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A risky American story

'Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy'
by Annette Gordon-Reed

Web posted on: Wednesday, March 03, 1999 4:27:54 PM

(CNN) -- With an irresistible style and compassion, Annette Gordon-Reed writes about Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings. Her fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged 38-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.


Chapter One

Madison Hemings

In any debate between mind and conscience the omission of evidence is unforgivable. This remains partly true when the evidence is not immediately at hand and must be sought, but the sin is compounded after it is found and treated with disdain.

--Arna Bontemps, Great Slave Narratives

Fari quae sentiat, "To speak what he thinks"

--Motto of the Randolph family

It has become a cliche to refer to the "invisibility" of black people in the United States as a way of suggesting that blacks are neither really seen nor heard by their white countrymen. The term, which conveys the sense of powerlessness that many blacks feel, is a useful but not totally accurate metaphor. It would be more correct to say that most white Americans do see and hear blacks but only when and how they want to see and hear them.

The application of this principle can be seen quite clearly in the treatment of the short memoirs of Madison Hemings, who claimed, among other things, to be the son of Thomas Jefferson by his slave Sally Hemings (see Appendix B). Although his statement is the only known recitation of the details of this controversial story by any of the parties involved, it has been either ignored by historians or dismissed out of hand with no attempt to address what Hemings actually said. In addition, he has been attacked through the use of stereotypes about ex-slaves and the circumstances under which they lived that should have been laid to rest long ago. Because it would be impossible to exaggerate the level of hostility that the story of Thomas Jefferson's alleged slave mistress has engendered over the years, it is not surprising that Hemings's recollections have not been studied with anything that could be called objectivity. The time for doing that is long overdue. But before beginning an analysis of his statement, it is useful to consider the methods most commonly used to discredit it.

The Attacks

Motive: S. F. Wetmore's and Madison Hemings's

There have been two chief means of attacking the statement that Madison Hemings gave to the Pike County (Ohio) Republican in 1873. The first and the most often used method has been to question the motivations of its publisher. The statement is problematic, in this view, because it was taken as part of an effort to create sympathy for the blacks who resided in the area where Madison Hemings lived. Individuals who had been involved in the abolitionist movement shifted their focus after emancipation and embarked upon a campaign to win better treatment for the freedmen. Just as abolitionists reprinted anecdotes about the lives of slaves as a way of showing why slavery had to be ended, these former abolitionists (I suppose in the late twentieth century they would be called liberals) used the same kind of anecdotes to remind whites that blacks had suffered and should be helped or, at least, left in peace.

Stories of the misuse of black women were staples of abolitionist literature, and Hemings's statement can be seen as part of that genre. It has been suggested that S. F. Wetmore, the editor of the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, was sympathetic to the freedmen and, not coincidentally, was interested in increasing the fortunes of the Republican party in a county that was heavily Democratic. Historian Julian Boyd surmised that Wetmore "must surely have been a fanatical abolitionist." The great biographer of Jefferson, Dumas Malone, with his assistant and coauthor Stephen A. Hochman, pursued this same theme in "A Note on Evidence" in the Journal of Southern History in 1975. The article was intended to set forth the context in which Madison Hemings's memoirs appeared, giving some information about S. F. Wetmore and a few details about Madison Hemings himself.

Malone and Hochman stated that in 1870 S. F. Wetmore began to collect a series of short biographies of elderly residents of Pike County, having them tell him their life stories, which he then wrote down in his own words. By 1873 Wetmore had chosen to narrow the focus of his inquiries. During that year, in furtherance of his goal of drawing attention to the plight of the freedman, Wetmore "decided to begin a series on old colored residents of the area" and traveled around the county collecting their reminiscences.

Earlier in the piece Malone and Hochman referred to Wetmore's connections to and work on behalf of the Republican party. They noted that Wetmore had been "rewarded with federal patronage by the Republican administration" but did not state the nature of the reward. Amid some controversy the Grant administration had appointed Wetmore postmaster of Pike County in 1873. Malone and Hochman seem not to have known that S. F. Wetmore had occupied another position before his appointment as postmaster that is of great relevance to the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. In addition to being the editor of the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, Wetmore was also a federal district marshal. In that capacity he had taken the census for Pike County in 1870, which probably explains how he came to be interested in gathering people's life stories and why he would have been a good choice for the job as postmaster. He had traveled Pike County, and he knew where people lived. As Wetmore went through the area conducting the census in 1870, he was, most likely, killing two birds with one stone.

