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Race in The Jefferson Presidency

Tom and Sally: Old Rumor, New Evidence

In 1998, an article in Nature magazine offered scientific evidence that Thomas Jefferson was, in all likelihood, the father of at least one of Sally Hemings's children. DNA tests had all but proved what many had long suspected, but just as many had vehemently denied: Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship, quite possibly lasting more than a decade, with one of his black slaves.24

The possibility of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship had circulated broadly since 1802, when James Callender, a newspaper editor, published in the Richmond Recorder what every "individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesvile" already knew: Jefferson had fathered several children through his slave girl Sally. The offspring, Callender wrote, bore a "striking, although sable resemblance" to the president, and the oldest was named Tom.25 But everyone also knew that Callender was a journalistic mercenary, willing to write anything for a price. He had written an attack piece on John Adams in 1799—ironically, at Jefferson's urging—and exposed Alexander Hamilton's adultery. It was easy, therefore, for Jefferson's defenders to dismiss these charges as the invention of an overzealous scandal-seeking reporter. But over the years, as the Jefferson-Hemings story percolated in the background of Jefferson scholarship, historians' defenses of the philosopher and president drew as much on their high assessment of Jefferson's character as it did on their low assessment of Callender's. The sort of deeply exploitive relationship implicit in the Sally Hemings charges was deemed beneath the intellectual and moral character of the man who had contributed so much to our philosophy of human rights. For many, it was just too hard to believe that the man who had written "all men are created equal" could be guilty of sexually exploiting a slave and keeping the entire family, including even his own children, in bondage until his death.

Some historians tried to come to terms with the issue by emphasizing just how common this sort of sexual exploitation was on southern plantations. The young sons of planters commonly "sowed their wild oats" among the women their fathers' owned; overseers just as frequently turned their daytime power into nighttime assault. The great patriarchs of the plantations were often just as exploitive. Sally Hemings, the mother of Jefferson's slave children, was herself the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law. That's right: Thomas Jefferson's concubine/slave sex partner was also the half-sister of his wife.

In the unbalanced racial power structure of a Virginia plantation, anything was possible. But still, many argued, Thomas Jefferson was above this—too ethereal, too philosophically pure and high-minded to engage in this sort of exploitation.


And anyone willing to look honestly at his writings on race should not have been altogether surprised. On the issue of race, Jefferson's philosophical "purity" broke down; his confidence in humanity and even his own rationalism were abandoned. He may have tried to preserve a façade of scientific detachment, of analytical rigor, but his writings reveal an intellectual twist, perhaps even a psychological kink, that remains hard to square with the rest of his thought.

Jefferson on the "Real Distinctions" between the Races

Jefferson offered his most extensive thoughts on race in Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781. He broached the topic somewhat philosophically, proposing a plan for the gradual emancipation and colonization of Virginia's slaves. This second part—colonization—was essential, he argued, as whites and free blacks could never live side by side. The prejudice of whites, the bitter memories of blacks, and "the real distinctions which nature had made" between the races would make such coexistence impossible, he wrote.26

It was Jefferson's identification of "real distinctions" that was most striking in this analysis, for as much as we have come to assume racism as a feature of southern thought, many of Jefferson's peers would have actually challenged him on this point. True, they believed their slaves were in most ways inferior to themselves, but the prevailing racial theories attributed these differences to environment, not nature. Shaped by the Enlightenment belief in the universality of humankind, eighteenth-century racial theory held that the cumulative effects of climate, geography, and history were responsible for the differences between the races. Christian teachings reinforced the point: all of humanity could trace its origins back to Adam and Eve; all races descended from the same source.In emphasizing "real distinctions" rooted in nature, therefore, Jefferson separated himself from prevailing southern belief, and even more curiously, from the optimism and rationalism of the Enlightenment that informed the rest of his thought. Perhaps this is why he spent so much time on the question in Notes on the State of Virginia, explaining this deviation, and in the process, constructing one of the most offensive racial arguments in our national record.

The list of "real distinctions" he itemized was extensive: color, smell, hair, physique. Africans, he wrote, were even inferior in their beauty. No wonder, Jefferson observed (rather ironically, given his own interracial sexual appetites), blacks have a sexual preference for whites—not unlike, he added, the "preference of the Oranootan [Orangutan] for black women over those of their own species."27

Jefferson also attributed to Africans some positive traits—sort of. He suggested that blacks were braver than whites, but added that it was because they lacked foresight. They were, he argued—in another passage rendered deeply ironic by our knowledge of his carnal activity with Sally Hemings—a passionate race as well. But when it came to love, their feelings were rooted in lust, not a "tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation." Their memories were sound, but their reason was deficient; they were musically gifted, but their imaginations were dull. And they had a curious ability to sleep at a moment's notice, just like "an animal whose body is at rest and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep."28

Having laid out his views on the differences between blacks and whites, Jefferson went on to explicitly address the Enlightenment theory that traced those differences to environment. He conceded that American blacks' environment was deficient, admitting that slavery was filled with cruelty and that slaves were denied education. But, he argued, America's slaves were surrounded by the accomplishments of civilization—by refined behavior, art, and the educated conversation of their masters—and they had not absorbed any of it. Nor had their wretched lives inspired more sublime reflection. Unhappiness, he argued, often inspired poetry, but "among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry." Moreover, he continued, other enslaved peoples had managed to achieve far more. Ancient Roman slavery was crueler, but it had produced artists and scientists. Roman slaves even served as tutors to their masters' children. But among African slaves, there were no persons of intellectual achievement, no persons possessing the intelligence to teach even a child. The evidence, Jefferson said, was clear: the Africans' inferiority was "not the effect merely of their condition of life."29

Jefferson in Context

Shocking as it may seem today, Jefferson's theory of fixed racial difference was in one sense "progressive." He anticipated by roughly fifty years the "scientific racialism" that would become widely accepted after 1830. These later theories would draw upon the new sciences of anthropometry and phrenology—studies which supposedly linked intelligence and character to the shape and size of the skull—to argue that racial differences were inherent and immutable, and that these fixed differences served to place the races on a ladder separating inferior blacks from superior whites. The Enlightenment's belief in a universal humankind, and Christianity's belief in a single human origin would yield to polygenesis—the theory that inherent and fixed differences between the races could be traced to separate creative moments.

