Abolitionist in a Congo Harem
Posted Aug 06, 2017
This summer, Sally Hemings of Monticello is getting her own room. Excavators are scraping away at the brick floor and fireplace of the windowless 14-2/3 x 13’ space, steps from Thomas Jefferson’s room, where her children might have been born.
Jefferson never left written evidence of their relationship, and Sally Hemings never left written evidence at all. But the journalist, James Callender, was convinced of it. “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” Thomas Turner, a Virginian whose letter on the matter ended up in a Boston paper, was sure the rumor was true: “They have cohabited for many years, and the fruit of the connexion abundantly exists in proof.” One of Jefferson’s freed slaves backed that up: “Mr Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; in fact, she was his concubine.” Jefferson’s grandson Jeff added this: “She had children which resembled Mr Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins;” one of them might be mistaken for the president, at dusk. There were miscellaneous allusions—to “yellow children,” to “dusky Sally,” to “a black seraglio,” to “a Congo Harem!” And Madison Hemings, who was Sally’s middle son, knew where he came from. After 14-year-old Sally sailed to Paris with Polly, the ambassador’s daughter, “My mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enceinte by him.” As it turns out, probably not: there is no good DNA evidence that Jefferson fathered Sally's first baby, Tom. Other children, on the other hand, may have carried his genes.
Thomas Jefferson abhorred slavery. As early as 1770, as a young lawyer, Jefferson had defended Samuel Howell, a mixed race client, for freedom from his indenture: “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” A few years later, in the Summary View of the Rights of British America sent to the Continental Congress, he insisted: “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in these colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state;” all further importations from Africa had to be stopped. And in the Declaration of 1776, he famously wrote: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Less famously, other founders had edited these words about George III out of Jefferson’s draft. “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death.”
Thomas Jefferson was offended by promiscuity, too. From Paris, he sent a letter to Charles Bellini, at the College of William and Mary, to report that happy marriages were unknown to the better classes. “In lieu of this, are substituted pursuits which nourish and invigorate all our bad passions, and which offer only moments of ecstacy, amidst days and months of restlessness and torment.” They’d do better across the Pond. “Much, very much inferior, this, to the tranquil, permanent felicity with which domestic society in America, blesses most of its inhabitants.” Also from Paris, in another letter, he warned John Banister that Americans wanting a European education should consider staying home. “Let us view the disadvantages of sending a youth to Europe. To enumerate them all would require a volume.” A young man in England would just learn to drink too much, and on the Continent it would be worse. “He is led by the strongest of all the human passions into a spirit for female intrigue destructive of his own and others happiness, or a passion for whores destructive of his health, and in both cases learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice.”
In his lifetime, Jefferson never made good on his promises to end slavery; and though he never reneged on his deathbed promise to his wife, Martha, not to remarry, he probably lived with her halfsister—another of John Wayles’s daughters, who resembled her—for 30 years or more. There were 5000 acres at Monticello, and over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves; only 11 were freed or allowed to go free, and 4 were the grown children of Sally Hemings. All of them were conceived when Jefferson was at home. All of them were given names from the Jefferson family tree. All of them, like Jefferson, played the violin. And DNA carried by the descendants of Thomas Eston, Sally’s youngest son, is a good match for the Jefferson Y-chromosome.
But Jefferson did well by posterity. He understood that a free society depended on freedom to move; so he was committed to American trade, and he dramatically extended American lands. He drafted an ordinance that created the Northwest Territory, extending the country from the Ohio to the Mississippi; he negotiated commerce agreements in Paris; he roughly doubled size of the US with the Louisiana Purchase; he sent out Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the American West.
Jefferson’s passionate defense of limited government depended on his passionate defense of unlimited movement. He understood that the pursuit of happiness—reaping the fruits of our own labors, and raising our own families—is impeded by borders; that the prospects for liberty improve with a way out. So it has been from the beginning of history. And from the beginning of life on earth.
Betzig, L. L. 2017. Eusociality. In L. Workman et al., eds. Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, in press.
Boles, J. B. 2017. Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty. New York: Basic Books.
Foster, E. A. et al. 1998. Jefferson fathered slave’s last child. Nature 396: 27-28.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.