At that time Madison Hemings was living in Ross County, which borders Pike County. The marshal who took the census in that area was a man named William Weaver. When Weaver recorded the census data relating to Madison Hemings's household, he wrote in the line next to Hemings's name, "This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson!" This notation, in Weaver's hand, looks to have been made at the same time that he wrote in the census data, in 1870--three years before Madison Hemings's memoirs appeared in Wetmore's newspaper.

Because parentage was not a category on the census form, there is no obvious reason why the subject would have been raised. Did Madison Hemings spontaneously start talking about Thomas Jefferson during the course of Weaver's questioning? Or did Weaver bring Jefferson's name into the conversation? A possible answer to both questions is that Jefferson may have been on the minds of both of them, for Weaver took Hemings's census information on July 7, 1870. The census report required a listing of the citizen's place of birth, and Hemings told Weaver that he had been born in Virginia. The subject may have come up after Weaver realized that he was talking to a Virginian just three days after a celebration occasioned by the effort of one of the most famous Virginians.

One of the many questions never addressed in the scholarly writing on this matter is just how Madison Hemings and S. F. Wetmore came to know one another. Those who believe that Wetmore made up the story see no element of coincidence to the fact that a man scouring the countryside to find stories told by black people that would reflect badly upon white southerners should have happened upon a black man who said he was the illegitimate and somewhat neglected son of Thomas Jefferson. Of course, if Wetmore invented the story or put someone up to telling it, there would be no element of chance, for Wetmore himself would have decided who was the best candidate to play the role. But if Wetmore had just wanted to find something negative to say about slavery, there would have been a great degree of luck in his happening upon Madison Hemings--and having Hemings volunteer this information--during the course of his survey.

When one considers that S. F. Wetmore was not just an editor of a newspaper but a census taker and that one of his colleagues had spoken to Hemings and made the notation about his parentage, the likely origin of Wetmore's interest in Hemings becomes clearer. Sometime between 1870 and 1873, William Weaver could have mentioned Madison Hemings and his alleged parentage to Wetmore, his fellow marshal and colleague in census taking. Or, with or without such prompting, Wetmore could have reviewed all the local census reports to locate elderly blacks appropriate for his series. Thus, Weaver's notation may have led him to Hemings.

After speaking with Madison Hemings, Wetmore interviewed Israel Jefferson, another former slave from Monticello who lived in the area. As likely as not, Hemings directed Wetmore to Jefferson as a corroborating witness. In an interview published nine months after the Hemings piece, Israel Jefferson confirmed, as far as he could, the substance of Madison Hemings's story. He said that Sally Hemings had been Thomas Jefferson's "chambermaid" and that from his relationships with both people he knew them to have been on "intimate terms" (see Appendix C). Malone and Hochman, as well as other commentators, saw the motivation of the newspaper's editor as seriously tainting these statements because they were "solicited and published for a propagandist purpose."

There are at least two problems with focusing on Wetmore's motivation. First, this mode of attack does not deal with the substance of what Madison Hemings said. Malone and Hochman understood this problem, but others writing about the document have not. Even as one points to a motive for telling a story, those who are genuinely interested in discovering the truth have a responsibility to consider the specifics of what has been said. Unless one assumes, and one could hardly do this with good conscience or good sense, that every story recounted for the purpose of creating sympathy for blacks before or after slavery was a lie, the duty to look seriously at what Madison Hemings said remains. Establishing a motive for the appearance of the story in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican does not destroy the statement's worth as evidence.

The second critical problem with this mode of attack is the use of a stereotype to cast doubt upon the document's validity. This is not just a banal moral point that stereotypes are bad. It is a judgment about the effect that the reliance on stereotypes has on the finished product of historians. Stereotypes are a problem for the writing of history because they allow for the use of shortcuts. Whenever shortcuts are taken, essential and important parts of the story can be missed, and historians may end up not considering all possible paths to whatever can be called the truth.

