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From the files of the Grand Inquisitor: Jefferson
Part 2 of 2
GI: You owned a slave woman named Sally Hemings.
TJ: Yes, I did.
GI: She was part of the inheritance of your wife from her father.
TJ: That’s right. She was a child when Mrs. Jefferson died. She became a servant and companion to my daughter.
GI: Who joined you in Paris after the war.
TJ: Yes. That was when I first got to know Sally.
GI: She was a young woman by then.
GI: And your wife had been dead for several years.
GI: You were attracted to her.
TJ: Yes. And I think she felt something for me.
GI: But what could she feel? She was your slave.
TJ: Not true. She was free in France. I paid her a wage there, just as I paid her older brother James. They could have left my service but chose not to. I think that counted for something. And when I was recalled to America, they returned with me. They didn’t have to.
GI: What were their alternatives, really? France was no home for two black Americans.
TJ: James learned French well and Sally passably. And neither was noticeably black. Many French men and women had skins darker than theirs. Sally’s hair was as straight as my daughters’. I concede that remaining in France would have posed a challenge, but not because of their heritage. They returned to America not because they had to but because they wanted to.
GI: Sally had another reason.
TJ: Yes. She was bearing my child. She knew if she remained in France her son would be free, which meant more to her than her own freedom. And so I promised that if she returned with me I would grant him his freedom on his twenty-first birthday. The same would be true for any other children she bore me.
GI: This persuaded her.
TJ: She agreed to come.
GI: Was her child freed on his twenty-first birthday?
TJ: The boy did not survive his first year.
GI: But there were other children.
TJ: Yes. Several. And all were freed at adulthood.
GI: So your relationship with Sally Hemings persisted for many years.
TJ: It couldn’t be the same in America as it might have been in France. Habits and feelings were too strong in Virginia. Sally had privileges not shared by the other servants. They knew of her relationship to me. I’m sure they spoke of it among themselves. When her children were freed on reaching adulthood, and others were not, the difference was obvious. Some of the children had a resemblance to me.
GI: Did people beyond the plantation know of it?
TJ: In the South this sort of thing was common. Often it created friction when the master of the plantation had a wife, who understandably resented any servant women her husband consorted with. My wife was dead, and I consorted with no other women. But, to your question, stories circulated beyond Monticello.
GI: Spread by your political enemies.
TJ: Mr. Callender, in particular. An ungrateful wretch. The stories did me little harm.
GI: Despite their truth?
GI: As I said, my situation was common in the South. And it wasn’t wholly unlike what could be found in the North. The tradition of coverture made women effectively the property of their husbands. They couldn’t be sold, of course—but I wasn’t going to sell Sally, and she knew it. A woman depended on her husband for support, and was as bound economically as any slave woman. The decision Sally made to return to America was as free as the decisions many white women made to marry their husbands. And their decisions to stay with their husbands were compelled by economic realities almost as stern as the realities that tied Sally to me. If Sally had demanded her freedom, after our return to Virginia, I suppose I would have given it to her. But where would she have gone? She had a better life at Monticello than she could have expected elsewhere. Her children were well cared for and educated. She never wanted for anything.
GI: Except her freedom.
TJ: I saw no sign she wanted that. For her children, yes. And they received it.
GI: You died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
TJ: I never thought I would make it that long.
GI: And so did John Adams.
TJ: I hadn’t heard of his death, and so I assumed he still lived. I had no way of knowing he died on the same day I did, Massachusetts being far from Virginia.
GI: Were you happy with what you and he and the others of your generation accomplished?
TJ: I wished for more. Independence was no small achievement. And laying the foundations of democracy. But I shuddered to consider what our failure to rid the country of slavery portended. In my last years I could think of little else. The South and the North were growing farther and farther apart. It couldn’t end well.
GI: It didn’t.
TJ: And yet the country survived. We didn’t get everything right, but what we created had staying power. And, beyond my wildest expectations, my claim about all men being created equal became a standard Americans felt obliged to live up to.
GI: They are still working on that.
TJ: I set the bar high.
(The principal source on Sally Hemings is a recollection by her and Jefferson’s son Madison: https://www.monticello.org/slavery/slave-memoirs-oral-histories/recollections-of-madison-hemings/)