“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Pierre De Nemours, April 24th, 1816
I am not an expert on human nature by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m willing to wager that in the course of our lives we could count on one hand the number of people who impact us to the point where our lives change. At least as far as our core beliefs are concerned. These individuals inspire us, make us question, charm us, cause discomfort for us, and generally challenge us to reflect on what exactly our “rightful place” is in our brief time on the ball that drifts at random through the stars.
Nine years ago HBO released its award-winning miniseries John Adams, which boasted a cast of well-accomplished actors and actresses including Paul Giamatti (as Adams), Laura Linney (as Abigail), Tom Wilkinson (as Franklin), David Morse (as Washington), Stephen Dillane (as Jefferson), and Rufus Sewell (as Hamilton). At the time of John Adams release I was 17, and I remember while watching it feeling more stricken by the personality of Jefferson in the series than I was with the dull and vain protagonist. You might suspect that this is more to do with Stephen Dillane being more sympathetic to Jefferson in his portrayal of the man than Giamatti was to Adams, but such a suspicion would be terribly unjust, as any historian or biographer would tell you that indeed the two founders had very distinct personalities (one, in my opinion, more likeable than the other). Jefferson may have shared traits with Adams such as cleverness and principle, but in contrast to Adams Jefferson was also quick-witted, curious, and gentle; all traits that one would no doubt expect of a philosopher but which are rare of a politician. Fortunately for the young republic Jefferson was both, and fortunately for me my curiosity about this figure of history didn’t end when the HBO miniseries did.
In my lifetime I’ve probably read close to 300 books, but out of those 300 I can count on one hand the books which have altered the course of my action and thinking. The Harry Potter series, 1984, God Is Not Great, and The Life & Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson all had a game-changing impact on my desire to cultivate the virtues of bravery, loyalty, honesty, and freethought. With particular regard to The Life & Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, one finds — as I found at the age of 18 and have found ever since — that it is an enchanting companion for life’s tumultuous road. In this magnificent volume, and others like it, one will discover Jefferson’s beliefs concerning subjects like love and friendship, his reflections on music, and his thoughts regarding travel, along with the founder’s brief but frequent musings on architecture, good champagne, religion, and the invention of elevators.
To read Jefferson, in short, is not to read the archaic and irrelevant ramblings of a pile of bones; to read Jefferson, instead, is to read the warm correspondence of a curious old friend. I admit that to have such deep affinity for a man who died 165 years before I was born is, to put it mildly, strange. Normally when one thinks of heroes, role models, and intellectual father-figures or mentors, the mind travels only to the living and normally to the near. Nevertheless I do have a deep affinity for Jefferson and consider myself a disciple of the Enlightenment he held so close to his heart.
Yet to speak of Thomas Jefferson in such glowing terms is to find that even he is not immune from the wrath of the Holy Order of Perpetual Offense. In the midst of racial tensions that, perhaps, haven’t been so high in American politics since the 1960s, the history of the country is being cross-examined now more than ever before through the lens of “oppressor and oppressed.” The lives and legacies of historical figures like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt have been interrogated in recent years by those who feel that if a nation’s past is not morally flawless it can never claim moral superiority in any situation ever. Without a doubt though, it is the founding fathers of the United States — more so than Columbus, more so than Jackson, more so than Grant, and more so than Roosevelt — who find themselves the primary defendants in this new trial.
Before I proceed, let me say now that there is a legitimate discussion to be had over why a group of men who extolled the virtues of equality and liberty kept slaves. Pointing out this inconsistency in their lives, and by extension in the founding of our country, should not be seen as an inconvenience by those who claim to love their country, its history, or the men who started it all. On the contrary if one is to love Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, then they will have to confront the fact that these men — at some point in their time on earth — inherited, purchased, and owned other people. This being said, I believe it unfair to assume that because the founders owned slaves that this automatically makes them moral hypocrites. The truth is, there are plenty of reasons why men concerned about equality and liberty still would have kept slaves, and would have also allowed the continuation of slavery in the new republic, two of which immediately come to mind: 1) If a majority of slave owners were cruel, indifferent, and had a habit of working and abusing slaves to the point of death, the founders may well have kept their slaves rather than free them as a way of saving their slaves from being re-enslaved by harsher masters, and 2) As far as why the institution of slavery as a whole was permitted in the new “land of the free,” the founders understood that colonies such as South Carolina and Georgia would never join a union that prohibited slavery, and — not wanting a weakened union of fewer colonies that the British could easily take back — decided to “hold their nose”, so to speak, for the greater good of establishing a nation.
