Many are familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s concubinage of his slave, Sally Hemings. What few realize, however, is the consequence this holds for Jefferson’s reputation and the credibility of his vision of the perfect Union.
For many, Thomas Jefferson exists in a gray area of redeemable and irredeemable traits that cannot be reconciled with one another. This feeling of ambiguity is not unwarranted, as our great Founding Father, who dedicated his life to the fruition of his ideal and most harmonious republic, was also a slave owner. This is a dichotomy of identity that is especially difficult to understand as Jefferson engaged in a sexual arrangement with one of his own slaves Sally Hemings. As the gray areas become grayer, we are left to make sense of how Thomas Jefferson allowed himself to carry on such a disharmonious and nonconsensual relationship that undermined his own beliefs and teachings about the sanctity of the family as a foundation for republican government.
To understand what Jefferson deemed to be at risk with the continuation of slavery, one must first examine the harmonious household. As a primary figure of the Revolutionary Generation, Jefferson looked to the family as the starting point upon which to base our society, particularly our government. A household built on harmony and consent is one that will function and serve its purpose well, just as any union ought to do. The household became an especially powerful sphere during the early stages of American development, when it was fueled by bountiful land, religious diversity, and ample opportunity to expand the power of the head-of-household – the patriarch (Shammas 1995, 12).
As a white, land-owning father and husband, Thomas Jefferson was the epitome of the household patriarch. Having secured the authority of his own demographic with his fellow Revolutionaries, Jefferson helped to install a type of republicanism that based itself on the household and used family values to address social and cultural problems (Shammas 1995, 106). Securing household-based patriarchal control in this way meant that there would inevitably be populations in a perpetually dependent status, Family, including wives and children, relied upon their patriarch to provide any resources necessary to live (Shammas 1995, 123). And of course those who helped to establish the patriarch’s power via the land-to-labor ratio that was so high in America, which is to say the slaves, lived in utter dependence vis-à-vis the patriarch (Shammas 1995, 121).
While one might expect Jefferson to support the institution of slavery as it helped secure the patriarch’s power, Jefferson argued that it was an institution that brought “unhappy influence” upon the people. Jefferson despairs over the state of war that slavery’s despotism brought upon the household. He especially recognizes the ways that the resulting domestic corruption perpetuates a society void of morality across generations. Man is, Jefferson argues, a naturally imitative creature. So, when a child sees his father, the master, unleashing the worst of his passions onto the slave, it becomes a learned behavior that is exercised daily and throughout the child’s life, perpetuating the instability of the family union. Jefferson recognizes that the institution of slavery is based on the “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” and that it violates the harmony of the domestic sphere (Notes on the State of Virginia).
It is important, then, that owning slaves and the intertwined violent nature that comes with it, ends, lest it permanently fracture and jeopardize the sanctity of the familial institution. However, abolishing and successfully phasing out slavery and slaves themselves from Anglo-America would not be so simple, and Jefferson knew this. He saw slavery as a wolf held by the ear, too dangerous to continue holding and too dangerous to let go (Letter from Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820). Holding the wolf in place meant it would eventually grow restless and fight back – just as it had already in revolts in the Caribbean, predicting a civil war that could destroy the union. Letting the wolf go, though, meant it would surely maul and destroy what it had been growling at for so long.
Jefferson viewed slavery as detrimental to society, particularly to the sanctity of the family, but he also concluded that the removal of slavery would pose a greater risk of destroying the union than keeping it. While Jefferson continued his abolition efforts, it is important to realize that he did not do so to allow slaves to be generated into society (Gordon-Reed & Onuf 2016, 148). Rather, he envisioned the freed slaves establishing their own independently capable society somewhere that was separate from the white republic (Notes on the State of Virginia). He surmised that integrating African Americans into society would further risk the republic, as it still destroys the harmony of the white republican family, preventing the progress of the union even further.
So, what about Sally Hemings? Does she and her interaction with Thomas Jefferson not violate each of the moral standards to which he held his countrymen? It would certainly seem that way, as this relationship arguably disrupts the unity within his own household at Monticello. Not only would Jefferson have his white family to take care of, but he would then have a separate slave family. These two families could not possibly exist in harmony with one another, according to his own premises, especially as the legitimate white family would be ranked above (in some cases they would even oversee) the slave family. This hierarchy would inevitably pit the two separated families each other, especially as they would not consent to occupy the same space.
Jefferson’s efforts to reconcile his involvement with Sally Hemings begins with the time he spends in France. Not only is this the time when he begins to pursue a sexual relationship with his inherited slave girl, but it also marks a great shift in the way he thought about slavery, including his own slaves (Will of Peter Jefferson, 1757). When his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, passed away two years before his trip, he promised her that he would never marry again, sparing the children a stepmother (Gordon-Reed 2008, 145). This promise did not function solely on a romantic level, however, as it also meant that anything inheritable – slaves, money, even Monticello itself – would stay within Jefferson’s family, rather than risking that it should be passed down to his potential new wife’s family, violating the unity of his family.
