When writing a brief note on Sally Hemings [c. 1773 CE – 1835 CE] a bit of context might be deemed necessary. As an American male of European heritage, I do not claim to fully understand the dynamics of the evils of slavery, especially when complicated and intensified by issues of sex and child bearing. My years living as a racial minority in China’s Sichuan Province in the 1980s do not qualify me to discuss the Black Experience in the United States, however enlightening it may have been to be held to be representative of a people the women of which were often considered bad smelling and promiscuous, though not particularly fertile, and the men of which were usually thought of as physically strong but generally none too bright.
Fortunately since 1998 when the process of modern reevaluation of the relationship of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson began in earnest, there have been many thoughtful analyses of the racial aspects of their connection, as well as a few stalwart dissenters from the historical consensus that written records, DNA analysis, and oral tradition all support the contention that Jefferson fathered six children by his slave, four of whom survived.
There are many issues of interest, including the rationale behind Hemings’ return to Virginia and slavery from Paris, where she could have petitioned for her freedom. There is an oral tradition that indicates Sally may have been pregnant as she returned from Paris, and was told by Jefferson that he would emancipate their children. The relationship was, to say the least, complex.
One of the complications sometimes underemphasized is the fact that Sally was evidently the younger half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles, who died in 1782.
John Wayles, Martha Wayles Jefferson ’s father, took Sally Hemings’ mother, a mulatto slave named Betty Hemings, as his concubine after his third wife died. They had 6 children over the course of 12 years, all born into slavery. Sally, née Sarah, appears to have been born in July of 1773, two months after the death of her father, 25 years after the birth of her half-sister Martha, and 30 years after the birth of Jefferson. Sally’s relationship with Jefferson appears to have begun about 1787, when she at the age of 14 accompanied Jefferson’s youngest legitimate daughter to Paris, where the future President was living as a 44 year-old widower. Some hold, however, the liaison did not begin until they returned to Monticello in 1789.
There seems to be something a bit strange about having a sexual liaison with your dead wife’s younger half-sister. Jefferson was never entirely conventional about religion, but in any case relationships between a widower and his dead wife’s sister fell into a gray area in which local custom played nearly as great a role as the Table of Kindred in The Book of Common Prayer and the doctrines of Canon Law regarding prohibition of marriage between individuals related by marriage and blood. Legal clarity, such as it was, in the English-speaking world was not provided until much later: the United Kingdom’s Marriage Act 1835 prohibited unions of widowers with their wife’s sisters, but sanctioned such unions as already existed. The Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act 1907 allowed such relationships, while permitting individual members of the clergy to refuse on grounds of conscience to conduct marriages which would previously have been prohibited.
The practice of taking slaves as concubines in pre-Civil War Virginia, as evidenced by both Jefferson and his father-in-law, deplorable as it was on many grounds, seems almost straightforward by comparison.
The psychology of a man who would maintain a relationship with his dead wife’s half-sister might in some ways be as disturbing as the psychology of a man who would choose to have such relationship with a slave he owned, or a woman 30 years his junior.
As interesting, and possibly less pathological, is the psychology of a woman in such a relationship. It is probably too facile to draw parallels with the putative domestic slavery of most unenfranchised married white women of the day, or to ascribe her accommodation and compromises entirely to internalization of the limits chattel slavery placed upon its victims. But few circumstances illuminate the weirdness underlying the peculiar institution of slavery more intriguingly than the contrast between the situations of Sally Hemings and her half-sister Martha.
- The comments of John and Abigail Adams about Jefferson, and Hemings, in their correspondence are usually written off as hostile sniping by Jefferson’s partisans, but seldom demonstrated to be factually inaccurate: there are many collections of their letters.
- Joshua Rothman’s Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787 -1861 starts with a description of the Hemings-Jefferson affair, and proceeds to provide a scholarly, detailed, and perceptive analysis of the relationship of the races in the pre-segregation days of outright slavery.
- Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello chronicles the family’s history, including the entry of many of the descendants into white society.