The stereotype employed here is the feebleminded black person as pawn to a white man. Without knowing much about Hemings except that he was a former slave, an assumption is made about his strength of character that does not have to be subjected to any level of proof. Hemings does not stand by himself as a person whose identity has to be known and treated with any degree of care. One of the striking features of the Writing about the Jefferson-Hemings controversy is the easy manner with which historians make the black people in the story whatever they want or need them to be, on the basis of no stated evidence. In considering Madison Hemings's statement, historians seem to be saying, "Oh, everyone knows what former slaves were like, so we do not have to consider this individual man and his capabilities when we make the suggestion that he was a pawn in this game of white people."

That there were blacks who were weak and who were used by whites is certain. Some of the slave narratives could be cited as evidence of this. Yet assuming that this held true across the board could lead one to miss the value of the information communicated in these documents. We might also question whether Madison Hemings was typical of those slaves who gave narratives. By the time this postslavery interview was conducted, he had been a free man for forty-seven years, his entire adult life. No one can simply assume that he would have allowed himself to be a pawn in Wetmore's game.

Malone and Hochman made the entirely legitimate point that "any document must be viewed by the historian in its actual setting of time and place." Proceeding from this view, they used the historical context to ferret out Wetmore's possible motive in producing this document. They pointed to specific things about Wetmore that they believed supported the notion of an ulterior motive on his part. However, Wetmore was but one of the parties involved. Because Malone and Hochman presented their view of the world in which Madison Hemings lived, one would expect that they would have considered how setting, time, and place may have affected Hemings.

Madison Hemings was a skilled carpenter who had moved to Ohio after leaving Charlottesville. As Malone and Hochman pointed out, blacks in that state lived a precarious existence because the white residents of some counties resented blacks' attempts to settle there. Some towns for a period had barred blacks from living within the city limits. So, from the time he moved to Ohio, Hemings had been a black man with a family to raise in an environment that was hostile to blacks' very existence. This is the historical context in which he operated, not the world of Republican versus Democrat newspapers, not the world of white northern carpetbaggers and southerners. Malone and Hochman should have asked whether and why Hemings would have been inclined to make up, or participate in fabricating, a story about race mixing that would more likely inflame his neighbors than endear him to them.

If the story of Thomas Jefferson's alleged relationship with Sally Hemings has generated such heat and anger in modern times, what might the likely reaction have been in 1873? What about Israel Jefferson? He, like Madison Hemings, probably would have been aware that his statement could just as likely provoke anger on the part of some whites as feelings of affection. S. F. Wetmore may have been naive enough to think otherwise, but not Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson.

In the historical context as laid out by Malone and Hochman, telling this story would have been extremely risky, and one cannot assume that the two men would have spoken to a newspaper without due consideration. People sometimes risk suffering in order to tell the truth. Lying is another matter, since it is more often done to avoid pain and suffering or to achieve some fairly certain gain. Because neither Hemings nor Israel Jefferson could have been sure that by telling this story they would realize either of these goals, one cannot so easily assume that they would be willing to risk telling a lie. In addition, if Wetmore had added items in his published version of Hemings's statement that were mischaracterizations or gross inaccuracies, there would have been ample time (perhaps as much as nine months) for Madison Hemings to have alerted Israel Jefferson as to the nature of Wetmore's game. Under the circumstances, Israel Jefferson would not have agreed to talk to Wetmore knowing that the editor was prone to writing whatever he wanted, regardless of what Jefferson might actually have said.

If Madison Hemings did lie, what could have been his motivation to do so? Malone and Hochman did not raise this question directly, instead describing Madison Hemings, somewhat condescendingly, as "an estimable character" whose "sincerity" they did not doubt. However, at the end of the article they reproduced Wetmore's introduction to the Hemings piece and then gave the editor of the Waverly Watchman, a rival newspaper, the last word on Madison Hemings. The editorial fairly bristles with contempt for Hemings and for black people in general.

