Sally Hemings bore President Thomas Jefferson six children, yet his legitimate descendants tried their best to discredit her story.
Little is known about the full story of Sally Hemings. Unfortunately, that is the case for the majority of slaves born in America. What we do know of Sally Hemings is preserved mostly in primary sources from Monticello — the plantation where she lived — and the memories recorded by her son Madison Hemings. Hemings herself could not leave behind any written records as most slaves could neither read nor write, thus any memories from her son were told to him orally and, therefore, can never be fully corroborated.
Here is what these limited sources do reveal about the life of Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings’ Early Life
Hemings was born around 1773, although the exact date of her birth is unknown as are the identities of her real parents. A longstanding rumor holds that Hemings is the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave, and John Wayles, her master. Madison Hemings claimed that his grandmother and her master had six children together which set in motion a cycle that would continue into another generation.
Wayles had a daughter with his wife Martha who would, in turn, go on to wed the founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Madison Hemings recorded:
“On the death of John Wayles, my grandmother, his concubine, and her children by him fell to Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, and consequently became the property of Thomas Jefferson.”
Sally Hemings was just a toddler when she first came into the possession of Thomas Jefferson. If the stories of her parentage are true, then Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, adding another bizarre layer to their already convoluted relationship.
Little else is known about her early life, other than that she was “described as industrious” and looked after Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria. The few physical descriptions that exist of Sally Hemings almost exclusively describe her as “light colored and decidedly good looking.”
Sally Hemings’ Relationship With The Jefferson Family
Thomas and Martha Jefferson had two children together: Martha (nicknamed “Patsy”) and Maria (nicknamed “Polly”) before Martha Sr. passed away in 1782. Two years later, Jefferson was sent to Paris to serve as the United States Minister to France. Jefferson had taken Patsy along to Paris with him and soon sent for nine-year-old Polly to join as well.
Sally Hemings was selected from the household staff to escort Polly on the treacherous Atlantic voyage.
The pair first disembarked at London where they stayed briefly in the house of another of the founding fathers, John Adams, who was then serving as the Minister to Britain. When Adams’ wife Abigail wrote to Jefferson to tell him of his daughter’s safe arrival, she also noted: “The old Nurse whom you expected to have attended her, was sick and unable to come. She has a Girl about 15 or 16 with her.” Hemings was actually 14 at the time.
Paris was an entirely new world for Hemings. It was not only because the city was home to nearly the same amount of people as the entire state of Virginia and the epicenter of European culture, but because while she was there, Hemings was legally free.
While in France, Hemings was paid a monthly salary of two dollars for her services as a maid to the two Jefferson daughters. It was also during this time in France that Hemings, as her son Madison later claimed, “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine.”
In 1789, Jefferson prepared to return home to Virginia with his household and family in tow. In a shocking act of defiance, Hemings refused to return with him. Once she had tasted freedom in France, she could not bring herself to return to a life of endless servitude.
Jefferson was eventually able to persuade Hemings to return with him, but, as Madison noted: “To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of 21 years.”
The Return To Virginia And Ensuing Scandal
The now 16-year-old Hemings returned to Monticello in 1789 and resumed her role as a maid to the Jefferson girls. This time, though, without receiving a wage. Hemings and Jefferson continued their intimate relationship after their return and Hemings went on to bear the president six children starting in 1790.
Four of their six offspring would survive into adulthood and, true to his word, Jefferson eventually granted them their freedom. Sons Madison and Eston (born in 1805 and 1808, respectively) were freed in Jefferson’s will after his death in 1826. Beverley and Harriet (the couple’s eldest pair of children born in 1798 and 1801, respectively) were permitted to leave Monticello after which they both passed themselves off as white. No other slave family was permitted this freedom.
Jefferson was sworn in as the third president of the United States in 1801 and it was only a year later that the scandal regarding his relationship with Hemings broke.
In September 1802 journalist James Callender, who had also exposed Alexander Hamilton’s illicit affair with Maria Reynolds, wrote in the Richmond Recorder:
“It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves…Her name is Sally.”
Callender’s scurrilous article is the first confirmed written reference to the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. The president himself never recorded anything about the liaison, although to his supporters’ surprise he never issued a formal denial.
The exposé claimed that the relationship was already common knowledge in Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. It is entirely possible that this claim was true since sexual relations between masters and their so-called property were widespread. Adams, who had been a close friend of Jefferson’s even though he was also staunchly anti-slavery, despaired that “The story of [Sally Hemings] is a natural and almost unavoidable Consequence of that foul contagion (pox) in the human Character Negro Slavery.”
Adams notably does not deny the plausibility of the relationship and continued that, “A great Lady has said she did not believe there was a Planter in Virginia who could not reckon among his slaves a number of his children.” This tragic, but often overlooked, aspect of slavery in the United States has brought another element of controversy to the story of Hemings in recent years.
Controversy And Legacy
The relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is often described as an “affair” and she is referred to as his “concubine” or “mistress.” Yet since a slave’s body was the literal property of her master, she had no legal right to refuse his advances. Modern critics argue that if Hemings had no right to refuse Jefferson then she was not able to willingly consent and therefore the “affair” between master and slave was nothing more than rape.
The true nature of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings will never be known, but Callender’s 1802 article was the start of a deluge of gossip and rumors that have continued over two centuries and become an essential part of American history in its own right.
Although the story of Hemings and her children has been widely known for years, most serious historians dismissed it as little more than idle gossip by pointing to the lack of written evidence. Jefferson’s family has always claimed the rumors to be false while Hemings’ descendants insisted they were true.
Nonetheless, several visitors to Monticello during Hemings lifetime noted that her children very closely resembled the Jefferson children. The fact that Jefferson never denied the relationship and that Hemings was the only slave family he freed would also seem to support the notion that the rumors were true.
In 1998, DNA testing of samples taken from both Jefferson and Hemings’ descendants did indeed indicate that there was a link between “an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome” and the Hemings family. Although the testing could not identify the specific individual, the study concluded that “the simplest and most probable” explanation was that Jefferson had fathered Hemings’ children after all.
Hemings herself is often lost in the grander controversy surrounding the story of her affair with Jefferson. Just as with her childhood, very little is known about her later life which is an unfortunate reflection upon the fact that nearly everything known about Sally Hemings stems from her relationship with the founding father.
Hemings was never legally given her freedom. Instead, her former charge Martha Jefferson unofficially freed her after her father’s death. In 1826, she moved to Charlottesville with her sons Madison and Eston, who were all listed as “free white people” in the 1830 census. Hemings passed away in 1835 and the exact location of her grave is unknown.
After learning about Sally Hemings, read the full story behind founding father Alexander Hamilton’s scandalous affair with Maria Reynolds. Then, read about these seedy goings-on at the White House, including JFK’s homemade pornography.