In the nearly 11 years since the publication of my book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, I have traveled throughout the United States and overseas talking about them--and life and slavery at Monticello. Writers are, in the main, solitary creatures. Or, at least, the process of writing forces us into solitude for long stretches of time; I find it refreshing and gratifying to meet people who have read one's work (or plan to) and have questions, observations, and opinions about it. In all the venues I have visited, from Houston to Stockholm, one question always arises: Did they love each other?
To call this a loaded question does not begin to do justice to the matter; given America's tortured racial history and its haunting legacy. To be on the receiving end of that question is to be thrown into a large minefield. It is even worse for someone who is considered an expert on Hemings and Jefferson. You wrote the book about them, didn't you?
Part of a historian's job is to try to navigate the gap stretching between those who lived in the past and those who live today, especially pointing out the important differences. At the same time, it remains equally important to recognize and give due consideration to those points of commonality that the past and present share. While there's truth in the old saying that the past is a foreign country, anyone visiting a foreign land also encounters many familiar sights, rituals, and behaviors, because the basic realities of the human condition remain the same.
What does this mean for Sally and Thomas, the enslaved woman and the man who owned her? Their legal relationship to one another and the world they shared--is strange to us today. Certainly people suffer oppression today: many work for little or no pay, while countless women and children are forced into prostitution. Yet this cannot match the horrific nature of America's racially-based chattel slavery, in which a person's children and their children's children were enslaved in perpetuity unless an owner decided to give up his or her ownership of that person. What love could exist between a man and a woman enmeshed in--and negotiating the rules of--that world? And what difference does it make if they "loved" each other? Why are members of my audience so intent on knowing that?
The question about Hemings and Jefferson, of course, does not arise from a vacuum. We modern people have a history, so to speak, with love, especially of the romantic kind. No other human emotion excites such passionate interest and longing or gives rise to such high expectations at all levels of society. Songs tell us that "love" is "the answer" to almost everything that ails us: war, famine, disease, and racial prejudice. Love is all we need.
Indeed, I suspect that love's supposed capacity to heal lies at the heart of people's interest in Hemings and Jefferson. And he is the prime focus of the inquiry. My impression from talking with people and reading the letters they write to me, not to mention the many operas, plays, screenplays, and proposals for novels they send, is that Jefferson's love for Hemings could somehow redeem and heal him. Thomas Jefferson in need of redemption?
As much as we may admire the author of the Declaration of Independence and the two-term U.S. president, a man who doubled the size of the nation, sent Lewis and Clark west, founded the University of Virginia, championed religious freedom, and acted as an all-around renaissance man, Jefferson the slaveholder poses a great challenge. He publicly aired his suspicions that the mental capacity of blacks was inferior to whites', not exactly a popular belief in a society that claims (note the operative word "claims") to find such notions completely abhorrent. For some, the knowledge that Jefferson had loved the enslaved African American woman with whom he had seven children would rescue him from the depravity of having been a slave owner who made disparaging comments about blacks--perhaps not totally exonerating him, but in some small but important way moderating the disturbing facts. …