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Jefferson’s Concubine

Benevolence required him to identify the Hemingses’ special talents, give those talents full scope, and set them up in appropriate trades. Goodwill aside, in Gordon-Reed’s interpretation it was Jefferson’s needs and preconceptions that governed. “Once he took ownership of them, the process of shaping all the Hemingses to suit his aims only intensified.” John Hemings was selected to be a maker of furniture in the joinery that was such a point of pride to his master.* Robert Hemings was trained as a barber. James Hemings, and then his brother Peter, became chefs of a high order. The famously irascible Martin Hemings—he saw Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s troopers off the premises when they came to plunder Monticello during the Revolution—and headstrong Robert served, variously, as valets, coach drivers, and butlers.

As to their sisters, Jefferson “constructed the Hemings women along more traditional European feminine lines” by refusing to let them do fieldwork, by dressing them in finer stuffs than the field hands, and by “marrying” them to slaves of equal stature or condoning their relationships to “high-status white males or white workers at the plantation.” It was his nature to be openhanded, and he needed to be surrounded by affable folk happy in their work and conscious of their good fortune. Surrounded is the key word here, for Jefferson was accustomed from infancy to being cosseted by black people who stood in for his closest white relatives. Inhabiting “a cocoon…spun out of family relations,” Jefferson was exceptionally good at constructing social relations that fulfilled his ideals of fidelity and felicity.

Fidelity and felicity were the themes of the married life of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. When she died, he was utterly undone. It is said, and there is no reason to doubt it, that the happy intimacy of this marriage was so nearly complete that he promised Martha to take no wife in her place. And to that he held.

Keeping this promise by no means condemned Jefferson to a solitary or sexless existence. The relationship he had with Sally Hemings was not, as might be imagined, a common-law marriage. It was no marriage at all. It was, as Gordon-Reed explains, concubinage, a widely practiced surrogate for marriage that provided the comforts and conveniences of wedded life while withholding some of its most important protections. Like so many other features of slavery, concubinage was a way of having something that white men desired, without undermining the controls that made society work. The development of legal doctrines that ran counter to those of Western Europe and England afforded slaveholders in America protections unavailable to their counterparts elsewhere.

The children of such liaisons had no legal means of escape unless they were set free. In the time of Sally Hemings, formal emancipation had become more difficult. That it was not impossible is shown by the example of Robert Carter, a Virginian who set all his slaves free, nearly five hundred of them, beginning in 1791. Some slaves managed to slip the bonds of slavery by surreptitiously entering the white world, with or without the connivance of their relatives and neighbors. Their success depended largely on the lightness of their skin and on their skill in avoiding questions about their status. Elizabeth Hemings’s children and grandchildren looked more white than not, and some of them left their black identities behind. The “white slave” (often described as a descendant of Jefferson) was a staple of antislavery literature and iconography.

As Jefferson’s lover, Sally Hemings was not without power when the liaison began during Jefferson’s residence in Paris. Living in a part of the city where black servants were numerous, Sally and her brother James learned French. It was common knowledge that slaves could sue for their freedom in the French admiralty courts. The only record that gives us direct insight into Sally’s relationship with her master comes from her son, Madison Hemings. It deserves careful study:

But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enceinte by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him, but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.

Sally Hemings bore Jefferson six children. That is established as fact, though it has been the subject of hot dispute. She was seventeen when she gave birth to the first, at Monticello, to which she had returned trusting that her lover would keep his word concerning the baby and any other children who followed it into the world. It is easily seen that what Jefferson gave Sally was a bare promise, not enforceable at law. As for the “extraordinary privileges,” what did they amount to? We know, based on recent scholarship, that American slavery was not a frozen, totalitarian institution. Life within slavery was bounded and regulated, often with severity, but within those bounds slaves could negotiate certain conditions of work, travel, shelter, diet, and association with other slaves. It is entirely plausible that the Hemings most cherished by Jefferson, knowing she could refuse his proposition, exacted inducements. Not among them, apparently, was her own freedom. If freedom was ever within her grasp, did she bargain it away? If so, she didn’t explain why to her son Madison.

