Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Race, Sex, and Reputation: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Hemings Story

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Race, Sex, and Reputation: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Hemings Story

Article excerpt

By August 1802, the image of Thomas Jefferson had not yet been carved in stone, but it had at least been molded in wax. The likeness of the third president stood alongside twenty-four other famous figures on display in Georgetown. Adults handed over fifty cents to view the traveling exhibit; children paid half-price. Had this mobile wax museum been situated to the south, in Richmond, the paraffin statues might have toppled. An earthquake rocked the Virginia capital; its noise, according to one published report, resembled "the roaring of a chimney on fire."

Less than a month later, the Richmond Recorder created shock waves of its own. Threatening a similar potential to damage the president's image, these rumblings came in the form of charges levied by the newspaper against Jefferson's character. Around the environs of Monticello, the journal asserted, "it is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY." In the 1780s, Sally had lived in her master's Parisian household during his diplomatic mission to France and gave birth to their first child, according to the account, within nine months of their return to America. "The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking, although sable resemblance to those of the President himself." Jefferson's "wench" had borne him "several children"--a later report set the number at five--and "not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville" did not "believe the story."(1)

Written by James Thomson Callender, a Scottish emigre and one-time Republican whom Jefferson had recently passed over for a federal job, the accusation reverberated through the Federalist press. "We have heard the same subject spoken of in Virginia, and by Virginia gentlemen," claimed the Gazette of the United States. The Connecticut Courant held that Callender's "convincing" charges "startle the most impudent" and confirm that Jefferson "is in every respect unfit to be the head of any people not lost to decency or given over to reprobation."(2)

On the issue of his purported sexual conduct, as on other personal matters brought forth by detractors, Jefferson remained silent before the public. More than a decade later, Jefferson wrote that the best and--for him--only answers "to federal slanders" could be produced through "the tenor of my life, half a century of which has been on a theatre at which the public have been spectators, and competent judges of it's [sic] merit." The widespread confidence in his character by then confirmed "that the man who fears no truths has nothing to fear from lies.(3)

Historians have labored for decades to cast doubt on Callender's assertion that the president engaged in a long-term affair with Sally Hemings. The evidence, however, remains inconclusive, and the paternity question--unresolved and, short of DNA tests, probably unresolvable--is getting more attention than ever.(4) But the ongoing speculation about Jefferson's guilt or innocence ignores a more historical, if less sensational, aspect of the Sally Hemings saga: namely, the light that Callender's accusation and Americans' subsequent reactions shed on the dynamics of public opinion in the early republic. Like the Richmond earthquake, rumblings generated by rumors of a Jefferson-Hemings affair neither lasted long nor caused much damage. By the end of 1802, after citizens bestowed upon their president an overwhelming vote of confidence during midterm congressional elections by bolstering Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Federalist outpouring of attacks on Jefferson's supposed amour had slowed to a trickle. Little was said about Hemings, for example, in the months before his 1804 landslide reelection, and only infrequently during the remainder of Jefferson's lifetime did references to the alleged affair appear in print. …

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