Sunday, June 24, 2018
Jefferson, Hemings, and the Evolution of Racial Mixing
A week ago, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation opened a new exhibit at Jefferson's Monticello plantation on Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave who bore as many as six of his children over the last 40 years of his life. The New York Times has a good article on this and also a good essay by Annette Gordon-Reed, who is one of the historians responsible for shifting scholarly opinion towards accepting Jefferson's fathering of Hemings' children.
That the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who affirmed natural human equality and who denounced slavery as a violation of human nature, could not only own black slaves but also exploit them for his sexual gratification forces us to think about the human nature of slavery and the evolution of racial mixing.
Moreover, explaining the moral and political history of the Jefferson and Hemings relationship can illustrate the biopolitical science of political animals as moving through three levels of deep history--the universal history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group
In 1802, James Callender, a journalist with a grudge against Jefferson, published an article in a Richmond newspaper claiming that it was widely known in the neighborhood of Charlottesville that Jefferson had fathered several children with a slave woman named "Sally," and that these children bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson. The Federalist opponents of Jefferson made this an issue in the presidential election of 1804. Jefferson said nothing in public about this charge. But some of his friends--including James Madison--dismissed it as preposterous, because it was contrary to the moral character that he had always displayed.
In 1853, however, Jefferson's friend John Hartwell Cocke wrote in his diary about "Mr. Jefferson's notorious example" as illustrating the shameful practice of slaveowners in Virginia fathering children with their slaves.
In the 1850s, Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph spoke with the historian Henry S. Randall, telling him that Sally Hemings's children really did resemble his grandfather so closely that it was clear that the children had been fathered by someone in Jefferson's family. But Randolph insisted that the father was Peter Carr, one of the sons of Jefferson's sister, who was notorious for his sexual connection with Sally Hemings.
In 1873, Sally Hemings's son Madison was interviewed by the editor of the Pike County Republican newspaper in Ohio. He told the story of his ancestry as related to him by his mother. He said that his grandmother (Elizabeth Hemings) had been fathered by an English sea captain, who had impregnated an African slave woman. Elizabeth was owned by Virginian John Wayles, who took her as his concubine after the death of his wife. He fathered Elizabeth's six children, one of whom was Sally Hemings. One of Wayles' children by his wife was Martha, Thomas Jefferson's wife. When Wayles died, Martha inherited his land and his slaves, including Sally Hemings, who was Martha's half-sister.
Martha died in 1782, and Jefferson promised her on her death bed that he would never remarry. She had had six children, but only two daughters survived into adulthood--Martha and Maria.
In 1784, Jefferson was appointed a minister plenipotentiary to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Europe to negotiate treaties. In 1785, he was appointed to succeed Franklin as minister to France. While in Paris, he was known for his flirtatious dalliances with married women, particularly Maria Cosway.
In 1787, the fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings accompanied the nine-year-old Maria Jefferson to Paris. According to the accounts of slaves on the plantation and Jefferson's grandson, Sally was nearly white in appearance and so beautiful that she was known as "Dashing Sally." According to Madison Hemmings's report, Sally in Paris became "Mr. Jefferson's concubine." At this time, "concubine" was the term for a woman in an enduring sexual liaison with a man without being legally married to him.
In 1789, Jefferson was called back to the United States to become Secretary of State in President Washington's first administration. Madison said that when Jefferson asked Sally to return home with him, she demurred, because she had learned enough French to know that French law would permit her to be free if she remained in France, while in Virginia she would be a slave. Jefferson promised that if she returned with him, he would give her special privileges for the rest of her life, and her children would be freed at the age of 21. Hemings trusted him to keep his word. Jefferson was 46 years old. Hemings was 16.
And, indeed, according to what Madison called "the treaty" between his mother and Jefferson, all four of the Hemings children who lived to adulthood--three sons (Beverly, Madison, and Eston) and one daughter (Harriet)--became free at adulthood. All of the children worked in Jefferson's home and were free from any field work. All of them married and raised children. Beverly became identified as a white man, and he married a white woman. Harriet became identified as a white woman and married a white man. Eston lived as a white man who married a black woman. Madison remained in the black community, and he married a fair skinned black woman. After Jefferson's death in 1826, his slaves were sold, but Sally left the plantation and became a free woman, living with two of her children until her death in 1835.
It is not clear whether Hemings's sexual submission to Jefferson was romantic or coerced or perhaps some complex mixture of both. At the new Monticello exhibit, some of the written displays use the word "rape?" with a question mark to convey this uncertainty about the character of their sexual relationship.
A few months after Madison Hemings's interview in 1873 with the Pike County Republican, Israel Jefferson, a former slave of Jefferson's and a friend of Hemings, gave his own interview to that newspaper confirming Hemings's story about his mother being Jefferson's concubine.
