Leading American historians for years denied a startling circumstance that was clearly attested to in the historical record: Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, fathered an unacknowledged family with his slave mistress Sally Hemings.
Here is some of the evidence that historians of Jefferson found reason to disbelieve:
"It is well known," the journalist James T. Callender wrote in the Rich mond Recorder on September 1, 1802, the second year of Jefferson's first presidency, "that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself." In 1873 a son of Sally Hemings, Madison Hemings, gave a long biographical statement to an Ohio newspaper, the Pike County Republican. He told how his mother, then aged around 13, had been sent to Paris, where Jefferson, then a widower, was American ambassador. Sally's role was to be a servant to Maria, one of Jefferson's two daughters.
"Their stay (my mother and Maria's) was about eighteen months," Madison Hemings related. "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 this promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.
" Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time. She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of them all. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself) and Eston—three sons and one daughter. We all became free, agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born." It is difficult to believe that a 68-year-old Ohio carpenter, as Madison Hemings then was, would be moved on chance encounter with a journalist to invent an account of such specificity and poignancy. It contained many details that could be independently checked. Jefferson freed very few slaves, but he let all of Sally's children go free. Winthrop Jordan, a historian at the University of Mississippi, documented in 1968 that Jefferson, despite his many absences from Monticello, was present at the time of conception of all Hemings's known children.
But apart from Jordan, who stated that a liaison between Jefferson and Hemings was a possibility, a long line of Jefferson historians dismissed Madison Hemings's account. Merrill Peterson, the first historian to give it scholarly study, conceded that Madison's recollection "checks remarkably well with the data accumulated by scholars on Jefferson's domestic life and the Monticello slaves." But he chose to reject its central claim, that Madison was Jefferson's son, with the defective argument that since Jefferson's enemies wanted the story to be true, it must be false. The Jefferson-Hemings liaison was a legend, he wrote, sustained by the hatred of the Federalists, the propaganda of the British, "the Negroes' pathetic wish for a little pride," and the cunning of slave auctioneers thinking they would "get a better price for a Jefferson than for a Jones." The "overwhelming evidence of Jefferson's domestic life refuted the legend,"
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