But if Thomas Jefferson thus shared a set of racial beliefs with the generation that succeeded him, he was at intellectual odds with most of his own peers. Nor was this was the only thing that separated Jefferson from many among the Virginia gentry. Many of his own neighbors demonstrated a greater commitment to mitigating slavery's most inhumane features. While they continued to hold slaves, they refused to buy or sell them. Or if they did, they at least refused to separate families. Some slaveholders, as a matter of policy, did not pursue runaways. During the Revolution, many offered their slaves freedom in return for military service. After the Revolution, an increased number of Virginia slave-owners manumitted their slaves (that is, freed them in their wills). Jefferson's relative, John Randolph of Roanoke, freed hundreds of slaves upon his death. George Washington manumitted all his slaves upon his death and even arranged apprenticeships and pensions to ensure their ongoing support after he was gone. These folks hardly deserve medals for their actions; many of these gestures were aimed, no doubt, at easing the guilt accumulated over a lifetime of participation in an institution whose horrors could not be denied. But Thomas Jefferson did not even match the half-measures of his Virginia neighbors. Not only did he buy and sell slaves, he even gave them as gifts. He separated families via sale as a form of punishment, and when he lived beyond his means and fell into debt, he sold slaves simply to raise cash. Over the course of his life, he owned approximately 400 slaves, but while living he freed only three—all of them Hemingses. Upon his death, he manumitted another five slaves—his own children—but because his estate was deep in debt, the remaining 200 slaves of Monticello were put up for auction.

"We Have the Wolf by the Ear"

So what should we make of all this? Do we simply call Jefferson a hypocrite, a man who could talk a good game about equality and rights but failed to apply it to his own world? Do we more generously trace his behavior and views to the limitations of the eighteenth-century mind? Or might there be a more complex relationship between his racial theories, his behavior as a slave-owner, and his relationship with Sally Hemings?

It would not be hard to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was simply a hypocrite. He wrote that slaveholding unleashed man's "most boisterous passions" and bred "the most unremitting despotism." Young whites quickly learned these behaviors, turning loose their "worst of passions" and encouraging daily acts of "tyranny."30 Yet he himself sexually exploited his own slave girl for over a decade. Perhaps, however, this critique is not entirely fair. Some have argued that the length of the relationship suggests a real bond between them, that Thomas Jefferson may have loved Sally Hemings. But then why did he write so viciously of blacks' emotional and intellectual inferiority, and insist to the day of his death that the two races could never coexist?

To accuse Thomas Jefferson of hypocrisy is easy, and probably not unfair. But while simply calling him a hypocrite may describe his conduct, it does not explain it. To understand the reason—or unreason—for his hypocritical behavior requires a deeper sort of analysis.

Within Jefferson's writings on race, there is an apocalyptic strain that is as prominent as his racism. If the races lived side by side, he predicted, the inevitable "convulsions" that would result would lead to the "extermination of the one or the other race." In the all-out race war Jefferson imagined, moreover, God's sympathies would surely lie with the slave. "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just....The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."31 Slavery, Jefferson knew, was wrong. It would lead to the most horrific of disasters. And he could see no way out. Not even private action made sense to him— manumission, for example, only increased the number of free blacks living in proximity to whites, and accelerated the potential for conflict. Therefore, as his neighbors manumitted their slaves more frequently, Jefferson proposed that all freed slaves be forced to leave the state. His fear of racial interaction was so great that he proposed that white women bearing mulatto children should also be banned from the state. There was simply no answer to the problem of slavery. "We have the wolf by the ears," he concluded," and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."32

And thus not knowing what to do, believing that a crisis of epic proportions lay on the horizon, but not seeing anything that could be done to redress this national sin, he surrendered to it and then wallowed in his weakness. He bought and sold slaves and then lamented the degrading impact of slavery on white morals. He lived beyond his means, indulged himself in imported wines and furniture, and then sold away slaves to cover his debts while celebrating the moral clarity of the simple farmer. He used his power as slave-master to maintain a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings and then condemned the despotic behavior of the planter and the lessons in tyranny learned by southern children.

Thomas Jefferson was a complex man: a deep thinker, a product of the Enlightenment. But when it came to slavery and race, he lost his intellectual bearings. Unable to reconcile his jumble of feelings—his contempt for his slaves, his recognition of the institution's evil, his fears of inevitable conflict, his lust for Sally Hemings—he fell back upon another, very un-Jeffersonian philosophical tradition. Like the most rigorous of medieval ascetics, or the most anxious of seventeenth-century Calvinists, he took refuge in the age-old belief in original sin. He traced the history that had enabled slavery to take root and spread until it became the national sin. And telling himself that sin was inescapable, he allowed it to become his own personal sin: evil, miserable, and damning, but an inalienable part of the human, or at least Virginia, condition.

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