Pursuit of Happiness? Thomas Jefferson Book Dredges Up Hemings Story

Article excerpt

WHEN WE last saw Tom and Sally, they were back on the farm, entertaining friends, watching their children grow up and slowly, inexorably, going broke.

He was, of course, our improvident third president, Thomas Jefferson, settling into uneasy retirement at Monticello, his northern Virginia plantation.

And she was the mysterious Sally Hemings, a Monticello slave, with whom, according to some historians, Jefferson had seven children.

"She's a woman who's been erased from American history for no good reason except that she was inconvenient," says writer Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose second novel about Hemings and her offspring will be released in October.

The titillating story of sex, slavery and the president has been gossiped about, indignantly dismissed and periodically resurrected since 1802, when a Virginia newspaper reported scandalous charges of miscegenation during Jefferson's first term in the White House. It was America's first presidential character controversy.

With Chase-Riboud's book about to surface and a new Merchant-Ivory movie, "Jefferson in Paris," complete with an on-screen Sally-and-Tom liaison, coming out early next year, chroniclers are bracing for a new round of an old debate.

"It's all kind of tiresome by now," says Daniel P. Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello as a museum and national monument. "Nobody has advanced much new evidence, but some people seem to be absolutely fixated on it."

Nothing has given the story more of a popular buzz in recent years than Chase-Riboud's 1979 best-selling novel, "Sally Hemings"; her sharp portrayals of an American icon and his impressionable servant gave the tale a strong whiff of plausibility.

Now, Chase-Riboud, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Paris for most of the past 33 years, revisits the story in "The President's Daughter," which follows the meandering life of Harriet Hemings, Tom and Sally's fifth putative child, a runaway slave living in Philadelphia and passing for white. Along with the new book, Ballantine Books is re-releasing the first one in paperback.

In the new novel, Chase-Riboud once again uses the theme of slavery for a bitter rumination on America's preoccupation with race. Jefferson, the proverbial "framer" of the Declaration of Independence, serves as a kind of Rosetta stone for the race issue, she says.

"He embodies the American identity. Anything that touches him, or his relationship with the world, touches that identity."

The Tom-and-Sally scenario is scornfully dismissed as "totally out of character" by the patrician historians who guard the Jefferson legacy. But the same historians acknowledge that Jefferson once propositioned a friend's wife and that, while in France, he engaged in an affair with a married Englishwoman. …