Many things about Sally Hemings’s life must remain unknown. One of the stranger things about her children is their naming. All bore the surname Hemings, but their other names (what used to be called the Christian and family names) reflected their father’s choices. For a man who did curious things, naming his illegitimate sons after Virginia notables is one of the oddest, especially when none were given the Christian-and-family combination of “Thomas Jefferson.” Perhaps the answer lies in the terms of the “solemn pledge.” Anticipating their emancipation, they were to be brought up to embody the best that men could be. And should be named accordingly? When we consider their father’s settled beliefs about mixed-race offspring born in slavery, would being styled after gentlemen actually matter?

Among the unknowns is the related question of why, even if Jefferson could not remarry and must settle for a concubine, it was so important to him to structure his arrangement with Sally as he did. It was not unheard of for slave owners in public life to acknowledge their mixed-race children. Richard M. Johnson, a war hero who became vice-president under Martin Van Buren, lived openly with Julia Chinn, a slave he inherited, and went on to present their daughters to white society in Kentucky. Any ambitions he harbored for higher office were wrecked by these breaches of convention. In this Johnson can be seen as more courageous than Jefferson, or more recklessly self-deluding. Like so many questions concerning the sage of Monticello, credible conjectures come up against contradictions of opinion and character.

If Jefferson’s wife was “a cipher,” known mainly through anecdotes and the domestic lore of those who loved her, is this equally true of Jefferson’s concubine? This is not a book whose primary aim is to recreate Sally Hemings through direct or indirect testimony. Gordon-Reed’s book is about both the family to which she belonged and the fabled place that they helped to build. Making that home was intensely satisfying to its owner, who wasn’t afraid of hard work. For the rest of its builders, it was labor on a scale that can only be called monumental.

No one who has seen the mansion of today, which combines the attributes of a historical shrine and a trophy house, can imagine what it was like for its architect and its builders (principally slaves) to live in a perpetual construction site on the brow of a mountain whose peak they had shoveled and hauled away in buckets and wheelbarrows. Far from being abashed at Monticello’s lack of amenities and exposure to the elements, its creator enjoyed tossing off lines like “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” When Jefferson was not showing off the place to visitors, he liked to demonstrate the clever and thrifty operations of the estate’s agricultural and manufacturing operations. Notwithstanding Jefferson’s reverence for the doughty yeoman farmer, manufacturing offered him a way to fabricate things for present use and, moreover, things that would sell.

One of his most hopeful schemes was the Monticello nail factory. Before the invention of the metal screw few things were as necessary to building, especially building in wood, the universal material of a richly forested America, as the common nail. Nails had to be made by hand from rods of iron and as such were expensive commodities. This being Monticello, the nail factory had to be both industrial operation and character-building experiment. Any serious woodworker can tell you that the grinding, repetitious milling, and sizing of lumber is endured for the sake of creating something. Making nails six days a week was all grind and repetition, without any creative payoff.

One cannot doubt that Jefferson made himself master of the process and could turn out a goodly keg of nails as fast as anyone. But his part in the factory consisted of seeing that it was set up to run with efficiency and choosing the “dozen little negro boys 10. to 16. years of age” who would meet his production quotas while absorbing an ethic of industry and emulation guaranteed to shape their grownup lives. It was not race alone that consigned these boys to the nailery. White boys of the same age could expect to work twelve-hour days setting type, driving horses, making bricks, or splitting logs. In time of war they might serve as teamsters, officers’ servants, or drummers. The playful youngster looking on while his or her mother stirred the lye vat was not allowed to remain a spectator for long.

That many of the nail-makers were also blood relatives of Jefferson’s daughters is but one of the facts that underscores Gordon-Reed’s characterization of life under slavery as bizarre. Since they lived in what was a mainly hand-made world, their knowing how to make nails was a way of ensuring that they would always be in work. Visiting the factory and thinking up ways to make the work go quicker and better, with less waste, enabled Jefferson the manufacturer to keep an eye to profit, while doing good. If the nailery made little profit in the long run, it was not for want of trying.