The editor of the Waverly Watchman, John A. Jones, said that it was "a well known peculiarity of the colored race" to "lay claim to illustrious parentage." He went on to say:

It sounds much better for the mother to tell her offspring that "master" is their father than to acknowledge to them that some field hand, without a name, had raised her to the dignity of mother. They [black women] want the world to think that they are particular in their liaisons with the sterner sex, whether the truth will bear them out or not.
A perusal of Hemings' autobiography reminds us of the pedigree printed on the numerous stud-horse bills that can be seen posted during the Spring season. No matter how scrubby the stock or whether the horse has any known pedigree, the "Horse Owner" furnishes a free and complete pedigree of every celebrated horse in the country. One of these is copied, and the scrawniest "plug" rejoices in a descent that would put Sir Archy to shame. The horse is not expected to know what is claimed for him. But we have often thought if one of them could read and would happen to come across his pedigree tacked conspicuously at a prominent crossroad, he would blush to the tips of his ears at the mendacity of his owner.

It is not surprising that in 1873 the editor of a newspaper would speak so openly and hatefully of black people. What is surprising is that in 1975 his editorial would be reproduced as the last word on this subject without any comment about the tenor of Jones's remarks. Malone and Hochman did state that Wetmore and Jones "spoke for their political constituents as well as for themselves." This may have been the authors' indirect attempt to distance themselves from Jones's words. Their statement is still problematic because it creates a false equivalency between the writings of Wetmore and of Jones.

Wetmore's piece introduced his series "Life among the Lowly" and then went on to talk about Madison Hemings. After criticizing the institution of slavery in general, he made a strong attack on Thomas Jefferson. Commenting on Madison Hemings's intelligence and speculating on what his life could have been like had he not been a slave, he then declared that Madison Hemings was "kept under, by his own father, an ex-President of the United States, and a man who penned the immortal Declaration of Independence which fully acknowledges the rights and equality of the human race!"

One can understand why admirers of Thomas Jefferson would be dismayed by this harsh statement. Still, Wetmore was criticizing an individual man for what Wetmore thought that individual had done. Jones, on the other hand, attacked Madison Hemings by referencing the alleged negative characteristics of an entire race. The difference between "Wetmore v. Jefferson" and "Jones v. Hemings" is the difference between a legitimate dispute with an individual--which is always allowable--and an expression of racial prejudice, which is never. That Jones disbelieved Madison Hemings and chose to attack him is not the problem. The problem is in the way he chose to express his disbelief. Wetmore's piece on Hemings could appear in print today with little problem. Jones's piece on Hemings would allow people to recognize him for what he most assuredly was.

Virginius Dabney reproduced the Jones editorial in The Jefferson Scandals, his 1981 rebuttal to Fawn Brodie's biography of Jefferson and Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings. Neither Malone and Hochman nor Dabney saw a problem with offering Jones's over-the-top response to Hemings in order to cast doubt upon the validity of his statement. They seem not to have considered that an individual who would write that way about black people might not be the best person to consult--or to associate oneself with--on the issue of race and sex. Even a brief glance through the Waverly Watchman reveals that John A. Jones had negative feelings toward blacks that verged on the pathological. The authors' failure to discern the nature of the problem with Jones and his editorial is instructive, as it suggests the level of care with which they weighed and evaluated the claims involved in this dispute. Jefferson scholars have a recurring tendency to highlight parts of a statement denying the existence of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison and to ignore other parts of the statement that are contradictory, perhaps dissembling, or even irrational.

Malone and Hochman and Dabney took the trouble to reproduce Jones's editorial even though Jones, as a source, did not add much of substance to the controversy. As Jones knew nothing of Madison Hemings specifically (and apparently did not try to learn anything), his only recourse was to appeal to his readership through the use of negative stereotypes about blacks in general, to "nigger-bait." Jones presented nothing in the way of reasoning that Malone and Hochman or Dabney could not have expressed in a less inflammatory and contemptuous fashion.

Not surprisingly, the truth of Madison Hemings's life is more complex than has been presented. Historians interested only in presenting their view that Hemings's allegations were false felt so comfortable in relying on the charge that his memoirs were prompted or invented by a northern carpetbagger (and felt so sure that their readers would accept this uncritically) that they, like John A. Jones, apparently did not bother to try to find out any more about Madison Hemings. Had they done so, they would have known that as early as the 1840s, thirty years before Wetmore arrived in Ohio, it was rumored in the area where Madison Hemings and his brother Eston lived that they were the sons of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. What is more, this notion apparently was accepted by some whites in their community.

