Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Discussion of Slavery in the 21st Century

This writing assignment examines Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Discussion of Slavery in the 21st Century

By Tom White

Much has been written about not only Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, but also about Jefferson’s views regarding slavery. Three historians, Annette Gordon-Reed, Paul Finkelman, and Lois Horton, who have written extensively on the subject, are be examined in order to gain greater insight to understanding the Jefferson/Hemings relationship. In addition to examining the Jefferson/Hemings relationship, a second part of this examination shall study how in the 21st century, Americans have come to grips with the image of Jefferson the founding father, versus Jefferson the slave holder.

The historian Annette Gordon-Reed in her works The Treaty and Did They Love Each Other breaks down the fundamental institution of 18th century marriage, and then makes some rather clear comparisons between that institution and the relationship that existed between the slave Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. In examining 18th century marriage norms which were legally only the purview of white society, many of the basic tenements which are implicit to the foundation of marriage were also present in the Jefferson/Heming relationship Gordon-Reed argues. Although during their thirty eight years together Jefferson never “flaunted his relationship with her or made public declarations that would alienate friends…”[1] Jefferson and Hemings conducted themselves for all intents and purposes as married people. Gordon-Reed would argue that they did this through a type of quid pro quo arrangement, where Jefferson for his part provided for Hemings and her children, and she in turn cared for him.

Many would argue that Jefferson was a slave owner and Hemings a slave and therefore had no choice, but Gordon-Reed would argue that does fully apply to this situation. Gordon-Reed argues that while both Hemings and Jefferson where in Paris together, where slavery was not legal, Hemings was under no obligation to accompany Jefferson back to America. It was only through the mutual bargaining between the two that Hemings agreed to return to Virginia with Jefferson, and this involved a choice. The counterargument could also be made that Jefferson for his part was only interested in Hemings for satisfying his carnal pleasures, but Gordon-Reed makes the effective argument that Jefferson upon his return to Virginia would have had the choice of “many other women, enslaved or not.”[2] It is therefore quite reasonable to assume that there was something more akin to a romantic relationship going on between them, something which was probably more analogous to a marriage. If Jefferson did not have some true feelings for Hemings, why as Gordon-Reed points out did Jefferson ignore “his families wishes to send Hemings away…Instead, [on the contrary] Jefferson arranged his life at Monticello so that Hemings would be in it every day that he was there…”[3] Furthermore Gordon-Reed contends that before Hemings died she passed onto one of her sons heirlooms of personal items which belonged to Jefferson, because Gordon-Reed points out “she wanted them to know that he meant something to her.”[4] It is easy to believe that what comes with the sanctity of marriage is love, but when marriage is not a societal option one is often left with uncertainty, and one can never really know what transpired behind closed doors. Gordon-Reed however does provide a compelling argument that what did occur between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was most likely more than just a business transaction.

Annette Gordon-Reed in her works The Treaty and Did They Love Each Other only comports what historian Paul Finkelman has argued in his work Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On. Both Reed and Finkelman make the same argument that Jefferson regardless of his feelings for Sally Hemings, was clearly a proponent of slavery, and would not do anything which “would alienate friends…offend the social order and [or] harm him politically”[5] and this included manumission. In fact Finkelman notes that Jefferson “not only failed to lead on this point, but he also discouraged others from proposing emancipation.”[6] Jefferson’s portrayal by Gordon-Reed is that of a white slave owner trying to navigate the often precarious social order between whites and African Americans, while trying to maintain a relationship between himself and his black slave. Gordon-Reed although she broaches the subject of Jefferson from his relationship toward Sally Hemings, still conforms to Finkelman’s portrait of Jefferson as a man who embraced slavery, and was clearly not a vocal opponent against slavery as many would like to believe he was.

In examining how in the 21st century, Americans have come to grips with the image of Jefferson the founding father, versus Jefferson the slave holder the historian Lois Horton explores how the myth of Jefferson conflicts with the realty of Jefferson the slave owner. Horton’s research details the depth of Jefferson’s slave holdings, and compares his actions with those of his contemporaries like George Washington, and James Madison. Horton’s research points out that in 1782 voluntary manumissions became legal in Virginia, and as a consequence “many of Jefferson’s fellow Virginians had freed their slaves.”[7] George Washington for example had freed 124 slaves, and when his wife Martha died he also freed her 153 slaves. Jefferson’s record on slavery stands in sharp contrast to individuals such as Washington, in which Jefferson “freed only 8 slaves, 3 during his lifetime and 5 in his will. Jefferson [on the contrary] sold or gave away 161 slaves between 1784 and 1794 and left 130 people to be sold to settle his estate when he died in 1826.”[8]

As the social history of Jefferson’s slavery past which included his relationship to Sally Hemings and her children began to be included in the Monticello tours, and started to replace the previous celebratory history, visitor responses were solicited to gauge response. Most individuals interviewed stated “that slavery was important for understanding Monticello”[9], Horton points out though that there are still those “Older people [who] were less likely to think slavery should be part of the historical interpretation.”[10] Horton also notes that while many of those whose responses were solicited firmly believe that understanding Jefferson’s position on slavery was integral to gaining a greater understanding of Jefferson, it has done very little “to diminish their admiration for him.”[11] What is probably most important about Horton’s research is that the responses solicited from the Monticello tours seem to reveal the remarkable progress that social historians have made to American’s perception of slavery’s importance to history.

The research of all three historians, Annette Gordon-Reed, Paul Finkelman, and Lois Horton, has provided greater insight to understanding the Jefferson/Hemings relationship and through their advancement of social history have also helped individuals gain a better understanding of both the persona that is Jefferson, with that of the man.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Finkelman, Paul. “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102, no. 2 (1994): 193-228. Accessed October 07, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249430.

Gordon-Reed, Annette.  “’The Treaty’ and ‘Did They Love Each Other?’” from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family W.W. Norton, 2008. http://studythepast.com/civilrightsundergraduate/materials/gordon-reed_jefferson_hemings.pdf

Horton, Lois E. “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

 

 


[1] Annette Gordon-Reed “’The Treaty’ and ‘Did They Love Each Other?’” from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008) http://studythepast.com/civilrightsundergraduate/materials/gordon-reed_jefferson_hemings.pdf, 371

[2] Gordon-Reed “’The Treaty’ and ‘Did They Love Each Other?’” (W.W. Norton, 2008), 370

[3] Ibid, 373

[4] Ibid, 375

[5] Gordon-Reed “’The Treaty’ and ‘Did They Love Each Other?’” (W.W. Norton, 2008), 371

[6] Paul Finkelman. “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102, no. 2 (1994): 193-228. Accessed October 07, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249430, 211

[7] Lois E. Horton, “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 136

[8] Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996) 136, 112 in Lois E. Horton, “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 136

[9] Horton, “Avoiding History”, 143

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, 149

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