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Tom Chaney: Doing History - Celebrating Feet of Clay

Of Writers And Their Books: Doing History -- Celebrating Feet of Clay. Tom discusses the book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and says that it is hard to discount what he sees as a shared joy upon Jefferson's repeated return to Sally at Monticello. This column first appeared 31 October 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A World Made New

By Tom Chaney

Doing History -- Celebrating Feet of Clay

Learning history for our family involved some great trips to where history was made in these United States as well as a running commentary on the past wherever we encountered it.

Our house at 311 East Main in Horse Cave had two features that tied us to the beginnings of the republic. On a trip to Virginia in the 1950's mother snipped some of Martha Washington's ivy from Mount Vernon. 'Tis a wonder she was not arrested on the spot.

And she never tired of pointing out that the fan window just under the peak of the roof at the front of the house was the same window design that Thomas Jefferson included at Monticello high atop its wonderful mountain.

We visited both houses on that 1950's trip.

But Monticello and Jefferson continue to fascinate me. Thus it was that I read the 1974 biography of Jefferson by Fawn Brodie sometime in the late 1970's. There I encountered for the first time an account of the decades long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings.

"Fine," sez I, when I learned that Jefferson had vowed to his dying wife Martha that he would not remarry. Evidently the informal union with Sally produced four children who lived to adulthood and lasted for most of four decades. After all Sally, though a slave, was half-sister to Martha and was brought to the marriage by Martha when she came as mistress at Monticello.

But what a ruction the Brodie biography raised! I revisited Monticello soon after I had finished the book and dared to raise a question about Sally with one of the guides. Don't remember what I asked, but the response was sharp, "Humph! You've been reading that awful Brodie woman."

The rumor of the union was known from the earliest days of the 19th century. A disgruntled job seeker by the name of James Callender was the first and loudest to raise the matter. Subsequent biographers have treated the issue as though it resembled a whiff from the plantation outhouse -- all but Brodie, that is.

In 1997 Annette Gordon-Reed, scholar, attorney, and law professor, published a definitive account of the Jefferson-Hemings matter according to all the sources and the take of the Jefferson biographers. Her book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997), is a study of the biases of historians as much as it is of the continuing relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

The relationship probably began while the Jeffersons, father and two daughters, were in Paris. Sally escorted one of the daughters on the trans-Atlantic voyage to her father and became a member of the Jefferson household, along with her brother James who was studying to become a chef. Had the brother and sister remained in Paris, they could have been free.

Sally may have been pregnant with their first daughter Harriet who was born in 1795 just after the return. Harriet died less than two years later.

Five other children were born to the couple -- William Beverly in 1798, an unnamed daughter who died in 1799, Harriet II in 1801 (?), James Madison January 1805, and Thomas Eston in 1808.

These births all took place at times when Jefferson was at Monticello. According to James Madison Hemings all were freed on or near their twenty-first year. All were trained to life sustaining crafts. Jefferson evidently promised Sally the freedom of their children.

Beverly, Harriet, and Eston merged into the white world. Madison remained and spoke out about the family and was vilified therefor in the 1850's. The vilification and hatred resurfaced some twenty years later. "Whether we think he was telling the truth or not, he, black people, and all Americans deserve better."

And Gordon-Reed observes that the better will come only when the fact of the relationship can be firmly verified -- i.e. through DNA.

Within a year of the publication of this volume, such DNA verification became available. Evidence now points to the conclusion that Jefferson fathered at least one of the Hemings children.

As Gordon-Reed observes, "It seems that some people may believe in the Jefferson-Hemings liaison because they have a particular view of human beings, and they seem determined to see Thomas Jefferson as a part of the species both as a slaveholder and as a man."

And I find it hard to discount what I see as a shared joy upon Jefferson's repeated return to Sally at Monticello resulting in a considerable family.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-10-04 06:05:38
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