Thomas Jefferson may have had an illicit interracial affair with his servant, Sally Hemmings. It is also believed that he fathered Hemmings’ seven children.
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of President Thomas Jefferson, died in September, 1782. Martha had inherited slaves from her father, John Wayles. One of these slaves was Sally Hemmings. Ironically, Sally was Martha’s half sister. At the time of Mrs. Jefferson’s death, Sally was a nine-year-old housekeeper at Monticello and a playmate of the Jeffersons’ two daughters, Martha and Maria. Five years later, Sally would become more than a servant to the future president.
The Wayles ConnectionSally Hemmings (1773-1835) was born on John Wayles’ Virginia plantation. Her mother, Elizabeth Hemmings, became Wayles’ mistress following his wife’s death. Sally was one of John and Elizabeth’s six children. Sally, who was born the year Wayles died, along with her mother and siblings, went to live at Monticello.
A Taste of Freedom
Five years after Martha Jefferson’s death, a 14-year-old Sally Hemmings accompanied Jefferson and daughter Maria to Paris. Under French law, Sally was not a slave. She did not want to return to the U.S., where her slave status would be reinstated. Sally and her older brother, James, who had gone to Paris with Jefferson to study culinary arts, both loved their life of freedom in the French capital. Nevertheless, they both returned to Monticello two years later.
When Sally, now 16, arrived at Monticello, she was said to have been visibly pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Sally gave birth to the first of her seven children. The claim that Jefferson was the father of these children is substantiated by an account that Sally’s sixth child, Madison Hemmings, wrote in an Ohio newspaper. Madison wrote: “My mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine and when he was called back home, she was pregnant by him.” The account further stated that Jefferson promised Sally that he would grant her “extraordinary privileges” and that her children would each be freed when they turned 21. Most importantly, all seven children were born at Monticello, and Sally lived there until she died in 1835, nine years after Jefferson’s death.
Prospective Presidential Scandal
Throughout Jefferson’s presidency, the press, particularly the Richmond Recorder, taunted the public with tales of a lurid interracial relationship between the commander-in-chief and his “mulatto slave.” Of course, such a relationship was scandalous and illicit in the Old South, so Jefferson was publicly silent regarding the matter.
Was Thomas Jefferson the Father of Sally Hemmings’ Seven Children?Historians are divided over whether or not Jefferson fathered Hemmings’ children as well as the validity of accounts purporting a love affair between the two. In 1998, however, DNA tests of confirmed descendants of both families proved a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemmings. But the genetic link did not lead directly to Thomas Jefferson; rather, it led to his brother, Randolph, and his two sons. Randolph and the presidents’ nephews also lived at Monticello. Therefore, genetic testing would have to be further refined before the paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children could be ascertained. Several years after the initial tests were performed, another round of testing proved that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally Hemmings’ seven children.
- Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p.50. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.