The Magazine

Jefferson Revised

Was the architect of liberty our first limousine liberal?

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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He spent three weeks in his room, pacing incessantly, then emerged to go on long, aimless rambles on horseback, followed by Martha, his 10-year-old daughter, who wrote nearly 50 years later, "In these melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent (out)burst of grief." Jefferson would later attest to "that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss had occasioned it," and complain that "a single event wiped away all my plans, and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up."

He did, in fact, not do so until four years later when he met Maria Cosway in Paris, the unhappy wife of a talented artist, and a talented artist herself. There were two idyllic weeks in Paris before Jefferson's luck turned again: He fractured his wrist (which would never heal properly) and, soon after, the Cosways were gone.

Maria returned, alone, a year later. But when she did, her interest had tempered: She spent her time with Italian and Polish nobility, and saw Jefferson at large dinners and balls. "Already an emotional catastrophe for Jefferson, Maria Cosway's visit ended early in December on a particularly sour note," Jon Kukla tells us, as Maria arranged a breakfast the day of her scheduled departure, and then stood him up: "The emotional details are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart waiting for Ingrid Bergman at the train station in Casablanca."

They corresponded intermittently for several decades, but never again saw one another. "The blunt fact remained," Kukla writes, "that three of the four women to whom Jefferson had offered his Heart had rejected it, and the fourth would be taken from him by death."

Two months before Maria's second visit to Paris, Sally Hemings had arrived in the city, having accompanied Jefferson's daughter Maria, then six. A house slave who had come to Monticello in Martha Jefferson's dowry, Sally was also his late wife's half-sister, one of six children born to John Wayles by his slave, Betty Hemings, after Wayles's two wives had died. Then 14, she was later described as "light-colored, and decidedly good-looking .  .  . very handsome .  .  . [and] mighty near white."

What was not said, but also seems likely, was that she may have looked a great deal like Jefferson's wife, who was also described as "slender and pretty," though with auburn hair and dark hazel eyes. What happened next will be never made certain, but sometime between 1789, when she was 16, and 1795, when she was 22 and bore her first child, Sally Hemings and Jefferson had established a strong and informal relationship which lasted the rest of his life.

Aside from the rumors, which circulated widely through Jefferson's lifetime, these two books rest their case on three things:

First, that Jefferson's bedroom after he came back from Paris was on the first floor of the house and far away from those of other family members; the windows of his room were shielded by louvered verandas that made it hard to see into it, while hidden staircases led from the room to the slave quarters beneath it, and a circular staircase led from Jefferson's library to Sally Hemings' room underneath.

Second, that in the later years of Jefferson's retirement, when Sally's children were older, visitors to Monticello remarked on the resemblance of some of the younger slaves to their master, and in the words of a grandson, one dinner guest "looked so startled as he raised his eyes from [Jefferson] to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was .  .  . perfectly obvious to all."

Third, Sally and her children were given privileges above all the other house slaves and servants, "permitted to stay in the great house, and required to do such light work as going on errands," as one of her children wrote later. "We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used."

All of Sally Hemings's children were freed, either before Jefferson's death, when they were permitted to "walk off" the plantation, or shortly after, under the terms of his will. So was Sally herself, "who lived out her life as a virtually free woman" in the care of her two younger sons.