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It is known that Sally was ‘light colored and decidedly good looking’, as Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph put it. The slave, Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was ‘mighty near white… very handsome, long straight hair down her back. ‘iii Everyone that saw Sally had described her as beautiful. Abigail Adams was apparently concerned about this when she saw Sally first get off the boat in France. This may have been one of the reasons why Abigail Adams is believed to have demanded that Sally be put back on the boat and be returned to the United States.
It was in France that the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings must have started. Historians defending Jefferson claim that no sexual affair could have happened, because Sally was only 14 when she came to France, and left when she was only 16. However, at that time, 16 was the average age for marriage of women in America. iv Even Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, got married at the age of 17.
More than likely, their relationship began as early as 1788. The volume of letters written by Jefferson during that year and the next are missing.
v Some people believe that it contained love letters to Sally and was destroyed for that reason. However, Jefferson’s account book is still remaining. It contains clear and convincing evidence of a special relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Jefferson started spending large amounts of money on Sally Hemings in April 1789, as well as buying her fine clothing and dresses.
The account book also shows that she no longer had to wash her own clothes, indicating she had achieved a high status. In a period of seven weeks, he spent a total of 216 francs on clothes for Sally.
What is a common thing a man does for a girl he is dating? He showers her with gifts. The next thing that happens, if the relationship gets serious, is that they move in together. Jefferson paid rent for Sally to have her own apartment in Paris, in a different section of town from the other family members of Jefferson. In Paris at this time, every man of importance kept a mistress on the other side of town. Sally came to France to be a nanny for Polly, however, if that relationship continued she would have lived in the same quarters, and even the same room as Polly. Yet, starting in April 1789, she was kept away from Polly.
The final and perhaps the most conclusive evidence proving a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings in France was the fact that at first she refused to return to America. She was happy in France, and was fluent in French. If she returned to the United States, she would also loose her freedom, and become a slave again. However, Jefferson convinced her to return with him. He promised her that her children would receive their freedom upon reaching maturity. vi This agreement proves that she must have been pregnant at the time. If she already gave birth to a baby, the baby would be born free in France.
There would be no need for an agreement. The agreement shows that Sally was pregnant, and that the father of the unborn baby must be Jefferson. Otherwise, why would he suffer the embarrassment of bringing a pregnant girl back to America? Why not leave her in France with her French lover, if he existed? There were many other slaves available to purchase. Through letters, there is evidence of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote a letter to her brother in 1858, stating that according to her brother, ‘Dusky Sally’ had been the mistress of a ‘married man’.
In the letter Coolidge states, “One woman known to Mr. J. Q. Adams and others as ‘Dusky Sally’ was pretty notoriously the mistress of a married man, a near relation to Mr. Jefferson’s, and there can be a small question that her children were his. “vii What makes this letter so appealing is that the full text of this letter was kept secret by the family for years until it was finally published in the New York Times on May 18, 1974, over a century after it was written. This letter is used as proof that the actual fathers of Hemings’ children were Peter Jefferson Carr and Samuel Jefferson Carr.
However, DNA tests preformed on the descendants of the Carr brothers prove that they did not father the children of Hemings. Contrary evidence backs this fact up as well. No one dared accuse Peter and Samuel Carr of fathering children by Sally Hemings while they were still alive. Nearly twenty years after their death, in 1874, Henry Randall quoted that Thomas Jefferson Randolph stated that they fathered Hemings’ children. Randall claimed that Randolph said: “If I should allow you to take Peter Carr’s corpse into court and plead guilty over it to shelter Mr.
Jefferson, I should not dare again to walk by his grave: He would rise and spurn me. ‘viii Yet, this statement implies that the claim that Peter Carr was the father of the children of Hemings is not true. If corpses rise at all, they do not rise when true statements are made about them. A letter written by Randall, dated June 1st, 1868 is also offered as proof that the Carr brothers were involved with Hemings. However, in the letter he admitted that a large number of mulatto slaves at Monticello strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson and that many guests constantly got them mixed up. ix Sally Hemings wasn’t an ordinary slave.
She didn’t even live at ‘Mulberry Row’, where all the other slaves lived. In the 1868 letter from Henry S. Randall, it stated: ‘Walking around moldering Monticello one day with Col. T. J. Randolph he showed me a smoke blackened and sooty room in one of the colonnades, and informed me it was Sally Hemings’ room. ‘x There is a room in Monticello that fits the description, labeled the ‘smoke room’. It’s connected to the secret passage way underneath the house. Sally Hemings was also one of the few, such as Betty Brown and Betty Hemings, that were allowed to enter the main doors on the ground floor.
Another compelling piece of evidence is the statement of Madison Hemings, Sally Hemings’ son. In 1873, the Pike County Republican in Waverly, Ohio, published an interview with Madison Hemings. The interview includes the story of how the great-grandmother of Madison became pregnant on the slave ship by the owner of the ship and how his mother became pregnant in France. These are exclusive pieces of information that were not then available in a public library. A few historians argue that this interview is not valid, because it is not certain that the man is actually Madison Hemings.
Yet, the details provided could not have been provided by anyone other than someone with a detailed knowledge of life at Monticello. There are a few minor mistakes, but they all concern matters that occurred before he was even born. In the interview, he provided the names of all twelve grandchildren of Thomas Jefferson in correct order of birth. Another factor was that he used to French term, enceinte instead of the English term, pregnant to describe his mother’s condition when she arrived in America back from France. Sally was a fluent speaker of the French language.
Nobody faking the interview would use the French term for pregnant as Madison attributed. Madison Hemings stated that his mother, Sally, had told him that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was devoted to Jefferson. She stayed with him right up to the day he died. She even continued to live on Monticello after his death. Why would she lie to her son about who his father was? During the interview of Israel Jefferson, who was a slave at Monticello, the Sally Hemings episode was brought up. Israel Jefferson stated that Sally Hemings was the concubine of Thomas Jefferson.
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