I get so tired of the Sally Hemings story. At almost every public presentation I give in the costume and character of Thomas Jefferson, someone sashays up to the microphone in the aisle and says, “Tell us about Sally Henning” or some other slight botching of her name. “Or tell us about your family, and I mean all of your family?” I go ahead and provide an answer in character, but I want to ask, “What do you know about this exactly and why do you care and what do you think it means for our understanding of Thomas Jefferson?” But I don’t.
Some people think Jefferson raped Sally Hemings, repeatedly, over a period that may have amounted to 34 years. If you listen to this program you know Jenkinson’s law, All bets are off below the waist, so I could not swear that Jefferson did not rape Sally Hemings. Once you learn that the sportcaster Marv Albert likes to bite his lovers on the backside, that presidential consultant Dick Morris enjoyed sucking the toes of the prostitutes he hired, and that Bill Clinton liked to play hide the cigar with Monica Lewinsky, you just have to accept that human beings are aroused by a very wide and strange set of practices (of which these examples are in fact tame). Still, I find it virtually impossible to imagine that Jefferson ever forced himself on Sally Hemings. But we weren’t there, of course, and we have no way of knowing what went on behind those tightly closed doors. It seems to me that slavery had to produce psychological damage in a highly evolved human being like Thomas Jefferson. It may have played itself out sexually in ways that we would rather not know or face.
The British explorer John Speke, one of the questors for the source of the Nile, like to eat the fetuses of the big game animals he killed in Africa and India.
De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no accounting for taste.
Jefferson may not have forced himself on Sally Hemings, but it depends on what you mean by force. He owned her. She was his property. He could sell her at any time. He could whip her. He could give her as a hospitality token to his male guests for the night. This very often happened in the plantation south. Look at it this way. If Jefferson made it clear that he intended to have sex with Sally Hemings, but never would have overpowered her with his physical strength, it could still be rape--if she didn’t want his sexual attention. It might be rape even if she did, given the vast differential between his status and hers, the profound difference in power and freedom of movement and action, the implicit threat of what might happen if you disappoint the master, and the myriad ways in which the slaveholders were able to coerce their slaves to conform to their habits and notions.
It may have begun in France with some tacit coercion—what choice did she really have, so far away from the enslaved community in Virginia?—and over time morphed into something that can be said to resemble “consensual intimacy.” Or she may have been both vulnerable and impressionable when it started—more seduction than coercion. She was after all just 14 years old when she arrived in Paris. Jefferson was 44. He was a famous man, a great man, the ambassador to France, the author of the celebrated Declaration of Independence. It might have been intoxicating to receive the attentions, possibly romantic attentions, of one of the most elegant and fastidious men of the Enlightenment.
In our time and according to our codes, a 44 year-old man having sex with a 14 year old girl is regarded automatically as rape—statutory rape—. Think of the revulsion most people felt when they learned of Roy Moore’s alleged statutory proclivities in Alabama. Today we automatically think 14 is too young for consensual sex with an adult, and we have a special place in our Inferno for men who prey on young impressionable women and men: preachers, priests, college professors, politicians, coaches, team doctors, scout leaders.
I’m with John Adams, in this as in almost all of his judgments about human nature. When he read about the Sally Hemings story in the newspapers—this was THE scandal of the years 1802-04, during Jefferson’s first term as President, he said he could not of course be sure that Jefferson was guilty of this transgression, and in fact it seemed out of character for the graceful and exquisite Jefferson, BUT, it was, said Adams, precisely what one would expect in the miasma of slavery. Owning another human being had its implications, all transgressive, and there was no good reason to try to draw some sort of line at the sexual frontier.
That seems right to me. My own theory, and I do not say this to try in any way to exonerate Jefferson, is that Sally Hemings was a shrewd young woman. Her mother had been the mistress of a white man. Her grandmother had been the mistress of a white man. By making herself available to Jefferson, she increased her status and improved her life: better clothing, better food, a better job at Monticello (housekeeper inside the mansion), better sleeping quarters, some spending money, better doctors, etc. And we know from the testimony of her son Madison, from his 1873 interview in an Ohio newspaper, that his mother struck a hard bargain with Jefferson while they were still in France, where she was free under international law, and therefore did not have to return to Virginia with her master Jefferson. According to Madison Hemings, Jefferson agreed to free her brother James once he taught other slaves the art of French cookery, and he agreed to free any children he might have with Sally Hemings.
And he did. Two walked away from Monticello and passed seamlessly into the white world. The other two were freed in Jefferson’s will.
In other words, I give Miss Hemings credit for being savvy and strategic. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love Thomas Jefferson or learn to love him. But she knew how to look out for her interests and particularly those of her children. If this is true, it doesn’t exonerate Jefferson from abusing his power and status to take as bedfellow someone who had very limited options in that situation, and someone who today would be regarded as criminally too young to enter into such a bargain, no matter how shrewd she was. In other words, it might still be rape in some sense of that term. If true, it certainly reveals something fascinating and very troubling in Jefferson’s sexual persona and indeed character.
We need to be troubled. But we also need to be fair, circumspect, and to seek understanding rather than to swagger in judgment. The DNA makes it a near certainty that Jefferson was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings’ children, but the genetic code does not get us very far into this story, because it does not tell us anything about that most mysterious of human mysteries, just what their relationship was behind doors that we have not been invited to open.