Life at Monticello, then, went its way according to the dictates of a master who regarded himself as enlightened. While the majority of the mountain’s inhabitants were enslaved black people, the whites were expected to behave with the decency of the man at their head. The government and economy of Monticello was slavery, but it was conceived as an ameliorated form of slavery. It was a system intended to allow a degree of autonomy and self-respect, a freedom of movement and occupation, and other aspects of a nonenslaved existence. Was this liberty, or a sort of halfway house for the few slaves who could aspire eventually to live as free men? Thomas Huxley once observed that one does not liberate a slave by scraping the rust from his shackles. Jefferson would probably have dismissed the remark as an ignorant jest mouthed by a cynic. Not for all black slaves, but at least for a number of males with claims of kinship, he aimed to dignify their existence by removing the more obnoxious marks of servility.

Precisely because he was so civilized, Jefferson never exhibited feelings of personal guilt about owning human beings. He worried aloud about the despotic temperament slavery imparted to the children of slave owners but left no record of what he imagined it did to slave children. When he thought about ridding Virginia of slavery, he was more concerned about making Virginia white than about making it free. As a young lawyer he had undertaken to represent a slave suing for his freedom. As a young statesman he enunciated the core principles of the freedom that he held to be the birthright of all men. However, a bill he proposed to the Virginia legislature in the 1770s would have required emancipated slaves and mulatto children of a white woman to leave the state. The legislature rejected this measure, but in later years Jefferson expanded his vision of a white Virginia to a white United States. When the American Colonization Society was founded in 1817 with that objective, Jefferson was skeptical. Buying slaves off cooperative masters and talking those slaves into making a new life in Liberia was for him a nonstarter.

Still, two years before his death in 1826 he spelled out a proposal that he must have known to be fanciful. He wanted the national government to buy all slaves, in effect confiscating them, when they would be shipped out to form a free nation of their own in Africa. At a cost he calculated at $900 million, the United States would gain security by ridding itself of the black menace that flourished within it. In insisting that slaves and the freedmen who lived near the margins of slavery posed a grave threat of violent insurrection, Jefferson voiced the worst fears of slaveholders while declaring himself unable to see any way out, short of deporting more than a million people.

That Jefferson proposed this as the solution to a problem he believed to be insoluble is a measure of his profound uneasiness with the racial divide. The existence of that divide had driven the growth and form of slavery in America, an institution from which Jefferson derived most of the benefits that made his life worth living but which he persisted in describing as a monstrous growth engrafted onto free institutions.

We have seen Jefferson as a hardworking man who, moreover, valued labor in and of itself. In this he is best compared to Benjamin Franklin, for whom “jack of all trades” meant master of most. Both men were fascinated by how things work. With Jefferson, though, his drive to understand complex machines and to master difficult processes amounted to an obsession. Measuring, tinkering, contriving, imagining, and reimagining: these were the hallmarks of an engineering mind. But the engineering did not stop at labor-saving devices, revolving chairs, or triple-glazed windows. In a fashion that is both admirable and perplexing, Jefferson was a man who contrived an entire way of life, and to the extent possible, everything within it. Monticello was a separate sphere, the projection of an exceptional heart and mind. Only a man as driven and ingenious as Jefferson could have reworked slavery into the form it took at Monticello. But human beings are not drive gears, and human institutions are not steam engines. Slavery within Jefferson’s domains could be modified and freed of some of its constraints. It remained slavery. More, it remained racial slavery, and race was the tragic complexity that the mind and the will of a Jefferson could not construct to be something else.

This, in brief, is the story that Annette Gordon-Reed has drawn from thousands of documents and the vast scholarship of the historians who preceded her. While praising her grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter.

  1. *

    The Thomas Jefferson Foundation sells the Campeachy chair, “based on [one] crafted by plantation joiner John Hemings,” not identified as the brother of Sally. Monticello Catalog, item 111006.

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