A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Thomas Jefferson father children by a slave mistress?

January 6, 1989

Dear Cecil:

When I was back in tenth grade I did this term paper on Thomas Jefferson and I seem to remember coming by something that said he'd had a dozen or so children by one of his slaves, who was named Sally or something like that. What's the straight dope on this, Cecil? Is this a major coverup conspiracy?

[Events have shown that the following column is a crock. Click here for an update.]

Cecil replies:

If TJ's sex life was the subject of a coverup, Kool Moe, it was an amazingly inept one, considering that even tenth-graders seem to know all the details. Truth is, Jefferson's alleged liaison with the mulatto slave Sally Hemings has received enormous publicity, starting with scandal-sheet broadsides by Jefferson's enemies in 1802, during his first term as president. The matter was given its fullest airing in the late Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography (1974), which says the relationship lasted 38 years. The most lurid stories have a daughter of Jefferson and Hemings being sold into prostitution in a New Orleans slave market for $1,000, a tale that made the rounds in abolitionist circles for many years.

The public, ever willing to believe the worst, seems to have had no trouble accepting that one of the founders of the republic was a secret sleaze. But historians aren't so sure. Jefferson did own an attractive slave named Sally Hemings, and there were a lot of mulatto kids at Monticello, some of whom bore a resemblance to Jefferson. But many of these were the work of Jefferson's randy relatives. For example, his father-in-law, John Wayles, kept Sally's mother, Betty, as a concubine for 12 years, siring Sally and five other children. Jefferson also had a couple oversexed nephews, but we'll get back to them in a moment.

The belief that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings rests chiefly on two sources, both dubious. In 1802 James T. Callender, a hard-drinking pamphleteer who had done some work for Jefferson and his allies, was rebuffed in his attempt to secure a government job and promptly went to work for Jefferson's opponents. He published every scandalous rumor he could find about his former patron, including the Hemings story, none of which he bothered to verify. Jefferson chose not to dignify the charges with public comment, but he denied any hanky-panky in a letter to an associate.

Then in 1873 an Ohio newspaper published an interview with a former slave named Madison Hemings, who claimed to be one of Jefferson's five children by Sally Hemings. Another former Monticello slave backed up Madison's story but admitted he did not "positively know" Jefferson was the father. As a rival newspaper editor dryly noted, "[Madison] was no doubt present at the time of accouchement [birth], but his extreme youth would prevent him from knowing all the facts connected with that important event." The editor also noted that it was common for slave mothers to claim illustrious fathers for their children.

And that's about it for solid evidence. Fawn Brodie went on to find sexual significance in the way Jefferson remodeled Monticello and his use of the words "mulatto" and "corruption" and so on in his writings, and she muttered darkly about mysterious missing letters. But one can use the same sort of evidence to prove Elvis is still alive.

The indications that Jefferson did not father Hemings's children are more persuasive. His grandson and granddaughter and his former overseer all believed Hemings's children had been sired by Jefferson's nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr. Two of Hemings's children were born after the initial scandal broke, while Jefferson was still president, a display of brazenness that would have made even Gary Hart blanch. Jefferson's family would surely have known about (and disapproved of) a 38-year dalliance with a slave, yet their relations with him remained warm and loving. In a correspondence amounting to 18,000 letters, he never mentions Hemings once. If the two had any sort of relationship, there is damned little sign of it. For more, see The Jefferson Scandals by Virginius Dabney.

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