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The Sally Hemings Case

In response to:

Liberty's Wild Man from the February 20, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Concerning Gordon S. Wood’s derogatory remarks about me in what he agrees is a valid historical speculation in his review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book [NYR, February 20], I reply not as a novelist, but a specialist on this controversy. In Sally Hemings, I vulgarized one of American history’s best-kept secrets and changed the image of Jefferson in the public mind. Dr. Wood fails to note that I also speculated on the paragon between Jefferson, Hemings, and the French Revolution. But neither I, nor Jefferson’s political enemies, nor James Callender, nor the English, nor the abolitionists, nor anyone else “invented” the story of Sally Hemings. Jefferson did, in his paradoxical, intellectually complex, inimitable way, as poignantly divided in his private life as he was between enlightenment and its shadow, racism.

The decisive factor here is the disparity of race and the rhetoric of miscegenation. Dr. Wood’s approach is typical. Take a half-truth and use it to denigrate irrefutable evidence to the contrary as “questionable”: “If Jefferson did sleep with Sally in Paris, he ought to be charged with child abuse: the girl was only about (sic) fourteen.”

Indeed, Hemings was between 14 and 15 when she arrived in Paris, but between 16 and 17 when she returned to Virginia, certainly, by eighteenth-century standards, a marriageable woman. So much for “child abuse.” Moreover, her presence in Jefferson’s life at that time may be the reason his letter index for 1788 has mysteriously disappeared, the only missing index of Jefferson’s years of letter writing.

Another half-truth protects the extraordinary blood ties between Jefferson and Hemings which made her Jefferson’s own sister-in-law, half-sister to his dead wife, and aunt to his legitimate white daughters. (Hemings’s mother, Elizabeth, had given Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles seven children, the youngest being Sally Hemings.) This is probably why, in 1787, Hemings was sent to Paris with Jefferson’s daughter. She stayed almost two years and returned pregnant, according to the 1873 memoirs of her son Madison. Hemings remained by Jefferson’s side until his death in 1826 and produced seven children: Thomas, 1790; Harriet I, 1796; Beverly, 1798; Thenia, 1799; Harriet II, 1801; Madison, 1805; Eston, 1808.

The “questionable” half-truth of the “invention” of the story by a “lying disappointed office seeker” was demolished in 1991, by William Durey’s account of the complicated intimate and paternal relationship between (the accused) Callender and Jefferson in With the Hammer of the Truth. Durey explains that Callender revealed Hemings’s relationship because Jefferson, after posing as his mentor, coolly dropped him for his radicalism and allowed Federalist editors to attack him mercilessly even to accusing him of the death of his wife. Callender only then decided to attack Jefferson through his slave “wife,” writing that “if (Jefferson) had not violated the sanctuary of the grave, Sally and her son Tom would still perhaps have slumbered in the tomb of silence.” This “Tom” was sent to live with his aunt, Jefferson’s sister, when the scandal broke in 1801, and took the name of her husband, Woodson. In 1802 the uncollaborated “family denial” that Samuel and/or Peter Carr fathered Hemings’s children was never mentioned or imagined. Documentation places both Carrs elsewhere. Neither ever lived at Monticello after 1796, during Hemings’s childbearing years.

A letter exists in Jefferson’s own hand, dated December 19, 1799, and addressed to son-in-law Francis Eppes, announcing a hitherto unknown Hemings child, Thenia. Documentation assures us that Jefferson was with Hemings nine months before the birth of all her children, and when Jefferson was not there, there were no Hemings born. Why would Jefferson write most intimately that “Maria’s maid,” a code name for Hemings, was “well and safely delivered of a child” if the child was not his? This letter has yet to be published, but it is compelling evidence that Samuel Carr could not have fathered this daughter. He would have had to have done so from Maryland.

Madison Hemings’s memoirs, Jefferson and the Carrs’ silence, the positive assertions of the Adamses who were in London, of Governeur Morris who was in Paris, and of neutral local investigative journalists all make the truth of Dr. Wood’s rebuttal much more “questionable” than legitimizing Hemings’s relationship to Jefferson.