Both Madison Hemings and his younger brother, Eston, were well known in Chillicothe, Ohio. Madison Hemings did an extensive amount of carpentry work in the area, working on some of the most important buildings in the town. Eston Hemings, like Madison and their older brother, Beverley, played the violin. Eston, who also played the pianoforte, was the most musically talented (or the most dedicated) of the brothers, for he was able to make a living as a musician. In the early 1900s the Daily Scioto Gazette recalled his professional life in Chillicothe during the 1840s and discussed the community's talk during that period about his alleged relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Eston Hemings was a highly regarded leader of a band that played at society functions in the area. Described as a "master of the violin, and an accomplished `caller' of dances," he was said to have "always officiated at the `swell' entertainments of Chillicothe."

Eston Hemings's fame increased after five white residents of Chillicothe visited Washington and saw a statue of Thomas Jefferson. One turned to his companions and asked who the statue looked like. "Instantly came the unanimous answer, `Why, Eston Hemings.'" When they returned to Chillicothe, one of the men, "happening to have some business with Hemings," told him what had happened in Washington and asked about his connection to Jefferson. "`Well,' answered Hemings quietly, `my mother, whose name I bear belonged to Mr. Jefferson,' and after a slight pause, added, `and she never was married.'" He did not elaborate. Hemings's inquisitor saw this as confirming the rumor.

Although the Scioto Gazette article spoke only about Eston Hemings, the residents of the small town of Chillicothe no doubt also knew of his brother Madison. In addition to being a much-sought-after carpenter, Madison Hemings had bought and sold property numerous times. The buying and selling of land by a black man, with some transactions involving what would have been a good deal of money in those days, would have attracted the attention of citizens in the area. William Weaver may have heard the rumors about the Hemingses before he came to Madison's home to take the census. Thus, his notation could have been based upon the rumors rather than anything Hemings said during the census interview.

Of course, the earlier talk about Eston Hemings and Weaver's notation about Madison Hemings do not prove that they were Jefferson's sons. Still, as the talk preceded by decades Wetmore's conversation with Hemings, and Weaver's notation was made three years before the publication of Hemings's memoirs in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, it is clear that Madison Hemings should not be seen as a mere tool of S. F. Wetmore and that the idea that a black son of Thomas Jefferson resided in Ohio did not come from the mind of the district marshal and newspaper editor. Scholars wrote about Wetmore's alleged bad motive to suggest that this motive gave rise to the basic substance of the story and made the story false. But if the basic substance of the story was set years before Wetmore decided to write his series, his motive for writing it could not have given rise to the substance.

The additional information about Madison and Eston Hemings, S. F. Wetmore, and William Weaver, not sought or analyzed by any of the Jefferson scholars and defenders who first wrote on this subject, helps to explain why Madison Hemings would have felt safe in speaking to a newspaper about this matter. It would not have been clear to a black man telling this story for the first time for publication--as historians have assumed--what effect his words might have had upon his neighbors. As it turns out, Madison Hemings probably knew from the reaction that he and his brother had gotten up until that point that it would be safe for him to talk about his life story because others had heard it, in varying degrees of detail, before.

It has been common throughout American history for blacks who provide some form of entertainment to whites to be treated with favor, and so Eston Hemings's celebrity status in the area may have shielded the brothers from negative reactions to the rumor. Eston Hemings was very well liked in his community, and his musical talent evidently made the story that he was Thomas Jefferson's son believable to some. The personal manners of both brothers also seem to have helped in this regard. Both men were viewed as exceptional and impressive individuals. S. F. Wetmore noted Madison Hemings's appearance and high degree of intelligence. The author of the Scioto Gazette article described Eston Hemings as "quiet, unobtrusive, polite and decidedly intelligent" and noted that after coming to Chillicothe "he was soon very well and favorably known to all classes of our citizens, for his personal appearance and gentlemanly manners attracted everybody's attention to him."

It seems, then, that Jefferson defenders, in their reliance on stereotypes about carpetbaggers, former slaves, and slave narratives, took a shortcut and as a result created what can only be called bad history. That history has been given to generations of college students and other members of the public, helping them to form their opinions about this specific matter and about the minds and characters of former slaves in general. An entire course of dishonorable conduct was attributed to three men on the basis of no evidence save one man's political affiliation and northern origins and the status of two other men as former slaves. All of the ink that has been spilled purveying the notion that S. F. Wetmore invented the idea, or put Madison Hemings up to saying, that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson, turns out to have been just that: spilled ink.

