It has been 20 years since the historian Annette Gordon-Reed published "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," a book that successfully challenged the prevailing perceptions of both figures. In a piece for The New York Times Book Review, submitted just before the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., Gordon-Reed reflects on the complexities that endure in our understanding of Hemings and the language we use to characterize her.
Sally Hemings has been described as "an enigma," the enslaved woman who first came to public notice at the turn of the 19th century when James Callender, an enemy of the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, wrote with racist virulence of "SALLY," who lived at Monticello and had borne children by Jefferson. Hemings came back into the news earlier this year, after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation announced plans to restore a space where Hemings likely resided, for a time, at Monticello. A number of news reports as well as comments on social media discussing the plans drew the ire of many readers because they referred to Hemings as Jefferson's "mistress" and used the word "relationship" to describe the connection between the pair, as if those words inevitably denote positive things. They do not, of course — especially when the word "mistress" is modified by the crucial word "enslaved."
When I published my first book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," in 1997, most people knew of Hemings from two works: Fawn Brodie's biography "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History" (1974) and Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel "Sally Hemings" (1979), both of which sought to rescue Hemings's personhood. More typically, the scholarship written to disprove her connection to Jefferson routinely diminished Hemings's humanity. The arguments that the story couldn't be true because Jefferson would never be involved with "a slave girl" and that such a person was too low to have influenced Jefferson recurred in various formulations in historical writings over many years, as if the designation "slave girl" told readers all they needed to know. My first book was designed to expose the inanity of those, and other, arguments. I wrote a second book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," to flesh out Hemings's personal history.
As the battle over whether Hemings and Jefferson had been in a relationship has receded, the question of what type of relationship they could possibly have been in has come to the fore. A recent Washington Post piece, reflecting on the terminology used in the announcement of the restoration project, insisted that Hemings should be seen primarily as Jefferson's "property," noting that by law he could compel her to have sex — rape her — whenever he wanted. Another Post article about Hemings that appeared earlier in the year had used the words "mistress" and "relationship," drawing critical responses: One commenter said that Hemings should be thought of as "a sex trafficked slave"; even Teen Vogue weighed in: "As a slave, Hemings was not afforded the privilege of self-determination, meaning she didn't do what she wanted; she did what she was told." These were understandable interventions given the desire so many people still have to portray slavery as less monstrous than it was. At the same time, the talk in these rejoinders of Hemings as simply "property," as if she were akin to an inanimate object or nonsentient being, turns aside decades of historiography that makes clear that enslaved people, when they had chances, often acted to shape their circumstances to the extent that they could. The language echoes the arguments of Jefferson scholars who treated Hemings's legal status as the definitive answer to the question of what did and did not happen in her life.
It's true: Hemings was, by law, Jefferson's property. But she was also a human being. Contingency, which historians know is always in operation, plays a crucial role in human affairs, and it did so in the way the law of property shaped Hemings's story. Enigmatic as she may be, Hemings had a vision of her life and self that she imparted to her family. Her son Madison Hemings relayed that vision in recollections notable for their bare-boned clarity and the extent to which his statements can be corroborated. Her vision should always matter when we write about her. Law was pivotal to Hemings's understanding of her life. She knew its power. For a brief but life-defining moment — just over two years — she, unlike the vast majority of enslaved people, was in a place where the law was on her side. It was a tool she could use. Very critically, both she and Jefferson believed that.
Sally Hemings had the extraordinary experience of living in pre-revolutionary Paris. Throughout the 18th century, every petition for freedom in the city was granted. She, and undoubtedly her brother James, eight years her senior, who had been in France training to be a chef for three years before she arrived, understood that the laws of Virginia did not automatically apply in France. Jefferson was on the defensive about this his entire time in the country. That is almost certainly why he put James and Sally Hemings on the payroll with the other servants at his residence, the Hôtel de Langeac. The siblings were paid wages near the very highest rate in the city for a chef de cuisine and chambermaid. They had access to other people of color, as their neighborhood had the greatest concentration of such people in Paris, a small group who helped one another. There were lawyers who filed petitions on behalf of the enslaved. They did so pro bono and for money, which the Hemings siblings had.
At some point, Sally Hemings became "Mr. Jefferson's concubine," in the words of Madison Hemings. In 1789, pregnant by Jefferson, she refused to return to Virginia and be "re-enslaved." Were she to return, any child she bore there would be enslaved. This was a bold gambit for a 16-year-old, even at a time, unlike today, when females that age were not thought of as children. The age of consent in Virginia in the 1780s was 10, and was raised to 12 in the 1820s. It is easy to see how her experiences, and the energy and optimism of youth, led her to think she could do this. She had learned to speak French well, and she was not alone. She had James, whose decision near the end of his stay to hire a tutor to help him perfect his French grammar suggests he thought they could survive there. They had seen a different world, with different possibilities in it.
As always, context matters: None of the other young people at the Hôtel de Langeac — not Jefferson's daughters, not his secretary, William Short — wanted to return to America. His eldest daughter, Martha, was thinking of ways to remain. To get Sally Hemings to come back with him, Jefferson promised her a good life at Monticello, and that their children would be freed when they became adults. Madison Hemings said that his mother "implicitly relied" on Jefferson's promises, a statement that troubled me when I first wrote about Hemings — subjects often exasperate biographers. It was not until I began researching my second book that I could find any probable reason why she might do this.
Hemings and Jefferson did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of a web of family relationships at Monticello that mattered to both of them. Hemings shared a father, John Wayles, with Jefferson's wife, Martha. Such connections were rarely meaningful to the whites involved, and the enslaved likely had no expectations about them. But the connection clearly meant something to Jefferson, who saw the Hemings family through the prism of his deep feelings for his wife, whose death before he went to Paris shattered him.
Sally Hemings could not have missed Jefferson's response to her family. For stretches of her childhood, until he freed them, Jefferson didn't know where her brothers were, as they went off to "hire their own time" (which was against the law) and keep the money they earned. Hemings and her sisters, unlike all others on the mountain, were totally exempted from fieldwork, even during harvest time. An overseer remembered Jefferson instructing him not to exercise any power over the Hemings women. What did this mean for the institution of slavery in America? What did it mean for the hundreds of other people Jefferson enslaved during his lifetime? Virtually nothing, as it did not transform American slavery or change the lives of others enslaved on Jefferson's plantations. But it meant a great deal to the six Hemings-Wayles children, who had very different lives and destinies than others enslaved at Monticello. The need to write about enslaved people sociologically — what happened to the group as a whole — should not foreclose considerations of individual enslaved people's lives. We learn much about the institution from both perspectives.
Hemings, with the aid of what she and Jefferson considered to be the power of French law, extracted promises from Jefferson. When they returned to Virginia, however, his power was again plenary. He could have reneged on it all. But he did not. He kept his promises, as Madison Hemings notes, asserting in another part of the recollection that this was a rare thing for whites to do when dealing with blacks. Of the near 700 people Jefferson owned over the course of his life, Sally Hemings and her children were the only nuclear family to leave slavery at Monticello at Jefferson's evident direction.
Though enslaved, Sally Hemings helped shape her life and the lives of her children, who got an almost 50-year head start on emancipation, escaping the system that had engulfed their ancestors and millions of others. Whatever we may feel about it today, this was important to her.