Barbara Chase-Riboud

Gordon S Wood replies:

Ms. Chase-Riboud is full of anger and very quick on the draw. But she is shooting wildly. I certainly did not make a derogatory remark about her or her novel. If there was anything derogatory in my review, it was directed at O’Brien’s history. Her novel became involved because O’Brien cited it during his discussion of the Adamses’ apparent confusion over why Jefferson did not come to London to pick up his daughter; instead he sent a white servant to bring her and Sally Hemings back to Paris. In his account O’Brien says that “the Adamses were clearly puzzled by these transactions” (p. 24). He then has an endnote that presumably will provide evidence for their puzzlement. But what we get instead is this: “In her entertaining novel Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase-Riboud has a brief and lifelike dialogue between John and Abigail Adams about Sally, their puzzling guest in London in June 1787.” Chase-Riboud’s dialogue may be brief, but it is not lifelike, meaning that it is not entirely historically accurate, which is why I said in the review that it was “questionable.” In her novel Chase-Riboud indicates that Abigail was a stranger to slavery and had never even seen a slave before she met Sally Hemings in London. But in fact Abigail knew slavery very intimately: not only had slavery been an everyday reality in pre-revolutionary Massachusetts, but Abigail’s father himself had owned two slaves. Abigail did not like slavery, it is true, but she was not the flaming abolitionist that the novel depicts. Chase-Riboud even pictures Abigail with “a strange sense of foreboding” about Sally’s joining the household of the widower Jefferson, one of those “Southern white…patriarchs.”

But Chase-Riboud, writing, as she says, “not as a novelist” but as “a specialist” on the Hemings controversy, is not really interested in these details of the Adamses in London. She is generally angry at all the historians who have questioned her romantic interpretation of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, and I have simply become the latest stand-in for all these historians.

In her novel Chase-Riboud has taken biographer Fawn Brodie’s concoction that Jefferson and Sally Hemings engaged in a thirty-eight-year-long passionate and secret love affair and run with it. Even those historians willing to accept that Jefferson, like other Southern slaveholders, might have slept with his slaves have balked at the notion that Jefferson had a romantic and long-lasting love relationship with Hemings. This reluctance of most historians to accept her fictional interpretation of a secret de facto marriage has infuriated Chase-Riboud and led her in an afterword to a 1994 reissuing of her novel to accuse historians of fudging and misusing historical evidence, often, as she says in her letter, by manipulating half-truths. So when I suggested that Jefferson might be guilty of child abuse if he in fact had had sex with his fourteen-year-old slave, she vents her anger by accusing me of just such a manipulation of a half-truth. But I believe she has let her fury get in the way of carefully reading what I wrote.

It was not Sally’s age by itself that made her a child and thus an unlikely partner for Jefferson in 1787. It was her lack of maturity as evidenced by two observers at the time. No doubt some teenagers are very mature and maybe some of them were by eighteenth- century standards “marriageable” women. But Sally was not that kind of mature teenager. Abigail Adams noted in 1787 that Sally was merely “a child” and reported that the ship captain who had brought her and Jefferson’s daughter to Europe from America made the same point in observing that the child would be of “so little Service” in taking care of Jefferson’s daughter “that he had better carry her back with him.”

The story of the relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings goes back nearly two hundred years, and it did not need Michael (not William, as Chase-Riboud says) Durey’s excellent 1990 (not 1991) historical study of James Thomson Callender to give it its modern spin. There is no doubt that members of the Hemings family were privileged: they were household slaves, the offspring or descendants of Jefferson’s father-in-law or other whites at Monticello, and very light-complexioned. That Jefferson should have noted that one of these privileged household slaves gave birth to a child is not unusual. He was meticulous about keeping track of everything that went on at Monticello. In his Farm Book he dutifully recorded not only the new colts he acquired and the hogs he killed but as well the births of nearly all of his slaves, including Sally’s offspring. If Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally’s children, then his recording the births in this methodical way seems not just to take the edge off the supposed romance but to turn Jefferson into some kind of unfeeling monster.

Chase-Riboud has made a great imaginative leap in going from Jefferson’s noting the birth of a child to “Maria’s maid” to his having a secret and passionate relationship with that maid. Yet the story of the great love affair has now become increasingly central to our culture, as suggested by the new book by Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University Press of Virginia, 1997). Thirty or forty years ago the slightest suggestion of miscegenation between Jefferson and his slave was objectionable to many Americans; indeed, as late as 1966 nineteen states still forbade interracial marriages. But since then, especially with Brodie’s biography of 1974 and Chase-Riboud’s novel of 1979, which has sold a million and a half copies, not to mention the more recent Merchant and Ivory film, Jefferson in Paris, it has become widely accepted that a thirty-eight-year-long liaison of love took place. This idea of an intimate and loving relationship between Jefferson and his black slave may have gained great power and increasing credibility in our culture because it represents the deep yearnings of many Americans; it symbolizes what many of us believe is the ultimate solution to our race problem.

If only it were true…. But wishing won’t make it a historical reality. We just don’t have the evidence for the existence of the long and passionate slave marriage. As long as Chase-Riboud remains a novelist she can make up whatever she wants to; but historians are different and are not supposed to write fiction, even in a good cause.

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