Madison Hemings's Motive: The Views of John C. Miller and Andrew Burstein

Unlike Malone and Hochman, other historians have speculated more openly about Hemings's motivation for speaking with the Pike County (Ohio) Republican. Writing in 1977, the historian John Chester Miller, who also believed the memoirs to be a Wetmore invention, explained:

If Madison Hemings actually told this story to the editor of the Pike County Republican, doubtless he hoped to achieve instant fame as the unacknowledged natural son of Thomas Jefferson. Madison was now an old man and, like most blacks and mulattoes in nineteenth century America, he probably felt cheated by life. In the community in which he lived, he was classed as "colored" and no doubt was treated as such by his white neighbors--which meant that they had nothing to do with him. But if he could prove that he were a natural son of a president of the United States, his position would change dramatically overnight; he would appear not only as good as a white man but as the white man's superior and, as such, entitled to the respect and consideration that had hitherto been denied him.

Miller's analysis is curious: "blacks and mulattoes" in the nineteenth century "probably felt cheated by life," he said, as if it were a close question as to whether people who had just escaped chattel slavery could have harbored such a sentiment. There is also monumental arrogance in Miller's presumption that Madison Hemings would have cared so much about what his white neighbors thought of him that he would take so drastic a step to change their attitude. Why should it be assumed that Madison Hemings would have yearned for the love of Chillicothe's white residents? If he ever did, why would he have sought their affection so late in his life? In the absence of any evidence, how was Miller qualified to describe with such particularity Hemings's state of mind on this question?

The last part of Miller's statement is incomprehensible: that a sixty-eight-year-old black man could think that by announcing in a newspaper that his black mother had his white father begging her to return to the United States with him, he could make what Miller presumed to be his hostile white neighbors want to be his friend. What could possibly have happened in Madison Hemings's life that would make him believe such a thing? If anything, his experiences would have taught him the opposite lesson. One detects a note of bitterness in Hemings's statement when he indicated that Jefferson favored his white grandchildren over him and his siblings. If Madison Hemings felt that the white man whom he said was his father did not treat him as his true son, why would he have believed his white neighbors would do so? Miller's perspective on the likely thought processes of a black man are so far wrong, so colored by his certainty that all blacks want to ingratiate themselves to whites, that he cannot be credited on the question of the likely motivations of Madison Hemings.

Andrew Burstein, in his 1995 book The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, echoed Miller's sentiment in his brief examination of the Hemings memoirs. Burstein wrote:

Madison told an Ohio newspaper in 1873 that his mother informed him that Thomas Jefferson was his father, and that Sally first carried a child of Jefferson when she returned from France in 1789. Presumably, Madison believed these statements to be true. But it is also possible that his claim was contrived--by his mother or himself--to provide an otherwise undistinguished biracial carpenter a measure of social respect. Would not his life have been made more charmed by being known as the son of Thomas Jefferson than the more obscure Peter or Samuel Carr?

The answer is most probably no. If one takes the time to consider the circumstances of Hemings's life, one could see that Hemings most likely would have known this. By 1873 all of his siblings had left the world of blacks to become a part of the white world. They did so for a reason. Living as a black person during that era, even as one favored by whites, meant suffering debilitating attacks upon one's humanity. Evidently, for Beverley, Harriet, and eventually Eston Hemings, the favor of whites was insufficient balm to heal the inevitable wounds that they and their progeny would have sustained if they had remained black. Eston's experiences, in particular, would have demonstrated to Madison Hemings the folly of thinking that a filial connection to Thomas Jefferson would be enough to render his life "charmed." Eston Hemings had achieved a measure of success living as a black man whom some thought to be the son of Thomas Jefferson. Yet that link to Jefferson did not ensure that he and his family would be treated as full human beings, which for the former slaves would have been the very definition of living a "charmed" life.

The man who wrote of Eston Hemings in the Scioto Gazette in 1901 was able to recognize a fundamental feature of America's racial landscape that later historians writing near the end of the century, after all that has been written and said about the problem of the color line, seem unable to discern. He wrote, "But notwithstanding all his accomplishments and deserts the fact remained that he had a visible admixture of negro blood in his veins and in Chillicothe before the war, between those who had, and the whites--even the lowest of them--there was a great gulf, an impassable gulf; and Eston Hemings quietly moved away from Chillicothe, and I believe, told no one whither."

