|Imagined portrait of Sarah Hemings|
In France, Sarah and her brother James (who was training to be a French chef de cusine) were technically free. They could have stayed and remained free. According to Madison Hemings, her son, Sarah used this knowledge to bargain with Jefferson when he was called back to the United States. In an interview conducted in 1873, Madison Hemings says, “To induce her to return with him, Jefferson promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” She was pregnant by Jefferson at the time.
After returning to Monticello in 1790, Sarah Hemings no longer appears in the obsessive records Jefferson kept of his accounts. In a comprehensive history of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello , Annette Gordon-Reed unearths much about this unusual family, all descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave woman. Sarah is seen to be Jefferson’s concubine, though no one will talk about it, least of all Jefferson.
Sarah’s first child dies at birth and her second did not live long. She remained at Monticello, surrounded by other members of her family who were treated with particular benevolence by Jefferson. Her brothers took part in Jefferson’s political life, living with him in Philadelphia, New York and finally Washington. Jefferson returned to Monticello as often as he could. Sarah’s work was to mend, sew and take care of his personal belongings, as well as care for her children, born into slavery as their status in Virginia legally followed that of their mother.
Jefferson kept Sarah part of his private life, but their relationship was exposed to the public by James Callender in a Richmond newspaper in the middle of Jefferson’s first term as president. She was called “Dusky Sally,” and other names, but none of it changed Jefferson’s relationship to her and her family, and he was elected to a second term as president, despite the innuendo. Sarah’s last child was born in 1808, just as Jefferson was about to leave the presidency and retire to his mountain.
After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s debts were too much for his daughter Martha to bear. Monticello was sold, along with most of his slaves. Before his death Jefferson did free his four children by Sarah: the first two, Beverley and Harriet, slipped away to Ohio to live as white people (they were 7/8th white) and the last two, Madison and Eston, were noted in his will. Sarah Hemings was informally freed by Martha, Jefferson’s daughter, and she lived the rest of her life in Charlottesville with her son.
As Gordon-Reed says, “Hemings and Jefferson lived in a world obsessed with family connections. Kinship ties were enormously important to enslaved people who tried hard to defend them against the depredations of slavery. Blood and family were important to white Virginians as well, but they added the component of racism to the equation.” Gordon-Reed details the benevolent society Jefferson tried to build on his mountain, noting that no matter his kindness, and the Hemings family’s reciprocal care for him, it was still based on master and slave relations.
“The few reports of Sally Hemings give the impression of a sweet and reasonable person,” says Gordon-Reed. Her story, as told by her descendants, is of someone who worked within the confines of her situation while loving Thomas Jefferson. It was clear she lived in a monogamous relationship to him. All of her children resembled him. As an older person, she handed down a few of his possessions, a pair of spectacles, an ink bottle and a shoe buckle, as well as her stories of living in France as a young girl. To acknowledge the intimacy of these particular American forebears, which has only happened in the last ten years, is important. To acknowledge that many of our ancestors have lived in varying relationships to each other, is to widen and deepen our understanding of the human family.