Until recently, however, historians have generally dismissed as unreliable all of the reports of Jefferson fathering children by Hemings. Many historians have accepted the claim of Thomas Jefferson Randolph that the resemblance of Hemings's children to Jefferson could be explained by their being fathered by one of the Carr brothers. Historians could not believe that a man with the moral character of Thomas Jefferson could have engaged in such reprehensible conduct in secret for almost 40 years.
In 1968, Winthrop Jordan, in his book White Over Black, noted that Jefferson's plantation account books showed that Jefferson had been at Monticello at every time when Sally Hemings conceived a child (Jordan 1968, 1999). Later, it was shown that Hemings tended to get pregnant within one month after Jefferson's arrival at Monticello (Neiman 2000).
In 1974, Fawn Brodie published her best-selling popular book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which argued for a Freudian explanation of Jefferson's sexual activity with Hemings. But some of Brodie's reasoning turned on speculative scenarios with little supporting evidence.
Finally, in 1997, the intellectual tide among historians began to turn towards accepting the story of Hemings as Jefferson's concubine because of the influence of Annette Gordon-Reed's book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. A historian with a law degree, she conceded that there was no "definitive proof" for this conclusion, but then she presented a carefully crafted legal brief claiming that the preponderance of the evidence favored it.
She summarized the evidence as eight items supporting the assertion that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children .
1. Madison Hemings Claim to Be the Son of Thomas Jefferson.
Against the argument of historians that the abolitionist editor of the Pike County Republican (S. F. Wetmore) prompted Madison Hemings in 1873 to falsely claim to be the son of Jefferson, Gordon-Reed pointed out that as early as the 1840s there were newspaper reports about Madison and his brother Eston being the children of Jefferson. Moreover, much of what Madison Hemings said in his interview with Wetmore has been confirmed by and fits with other evidence.
2. Israel Jefferson's Corroboration of Madison Hemings's Statement.
3. John Hartwell Cocke's Statement That Jefferson Had a Slave Mistress.
John Hartwell Cocke served with Jefferson on the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. Cocke saw Jefferson's taking a slave concubine as manifesting an unwritten social code of conduct among slaveholders, who informally agreed that this practice would not damage one's public reputation as long as the slave master did not live openly with his slave concubines. Historians have confirmed that this was in fact a widespread cultural norm (Morgan 1999; Rothman 1999).
4. James Callender's Assertion Corroborating Madison Hemings's Statement.
5. Hemings's Conceptions and Jefferson's Proximity.
This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence--that Hemings never conceived a child when Jefferson was not in residence at Monticello, although he was often away from Monticello for six to eight months at a time. It is hard to understand how the Carr brothers failed to father any children during these long periods when Jefferson was absent from Monticello.
6. The Resemblance of Sally Hemings's Children to Thomas Jefferson..
Remarkably, while Thomas Jefferson Randolph was trying to deny Thomas Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children, he admitted that they all looked much like him. If we accept this, then it is unlikely that Hemings's children were fathered by any of the white men who visited Monticello, because Randolph's claims about resemblance to Jefferson reduced the possible fathers to three men: Thomas Jefferson, Peter Carr, and Samuel Carr.
7. The Treatment of Sally Hemings's Children.
The best evidence for Madison Hemmings's report of a "treaty" that Sally Hemings negotiated with Jefferson as her condition for agreeing to become his concubine in Virginia is what happened to her children. All four of her children were allowed to leave Monticello as free adults after they turned 21. Jefferson freed no other slave in this way. The very few that he freed were older men that had performed special services for him. Harriet Hemings was the only female that he ever freed. The treatment of the Hemings's children was also special in that they were all assigned private baby-sitters. The records also show that all three of Hemings's sons were taught to play the violin--the instrument favored by Jefferson himself.
8. The Freeing of Sally Hemings.
After the death of Jefferson, his slaves were sold, but Sally Hemings was allowed to go free and to live with her sons Madison and Eston. Jefferson's will did not specify this, which is understandable if he did not want to provide public written evidence for his special treatment of her.
The ninth piece of evidence--and perhaps the most dramatic form of evidence--came a year after the publication of Gordon-Reed's book. In 1998, a genetic analysis published in Nature showed that there was a DNA match on the Y chromosome between a living male-line descendent of Eston Hemings and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, a paternal uncle of Thomas Jefferson (Foster et al. 1998; Foster et al. 1999; Lander and Ellis 1998). The researchers had to look at the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, because Thomas Jefferson had no sons who lived to adulthood, and thus he left no male descendants.
Most of the Y chromosome is passed intact from father to son. But there are small regions of DNA that vary among individuals, so that Y chromosomes can be distinguished by the haplotype (the set of specific variants) that they carry. The authors of this study found a rare haplotype in the Y chromosome of the descendants of Jefferson's paternal grandfather that matched that of Eston Hemings's descendant.
This was widely reported as conclusive proof that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's children. But as the authors of the report indicated, they could not completely rule out the possibility that some male-line descendant of Field Jefferson other than Thomas Jefferson fathered an ancestor of the presumed male-line descendant of Eston Hemings. The men of Randolph Jefferson's family could have fathered Sally Hemings's children. But the researchers believed the historical evidence made this possibility unlikely.