Miller's and Burstein's conjectures that Madison Hemings thought that he could improve his lot in life by pretending to be the son of Thomas Jefferson seem to have been based on a notion that anyone would like and respect one of Thomas Jefferson's children, whether black or white. Their assumption, however, does not comport with the actual experiences of black people. To Miller and Burstein, it would be normal for a black man to want to gain the approval of whites and to think that he could do so by making up such a story. For the average black person, it most likely would be taken as a sign of Hemings's madness.

Most telling of all, neither Miller nor Burstein made any use of what is known about Hemings and his family. Both historians' accounts could have been written in the exact same manner if Wetmore's piece had never used Hemings's name and had, instead, referred to him as "an otherwise undistinguished biracial carpenter." Madison Hemings, the flesh-and-blood individual with a story of his own, who existed within a particular cultural context that could have been known and made use of, does not live in the writings of either Miller or Burstein.

It Just Does Not Sound Right

The second method employed to discredit Madison Hemings's memoirs is even weaker as a refutation. In this view the memoirs, in standard English, are not to be trusted because Madison Hemings may not have written them himself. Notice that this argument employs a non sequitur: if one dictates memoirs to another, one is presumptively lying. This may come as a surprise to the many people who have prepared their memoirs with the aid of ghost writers or editors. It is no more true that one who dictates memoirs is lying than it is true that one who writes them out himself or herself is telling the truth.

Part of the difficulty that some have with the wording of the Hemings memoirs, and the reason people assume that it was all made up by the white reporter, stems to some degree from the notion that we know what every ex-slave in America sounded like. How do we know what all ex-slaves sounded like? Why, because Margaret Mitchell and David O. Selznick told us what all slaves and ex-slaves sounded like. As a result, any presentation of the statement of an ex-slave that is not in exaggerated dialect--"Who dat? Lawd Amighty, I don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies"--is suspect to many. Even if it were true that all slaves sounded alike, and sounded like that, the rendering of such phrases as "Who is that? Lord Almighty, I don't know anything about delivering babies" would not indicate that the ex-slave had not, in fact, wondered who someone was, made an exclamation to the Lord, or said that he or she did not know how to deliver a child.

The demand that the words of black people appear "black" in print is, in some quarters, a requirement that exists today. It is not uncommon for journalists to use dialect when reproducing the statements of black people but not to use it when reproducing the words of whites who have equally idiosyncratic pronunciations. If such a requirement exists even today, it is easy to understand how Hemings's statement might, for some, present a conceptual hurdle to believing that he could have been telling the truth.

Virginius Dabney cited one specific passage in Madison Hemings's statement as proof of the charge that it must have come from the mind of a "newspaper editor or some other college educated individual." At one point during the narrative, Hemings referred to his mother as having been "enciente" when she returned from France with Jefferson. Dabney, picking up on Hemings's reference to his limited formal education, asked, "If all he learned was to read and write, where did that word enceinte come from?" We'll, perhaps from his mother who had spent over two years in France during her teenage years and who may have received tutoring in the language while there.

John C. Miller expressed similar skepticism about Hemings's use of the word enceinte, saying, "Madison Hemings had only a rudimentary education, and he could not possibly have used the stilted overblown `literary' language in which the 'interview' is couched: among other things, he is made to say that Sally Hemings was `enciente' (sic) by Thomas Jefferson when they returned to Monticello." Jonathan Daniels noted that Hemings's "attainment in life was that of a small town carpenter" and went on to say that it was "doubtful that such a man would have used such a word as enciente."

It is possible that the use by newspapers of the word enceinte instead of pregnant was a Victorian convention. Even so, what is the picture of black people painted by Dabney's question and Miller's and Daniels's statements? Why would it be so implausible that a man whose mother had spent some of her formative years in France would know a French word? Wouldn't one expect a mother to talk to her children about this time of her life? Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello, said that he had "often heard her" tell about her trip to France. Isn't it common for people who learn a language to use that language to impress others or just to remind themselves that they know it? Why would it be inconceivable that Sally Hemings would have done this both in and out of the presence of her son?

