Monticello Claims to Have Found Sally Hemings’s Room. Is This True?

tags: Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Sally Hemings

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a philosopher and historian, editor of The Journal of Thomas Jefferson's Life and Times, and author/editor of 10 books and of some 70 published essays on Thomas Jefferson. He can be reached through http://www.thomasjeffersonphilosopher.com.  Vivienne Kelly, having received her M.F.A. in Classical Sculpture from The American University in Washington, writed, teaches, and sculpts in her studios, and is lifelong student of Thomas Jefferson.

“Historians have made a discovery just in time for the July 4th holiday,” writes Natalie Dreier of the National/World News. “They have found the living quarters for Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore six children to one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.”

Where at Monticello is this bedroom? Michael Cottman of NBC News says that Hemings’s bedroom was “adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom.” Reporter Cecile Borkhataria writes that it was “next to Thomas Jefferson’s [bed]room.” Reporter Krissah Thompson says, “The room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept was just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom.” The implication of easy access in each instance is clear.

With the discovery made, builders and archeologists, led by director of archeology, Fraser Neiman, are now reconstructing Hemings’s bedroom in the South Wing of Monticello. Writes Cottman: “Today, Hemings’ room is being restored for eventual public viewing. Monticello’s curators are working diligently to incorporate Hemings’ life as part of Jefferson’s comprehensive story.”

Gary Sandling, vice-president of visitor programs and services at Monticello, adds that the reconstruction is not meant to showcase Jefferson’s avowed relationship with Hemings. “We’re not going to use this room to tell a story about DNA and the paternity of her children—we think the evidence for that is pretty substantial—but to actually think [sic] about her. She was someone who had seen more of the world than the vast majority of a lot of free people, even.”

How do we know that the particular room that is being refashioned was Sally Hemings’s room? Thompson writes: “To pinpoint that room, historians relied on a description provided long ago by a Jefferson grandson, who placed it in the home’s south wing. Archaeologists are now peeling back layers in the 14 foot, 8 inch-by-13 foot, 2 inch room to reveal its original brick floor and plaster walls.”

What is the “description provided long ago by a grandson of Jefferson who placed Hemings’s room in the home’s South Wing”that allowed historians to “pinpoint” the room? That grandson was Thomas Jefferson Randolph and the description occurs in a letter (1 June 1868) from early Jefferson biographer, Henry S. Randall, to a later biographer James Parton. Randall tells Parton of a conversation he had with Jefferson’s grandson some 10 years prior to the letter. Says Randall, “Walking about mouldering Monticello one day with Col. T.J. Randolph (Mr. Jefferson’s oldest grandson) he showed me a smoke blackened and sooty room in one of the colonnades and informed me it was Sally Hening’s [sic] room.” That is the complete description that allowed historians to “pinpoint” the room.

“There’s not a lot there,” says Fraser Neiman, director of archeology at Monticello and member of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF). “It’s really great that we’re getting our act together to pull up the floors and see what’s underneath. There aren’t [sic] a whole lot of archaeological discoveries, but we did find part of the original hearth in the Hemings’ room and traces of the original brick floor. Time has not been very kind.” He admits that he is not sure that the room that is being reconstructed is Hemings’s. 

There is something nefarious going on here. Why should anyone from with the TJF, upon reading Randall’s letter to Parton, care specifically to make a room for Sally Hemings instead of, say, any other of the more significant slaves, and there were many, at Monticello?

The TJF is heavily invested today in the issue of slavery and a large part of that issue is the notion that Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Giving Hemings her own room, even if it is not adjacent or next to Jefferson’s bedroom, but a large distance from it, will prove, in the minds of visitors over time, that she had an affair with Jefferson. It will also be concrete proof of Jefferson’s hypocrisy—viz., writing illy of some of the attributes of Blacks in his Notes on the State of Virginiaand yet taking one as his mistress.

Recall Sandling’s words that Hemings “had seen more of the world than the vast majority of a lot of free people.” Thus, it is important “to think about her life experiences in bondage and to understand the trajectory of her life.” What significant experiences did she have that should make her, among all slaves at Monticello, the focus?

We unfortunately know little of Sally Hemings. Joseph Ellis states: “The historical record [on Sally Hemings] is almost completely blank.” Robert Turner takes it further. “Virtually everything that we believe we know about Sally Hemings … can be recorded on a 3 x 5 index card.” How then can anyone reconstruct her bedroom in such a manner to showcase her “life experiences in bondage” and “understand the trajectory of her life” if we know next to nothing of her?

