James Hemings 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 17961 and died five years later, an apparent suicide.2
James Hemings was one of twelve children of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings.3 As a child James is known to have captured mockingbirds for Jefferson. 4 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.5
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.6 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.7. 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.8 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.9
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.10 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.11
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."12 The particular purpose Jefferson had in mind was to have James trained in the art of French cookery.13
James was nineteen when he sailed from Boston with Jefferson and his daughter Martha, familiarly called Patsy, early on the morning of July 5, 1784.14 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.15 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."16 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.17 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.18
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. 19 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.20 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.21 Whatever their reasons for leaving France, James and his sister returned as slaves to Monticello on December 23, 1789.22
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.23 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.24
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.25 Perhaps honoring an agreement reached in France,26 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."27 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.28 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.29
On February 5, 1796, Jefferson signed a deed of manumission for James Hemings.30 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.31 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.32 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.33
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.34 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."35 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."36 Jefferson suggested to Evans that James's reluctance to leave Baltimore may have been because he had formed an "attachment" there.37 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.38
James left Monticello in September.39 A little over a month later Jefferson received a report that he had committed suicide.40 A letter from William Evans confirmed this was true and relayed the message that people believed "drinking too freely was the cause."41
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.42 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.43
- Gene Zechmeister, July 11, 2012
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.
4. 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." 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.