphia. Sayes reported, "I have spoke to James according to your Desire he has made mention again as he did before that he was willing to serve you before any other man in the Union but sence he understands that he would have to be among strange servants he would be very much obliged to you if you would send him a few lines of engagement and on what conditions and what wages you would please to give him with your own hand wreiting." In spite of Hemings's requests for Jefferson to reach out to him directly, Jefferson never wrote to Hemings. When Jefferson responded to Evans on the matter, he rationalized it by writing, "I supposed I saw in the difficulties raised by James an unwillingness to come here, arising wholly from some attachment he had formed at Baltimore; for I cannot suspect an indisposition towards me." Jefferson found a replacement for Hemings, a native French chef recommended by the French legation in Philadelphia. Jefferson's financial records show that Hemings did return to Monticello in August and September of that year while Jefferson was in residence. Hemings received $30 in wages for six weeks of work in the Monticello kitchen. The details surrounding Hemings's return to Monticello are unclear, but most of his family remained enslaved amidst the unending challenges faced by a Black person in early America; Monticello was his home, albeit an extremely fraught and complex one. Hemings left Monticello for the last time shortly after his brief employment during the late summer of 1801.
Death and legacy
Just two months later Jefferson, then in Washington, heard a disturbing rumor. He wrote again to William Evans in Baltimore to learn the truth—had James Hemings committed suicide? Within days he received confirmation that Hemings had taken his life. Only one explanation was given, "the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause."
This leaves many questions about James Hemings unanswered. Two hundred years ago, scientific understandings of mental health challenges, disorders, and diseases like depression and alcoholism were rudimentary at best, and we will likely never understand the full measure of Hemings's trials. But for a Black man negotiating freedom and slavery in a drastically unequal world, we can imagine some of the horrors he faced. Hemings's life was cut tragically short and was beset by tribulation, but he negotiated, resisted, and reasserted his agency time and time again, and ultimately he left an important legacy in culinary history. James Hemings - along with many other highly trained enslaved individuals who succeeded him in Washington and at Monticello - serves as inspiration to modern-day chefs and culinary historians alike, and these early African American chefs helped created and define American cuisine as we know it today.
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. (Short to Jefferson). "The Moment I recieved 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 whom 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. (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, Capt. Bohannon, can await his Return from Albemarle ... 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 Morning he tells me the Man of whom 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. (Giannini to Jefferson). "Betty Hamen ... darà i suoi complimenti a James da parte 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, to 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 probable he will think of claiming freedom."
1787 April 17. (Philip Mazzei to Jefferson, translated from the original Italian). "On the subject of James, 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 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 think, unavoidable. I beg you to let me have your opinion or decision."
1789 January 9. (Perrault to Jefferson, translated and summarized from the original French). "On 6 Jan. he came to demand the 24 livres owed him by [Jefferson'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."
1791 May 8. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I will have the packages finished, and send them ... as follows: ... A package of James's bedding from Paris. To be kept for him."
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