Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Defense of His Character

"I never had done a single act or been concerned in any transaction which I feared to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated."--Thomas Jefferson, April 15, 1806.

Much has been written about the alleged affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Many historians now write about this as though it were fact, while it has not been proven as such. See: http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account

Lance Banning stated the case well: "We are asked to believe this U.S. minister to France, a man with ready access to some of the most beautiful and accomplished women in Europe, initiated an affair with a 15 or 16-year-old slave girl, whom Abigail Adams had recently described as more in need of care than the 8-year-old she had attended. This girl was the personal servant (and likely something of a confidant) of Jefferson's two daughters—an individual, that is, whose discretion the accomplished politician and diplomat could not possibly have trusted. Although it may well be that Sally lived, during much of her time in Paris, in the cross-town convent where Patsy and Polly were being schooled, we are to assume that Thomas and Sally carried on their affair in the crowded two-bedroom townhouse where Jefferson lived—and did so without arousing suspicion of David Humphreys, who slept in one of the bedrooms, or of anyone else who was there. She became pregnant with Jefferson's child, the story continues, entered into an agreement with him, and (with Jefferson taking care that she would have a berth convenient to his daughters) sailed back to the U.S. in this condition with him, his two girls, and her brother James. The baby, if it existed, either died soon after birth, leaving no trace other than Madison Hemings's statement, or became the elusive, unrecorded 12-year-old slave named "Tom," mentioned in James Callender's infamous 1802 newspaper accusation, who, if he later took the name Tom Woodson, was not Thomas Jefferson's child. 

"According to this story, Jefferson would continue in a monogamous and fertile relationship with Sally for nearly 20 years, ultimately fathering five or six more children (the first of whom, however, was not born until 1795). During these twenty years, he was content, as was she, to confine the relationship to the times when he was at Monticello, although he took other slaves with him wherever he went and as many as a dozen to the White House. On these terms, he continued in the relationship until at least age 64, when Eston Hemings was conceived, five years after he had been publicly accused of a relationship with Sally and while he was contemplating his second presidential term. He carried it on, all this while, while constantly surrounded by visitors and by a large white family, none of whom—and least of all the daughters who would have known Sally best—ever had the least suspicion that he was involved with any of his slaves or ever saw the slightest indication that he was closer to Sally than to any other servant. [Note: As established by Elizabeth Langhorne in her family biography of Jefferson, "Monticello: A Family Story" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1987), after the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson's "intimate companion" at Monticello was his daughter Martha, who accompanied him on his every stay and return to Monticello, in addition to the frequent presence of his eleven grandchildren.]

"Indeed, the grandchildren who grew up at Monticello and managed it during Jefferson's last years did not merely say that any such relationship was wholly unsuspected—never a touch or a word or a glance—they said it was simply impossible in this particular house. "His apartment," his granddaughter told her husband, "had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze." In fact, apart from Madison Hemings, no one who ever lived at Monticello and none of the uncounted visitors who stayed there overnight ever said that he was involved with Sally—not even Sally herself, though she lived in practical freedom in Charlottesville for ten years after his death. 

"It is possible, of course, that everyone except Madison Hemings was lying or covering up or engaged in psychological "denial." Jefferson's family had an interest in protecting his reputation, much as Madison Hemings had an interest in claiming descent from a famous man. I see no reason to think that any of these people were deliberately making things up. What of eye-witnesses who had no obvious interest in the matter either way? Former household slave Isaac Jefferson mentioned Sally Hemings in later years; but did not so much as hint that there was any special relationship between her and Jefferson. And in another interview, Edmund Bacon, who was overseer at Monticello when Eston was conceived and may have worked there for years before, raised the subject of the accusations against his employer. 

"He freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ______'s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a mourning, when I went up to Monticello very early. 

"The girl was certainly Harriet Hemings, Sally's daughter. The father was named by Bacon but protected by the reporter, a preacher in Kentucky. 

"All of Sally Hemings's children who lived to adulthood did achieve their freedom, either de facto or de jure, and it is often said that they were the only nuclear family of Monticello who did. However, contrary to the terms of the "treaty" as Madison Hemings described it, Sally Hemings did not receive extraordinary privileges at Monticello. Jefferson fed, clothed, and treated Sally Hemings pretty much indistinguishably from his other household servants, recorded her life and childbirths in much the same way, and left her as part of the estate. By Madison Hemings's own account, moreover, Jefferson showed no particular affection for her children and reared them much as he did other household slaves." (Lance Banning, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?" The Claremont Institute, August 30, 2001).

Douglass Adair adds this: "Like other men, Jefferson was sensitive to these false accusations. . . Publicly, however, he made no response to these unsrcupulous attacks. 'I should have fancied myself half guilty,' he said, 'had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn them respect by any notice from myself.' [Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. George Logan, June 20, 1816]. Nor did he use the channels of civil authority to silence his accusers. True to the declarations he had made in his inaugural address and elsewhere, he defended his countrymen's right to a free press. . . [Regarding this issue], one of the recently discovered documents . . . [is] a letter written by nineteenth century biographer Henry Randall (who published a three volume biography,Life of Jefferson (1858)), recounting a conversation at Monticello between himself and Jefferson's oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In this conversation Randolph confirmed . . . that 'there was not the shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or any other instance had commerce with female slaves.' [See also, "The Jefferson Scandals" (1960), Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), pp 169.]"

Additionally, "Colonel Randolph said that he had spent a good share of his life closely about Mr. Jefferson, at home [Jefferson never locked his bedroom door by day and left it open at night, Colonel Randolph sleeping within the sound of his breathing at night] and on journeys, in all sorts of circumstances, and he fully believed him chaste and pure -- as "immaculate a man as God ever created." [Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868).]" 

This is only a brief account, and readers are encouraged to read and examine all of the evidence For example, “. . . Robert Turner's 'The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission' (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) . . . presents a substantial argument for the position that Hemings's paternity is still unknown.” — Alan Pell Crawford, Wall Street Journal, Sat., April 14, 2012, p. C8.   However, while for some doubts may persist, an honest review of the arguments leaves one to wonder why the claims are so often accepted as truth.


 By: J. David Gowdy, President & Founder, The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute

1 comment:

Jeremiah Burton said...

Thanks. I'm tired of hearing about this alleged affair, as if it was a fact.