The answer is that these historians' words betray no conception of slaves as human beings: the normal human processes of communication and love between mother and child did not exist for this group. Sally Hemings lived in France for over two years, yet nothing impressed her, no experience expanded her outlook on life, she brought back not one word of French. Slaves had no secret prides, ambitions, daydreams, or regrets to share with their families. Nothing, no matter how out of the ordinary, could touch them. They existed only in relation to their servitude, as mere props in the real story of slave masters and their lives. To use common human points of reference when considering the capabilities, knowledge, and feelings of a slave would be as ridiculous as considering the capabilities, knowledge, and feelings of a rocking chair. Dabney, Miller, and Daniels knew that Sally Hemings had lived in France, yet not one of them made the connection between that fact and her son's possible use of a French word. Plainly, they were not thinking of the Hemingses as a set of people but as a set of slaves, with all the negative connotations and stereotypes that they associated with that label.

Compare these historians' assumption about Hemings with their assumption that the editor of the Pike County (Ohio) Republican would be more likely to know the French word for pregnancy than would Madison Hemings. Here again they lumped Hemings into some nameless, faceless category of individuals without taking any account of the circumstances of his life. He had a connection to the French language that could be demonstrated. The same was not said for the editor of the Pike County (Ohio) Republican. Dabney even pointed out that the word was misspelled in the newspaper, a circumstance that would not have been Madison Hemings's fault, since he did not write the story down or set the newspaper's type. It is more reasonable to believe that Madison Hemings would know how to say the word from hearing his mother say it and yet not know how to spell it because of the poor quality of his education, than it is to believe that a "college educated" editor of a newspaper, whom Dabney, Miller, and Daniels presumed to have studied French, would know the word and not be able to spell it.

Virginius Dabney's conception of the Hemingses can be seen in another aspect of his critique of Madison Hemings's statement. Dabney noted that Hemings's memoirs contained factual inaccuracies and contended that this made his statement about his parentage all the more unreliable. He fixed upon Hemings's statement that Thomas Jefferson had no real interest in agriculture and that "he always had mechanics at work for him, such as carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, coopers, &c. It was his mechanics he seemed mostly to direct, and in their operations he took great interest." Dabney found this assertion particularly incredible and pointed out that Jefferson's meticulous notations in his Farm Book and Garden Book, as well as some of his letters, countered Hemings's observation. Certainly, when one thinks of Thomas Jefferson, one thinks of a farmer.

When confronting a statement that goes so contrary to one's understanding of a person or a situation, there is a duty--if one wants to get at the truth--to consider how the individual making the statement might have arrived at so startling a conclusion. In the case of Madison Hemings, this would require an attempt to see Thomas Jefferson as Madison Hemings would have seen him. To do this, one must think of him as a person and draw upon what we know about people to help us figure out what Hemings could have been thinking when he said that Thomas Jefferson was more interested in being with his mechanics than he was in agriculture.

Madison Hemings was born in 1805. He was apprenticed to his uncle John Hemings at age fourteen. This was close to the age at which Jefferson thought that young slaves became more like adults and should settle into whatever role they would play at Monticello. We can say then that Madison Hemings came of age in 1819. What was Thomas Jefferson doing during the intervening years? He was supervising the building of the University of Virginia, which Dabney, who had written a history of the university, knew well. Jefferson was riding to the site on a regular basis. He was poring over plans with architects and builders. Notice that "carpenters" are included in Hemings's definition of "mechanics." So at the precise moment that Madison Hemings would have been old enough to pay serious attention to him, Jefferson was obsessed, not with his farm, but with building his university.

Madison Hemings's vision of Jefferson is not a historian's static sketch of the man that takes no account of how his interests may have waxed and waned. It is, rather, a snapshot of a particular time from an eyewitness. At the very least, Dabney should have allowed that Hemings may have been accurate for the time when he knew Thomas Jefferson. In fact, a strong case can be made that Hemings's opinion about Jefferson's favoring mechanical interests over agriculture is an accurate assessment of Jefferson's preferences at all stages of his life. Jefferson himself stated that he liked nothing so much as putting things up and tearing them down. Both his contemporaries and other historians have echoed the same sentiment.

Copyright 1997 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. All rights reserved.
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