In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation--the owner of Jefferson's home at Monticello--issues a report concluding that Jefferson fathered at least one and perhaps all of Sally Hemings's children.
But then some scholars rejected this as an unfair and unproven assault on the moral reputation of Thomas Jefferson as one of the greatest of America's Founding Fathers. A group of these scholars formed the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which set up a Scholars Commission of senior scholars to reexamine all the evidence for and against Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children. There were 13 members of the Commission: Lance Banning, James Ceaser, Robert H. Ferrell, Charles Kesler, Harvey C. Mansfield, Alf J. Mapp, Jr., David N. Mayer, Forrest McDonald, Paul A. Rahe, Thomas Traut, Robert F. Turner, Walter E. Williams, and Jean Yarbrough. They issued their report in 2001, and it was published as a book in 2011 (Turner 2011).
The majority of the Scholars Commission--12 of the 13 members--concluded that that the allegation that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children was by no means proven and probably false. The one dissenting member--Paul Rahe--agreed that this allegation was not decisively proven, but he dissented in "believing it somewhat more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings." He was particularly impressed by two lines of evidence--first, the correlation between the beginning of Sally Hemings's pregnancies and Thomas Jefferson's times of residence at Monticello, and, second, the DNA evidence that Eston was fathered by a direct male descendant of Jefferson's grandfather.
How one weighs the evidence in this case, Rahe observed, depends a lot on what one thinks about Jefferson's moral character. Those scholars who find the story of Jefferson taking Hemings as his slave concubine incredible think this contradicts the moral character that he displayed throughout life. But those like Rahe who see evidence that Jefferson was unusually vain, deceitful, self-deceptive, and hypocritical are more inclined to see the story as credible.
After all, Rahe pointed out, we know for sure that even if Jefferson did not himself abuse his power as slaveholder over Sally Hemings, he allowed one or more members of his extended family to exercise abusive power over Hemings.
"In his private, as in his public, life," Rahe said, "there was, for all his brilliance and sagacity, something dishonest, something self-serving and self-indulgent about the man" (2011, 352).
I agree with Rahe.
Consider now how any explanation of this Jefferson-Hemings affair must move through the three levels of biopolitical science. At the level of the universal history of the species, we have to explain the evolved psychology of human nature that supports male dominance hierarchies, the expression of dominance in enslavement, and the resistance of slaves to exploitative mastery.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson recognized that slavery was ultimately a "cruel war against human nature itself." And in the Notes on the State of Virginia, he warned that "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other," and he saw that "the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances" (Jefferson 1982, Query XVIII, p. 162). It appears that Jefferson was not such a prodigy.
At the level of the cultural history of the group, we can explain Jefferson's use of Hemings as his concubine, but without public acknowledgment, as his adoption of an informal social norm that arose in the culture of Virginia's slave society. But in the Declaration of Independence and in other writings where Jefferson denounced slavery as unjust in violating the principles of natural right, we can see the cultural symbolism of Lockean liberal ideas and how those ideas contradict Jefferson's practice of slaveholding.
Finally, at the level of the individual history of animals in the group, we have to judge Jefferson's personal character and his individual moral and political judgments. Before Jefferson left for Europe in 1784, he consistently proposed plans for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Yet when he returned to the United States in 1789, he continued to declare slavery a great injustice, but he never again proposed any plans for emancipation. Scholars have wondered how to explain this change of mind. Did it have something to do with Hemings's concubinage? And if so, can we condemn him for his hypocrisy and deceit?
Jefferson's hypocrisy is most evident when he warns that if the American slaves are emancipated, they must be expelled from the country so that they are "removed beyond the reach of mixture" (Jefferson 1972, Query XIV, p. 143). He worried about the "degradation" coming from the "amalgamation" of races (Jefferson 1984, 1345). Alexander Hamilton criticized Jefferson for these comments, pointing out the high incidence of race mixing in slave societies because of slave masters making concubines of their slaves.
Brodie, Fawn. 1974. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Norton.
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Foster, Eugene A., et al. 1999. "The Thomas Jefferson Paternity Case." Nature 397: 32.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2008. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: Norton.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2018. "Sally Hemings Takes Center Stage." The New York Times. June 15.
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Neiman, Fraser D. 2000. "Coincidence or Causal Connection? The Relationship between Thomas Jefferson's Visits to Monticello and Sally Hemings's Conceptions." The William & Mary Quarterly 57: 198-210.
Rahe, Paul. 2011. "Minority Views of Professor Paul A. Rahe." In The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, ed. Robert F. Turner, pp. 345-52. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Rothman, Joshua D. 1999. "James Callender and Social Knowledge of Interracial Sex in Antebellum America." In Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, 87-113.
Stockman, Farah. 2018. "Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson's Relationship With Sally Hemings.:" The New York Times. June 16.
Turner, Robert F., ed. 2011. The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.