As Jefferson’s concubine, Sally Hemings fit well within the parameters of this agreement with his wife (Hemings 1873). Colonel Jefferson would never marry his property, granting him the ability to carry out a nonconsensual relationship with Hemings, just as John Wayles had done with Hemings’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings (ibid.). The significance of France, and carrying on the relationship in that setting, is that as long as she lived in France, Sally Hemings was free. This negated her status as a slave, instead redefining her as a servant. This shift in classification and perspective meant that she was no longer part of the wolf that Jefferson was holding by the ears, as her inability to consent was (at least temporarily) affirmed. Rather, she was now like a domesticated lap dog that was allowed to be part of the household without sacrificing the harmony within it. He then further removed her from slavery by personally buying her fine clothes (Gordon-Reed 2008, 298). This meant she was also visually separate and different from other American slaves, in addition to having some autonomy over the wages she was earning during her servanthood in France, yet another way for Jefferson to ameliorate her status into a consenting part of his household.
Jefferson’s self-fashioned role as Sally Hemings’ own patriarch continued as they returned to America. Hemings had every opportunity and reason to stay behind, yet she gave up freedom in favor of the deal she struck with Jefferson. Hemings knew that, as a man who could never marry again, Jefferson had all the more reason to bring Hemings back with him (Gordon-Reed 2008, 139). Hemings also recognized that the threat of separating the family was the greatest threat to a slave, while the promise of keeping them together was the best promise a master could keep. Jefferson knew this as well and used that knowledge to ensure the freedom of her children once they turned twenty-one years old, along with other special privileges (Hemings 1873). As a man who believed the family was the most precious society of all, it should come as no surprise that he would go to such grand lengths not only to provide for the Hemingses, but also to stave off the threat of familial factions within his own home (Jefferson, Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Randolph Jefferson).
Upon their return to Virginia, Jefferson continued his assimilation of Sally Hemings in his household, maintaining his role as a good patriarch by concealing her within the house, so he could maintain his control over her and render her invisible. Jefferson moved her farther from the borders of Monticello, and the borders of his power, by moving her closer to the main house until she was inside (Jefferson, Farm Book). He continued to hold her within his home, making her as much a part of the domestic operations as the walls within the house, and keeping her conveniently close yet hidden away (Gordon-Reed 2008, 373). While bringing her closer to him would present its own set of problems and challenges, it was the aforementioned attempts at reconciliation, such as the promises to his late wife and his inclusion of Sally Hemings in his family life, that ultimately won out and allowed him to keep her.
Jefferson was not the only one who hid away the disharmonious factions arising within his home. His granddaughter, Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge, held the same strong belief about the preservation of the family as the Colonel did. She maintains that Thomas Jefferson’s overall morality made him too good a man to commit such an “atrocity” as carrying on an affair with a slave (Coolidge 1858). Furthermore, his complete and total love for his daughters made it impossible for him to fall into bed with the woman designated as their caretaker. However, Coolidge’s presentation of Jefferson may have been a cynical attempt to save his reputation. Jefferson’s pursuit of Sally Hemings was the result of the corruption that Jefferson himself argued was the patrimony of slavery’s violent tradition, and the family surely recognized this. To protect their own generation, and those in the future, they had to preserve the image of their patriarch.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential figures of the Revolutionary generation, and keeping his image positive was vital to preserving and implementing his ideals for the nation. After all, how was the nation supposed to fall in line with the model of a new republic, undergirded by harmonious households, if he himself lacked such a household? If the Revolutionaries, our own Founding Fathers, couldn’t get it right, then what did that mean for the generations to follow? Indeed, to protect Jefferson’s public image, he and his family had to first and foremost preserve his private persona. This would also serve to head off the threat of generational corrosion, just as he wrote about in Notes, by reconciling and concealing his affairs with Sally Hemings, to prevent the same corrosion from going public, and detrimentally affecting the new republic and its unity.
Coolidge, Ellen W. Randolph. 1858. “Ellen W. Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge.” In Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters, Monticello. http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1266.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2008. The Hemingses of Monticello. First. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Gordon-Reed, Annette and Peter S. Onuf. 2016. Most Blessed of the Patriarches: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Hemings, Madison. 1873. “Life Among the Lowly.” Pike County Republican, March 13, 1873.
Jefferson, Peter. 1757. “Will of Peter Jefferson.” Albemarle County Will Book 2, 32-34, July 13, 1757. Monticello. http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1797.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1789. “Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Randolph Jefferson.” January 11, 1798.
—. 1774. Farm Book.
—. 1820. “From Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes.” Founders Online, National Archives, April 22, 1820. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1234.
—. Notes on the State of Virginia, queries XIV, XVIII.
Shammas, Carole. 1995. “Anglo-American Household Government in Comparative Perspective.” The William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1): 104-144.