What exactly do we know of Sally Hemings? Let us flesh out Hemings’s three-by-five card.

She became the property of Jefferson in 1774, when his wife’s father, John Wayles, died. Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was the property of Wayles and it was rumored that she had become Wayles’s concubine after the death of his three wives. That, however, might be nothing more than a rumor.

Early in life, Sally was likely a nursemaid to Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Mary, and she retained that role when she arrived with Maria in France in 1787. Jefferson, as minister plenipotentiary, had been in France since 1784 and had brought with him his oldest daughter, Martha, and Sally’s brother, James Hemings, who was learning French cuisine. After the death of two-year-old daughter Lucy, who was back in Virginia, Jefferson insisted that his remaining daughter, Mary, be sent to France to be with him and Martha.

Mary arrived in London in 1787. With her was 14-year-old Sally Hemings. That proved a surprise to Abigail Adams, who had expected at Jefferson’s bidding an old nurse to watch over Mary. “The old Nurse whom you had expected to have attended her,” writes Adams to Jefferson “was sick and unable to come.” Adams’s impression of Hemings was not favorable. Hemings needed more care than Mary. Jefferson too was likely not pleased with his sister’s choice of a traveling companion. To Frances Eppes (30 Aug. 1785), Jefferson asked for “a careful negro woman, as Isabel, for instance, if she has had the small pox, would suffice under the patronage of a gentleman.”

In France, Hemings almost certainly lived with young Mary at Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, a convent where the two would be schooled in a non-religious manner, though some writers, following the lead of Annette Gordon-Reed, insist that she stayed with Jefferson, his secretary William Short, Col. David Humphreys, and their attending staff at the Hôtel de Langeac. Hemings, it seems, would attend to Mary and perhaps even Martha in France at the convent. We know no specifics however. William Howard Adams, author of a book on Jefferson’s tenure in Paris, states: “The evidence is meager. Apart from nine notations in Jefferson’s Memorandum Book recording purchases of clothing, her servant’s pay, and a fee for smallpox vaccination, Sally Hemings is completely absent from the Paris record.”

After France, Hemings probably had light duties as housemaid at Monticello and, if we follow Jefferson’s accounts in his memoranda books, received no special treatment.

Did Jefferson have a nearly 40-year affair with Sally Hemings?

That seems improbable, but it is not impossible. The DNA evidence is consistent with Jefferson, fathering Eston Hemings. That is all that we have biologically. That makes Jefferson a viable candidate, but it does not rule out some two dozen others in the Jefferson bloodline—his brother Randolph being an especially attractive possibility. There is also the report, “Life among the Lowly,” of Sally’s son Madison, published decades after Jefferson’s passing, in which he claims that Jefferson was his father. Yet that report, as one of us, Holowchak, has argued here on HNN, fails on several grounds apropos of sound historical scholarship. All we can say is this: We do not know.

In effect, the TJF is using Jefferson’s Monticello to make a political statement about the evils of slavery. Why is Jefferson the guinea pig for their statement? It is in large part on account of the meticulous records he kept of his slaves in his memoranda books.

Yet the TJF seems to have taken things too far. They seem willing to construct their own history in an effort to speak to the evils of slavery.

Is that morally correct, or even morally acceptable?

That seems laudable, until one considers over time the many efforts by persons with political power or leverage to change history “for the better.” We need not list names. The results are almost always facinorous. All persons with power or leverage think their own agenda is the correct agenda.

Political power or leverage does not, however, entail moral wisdom. Thus, truth is preferable, even when it is ugly. As Jefferson noted often, history is significant chiefly for its moral lessons, even when the characters involved are morally opprobrious. Truth is also preferable, because we can never be sure that those who wave the Utilitarian flag of moral betterment have greater moral wisdom than we do. Jefferson always advised caution on that issue. He preferred the moral judgment of the plowman to that of the professor.

Why then is there so much fuss over telling the Sally Hemings story when we have no sure evidence of an affair with Jefferson, when we know next to nothing about Hemings, and when there is ample evidence that many other slaves were more important to him?

Why then is there so much fuss over telling the Sally Hemings story when we have no sure evidence of an affair with Jefferson, when we know next to nothing about Hemings, and when there is ample evidence that many other slaves were more important to him?

The answer seems clear. Sex fascinates. It fascinates and it sells. It also acts, in the eyes of some revisionist scholars, as a lure to the larger aim of reducing Jefferson to just another owner of slaves, thereby militating against his character and his numerous significant achievements toward human betterment. Truth matters. It ought not to be sacrificed for political ends.

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