Even with that being said, George Washington once wrote in a 1786 letter to Robert Morris that “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” In a speech at the 1787 constitutional convention, James Madison told those who attended “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” And in Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography written in 1821, Jefferson writes “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” So while the founders were resigned to the fact that slavery likely wouldn’t end in their lifetimes, they were never at peace with the idea that captivity and forced labor would be a permanent fixture of American society. This is why Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, went out of his way to pay homage to the men who lived “four score and seven years ago” when he declared to the nation in 1863 that the civil war was for “a new birth of freedom.”
It is also unfair, I think, to jump to the conclusion that because the founders owned slaves the importance of the American revolution as an Enlightenment project is somehow null and void. White men did not invent slavery, nor were colonists and Europeans the first to ever take slaves. For instance, from 1530 to 1805, Muslim pirates from the Barbary states kidnapped over a million Europeans and sold them into slavery in Africa and the Middle East¹. Yet oddly these Islamic seafarers are only a footnote — if that — in today’s history books. Another fact omitted from modern history texts is that the biggest buyer of African slaves was South America, not the United States or Europe who only received between 5-7% of captured slaves². So while the United States and Europe should own their role in the slave trade, we shouldn’t own the entire slave trade itself, nor should we trash our history and cultural ideals because of wrongdoing in our past. No matter what country, culture, or tribe you are from, you will find inconsistency or injustice if you look back far enough. This fact does not, however, invalidate your country, culture, or tribe. And that, I argue, is why the accusation of hypocrisy against the American founders is an illegitimate response to a legitimate discussion.
This brings us back to Thomas Jefferson specifically. For the past decade devoted members of the Holy Order of Perpetual Offense have been out for historical blood against America’s third president, due to his sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the fact that he even owned slaves at all. One instance of this happened last year, when students and faculty at the University of Virginia wrote a letter to their school president saying they were “deeply offended” that she quoted the founder in a campus-wide email encouraging tolerance. Their reason? “Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves” and “The inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity.” Another instance is the feminist website Feministe going so far as to call Jefferson a rapist, because the “power differential” between he and Hemings made it impossible for Hemings to consent. But perhaps it is the third instance of an attack on Jefferson which is the most extensive and scathing, and that is Henry Wienceck’s piece in the Smithsonian’s magazine accusing Jefferson of changing his mind about the injustice of slavery later in life, as well as accusing him of being a cruel slave master who regularly allowed his slaves to be beaten and mistreated.
It appears to me then that if Jefferson’s legacy is to continue in any sort of meaningful way, and indeed if Jefferson himself is going to remain an actual person in the perceptions of future Americans rather than a mere “historical figure” whose life is open to interpretations safe from correction, all of the above accusations need to be addressed and thoroughly so.
But before I begin, it’s important that you know that I do not wish to defend Jefferson against accusations of hypocrisy, rape, and cruelty only because he is a personal hero of mine. Truthfully, there have been other historical “heroes” I have had that are no longer heroes of mine precisely because I had to face the music as to who they really were. Hero worship and being blind to a person’s faults and inconsistencies is no way to go through history or through life in general, and I take special care not to be guilty of either (even if it’s a person I really like). With that being clarified, there is a bigger reason then for why I wish to set the record straight on Thomas Jefferson. It is hard not to notice the two extremes when it comes to the telling of American history by leftwingers and right: On the left, there’s this sort of pathetic self-flagellation drenched in loathing for one’s own civilization that bears itself out in an American history where evil white men and “noble savages” abound, while on the right, American history gets put through this sanctimonious filter of hallowed adoration that mythologizes American history almost to the level of the Greek myths. Both perspectives are horrendous and goofy ways of looking at America’s past, and both should be heckled out of a room whenever presented. And yet, in the past few decades, both have been indulged by devoted ideologues and promoted to children and teenagers as fact. For example, the late Howard Zinn (on the left) was notorious for his portrayal of an always-villainous America in his book A People’s History of the United States, while David Barton (on the right) to this day indoctrinates conservatives with the “Christian nation” narrative and is particularly popular within the homeschooling community. So I find myself hoping, in short, that this defense of Jefferson will — in a small way — contribute to a fairer and more sober presentation of American history that acknowledges our triumphs as well as our mistakes, and avoids endless whimpering mea culpas as well as avoids the giving of free passes.
To begin with, accusations of hypocrisy against Jefferson for being the “apostle of democracy” and yet owning slaves long precede the incident at the University of Virginia. In fact one famous poem written in 1802 by the Irishman Thomas Moore during his visit to the United States read:
The weary statesman for repose hath fled
From halls of council to his negro’s shed,
Where blest he woos some black Aspasia’s grace,
And dreams of freedom in his slave’s embrace!
This not only was an early dig at Jefferson for owning slaves but also was a chastisement for his relationship with Sally Hemings (which was then just a rumor). Even Charles Dickens, during his visit to the United States in 1842, couldn’t help but allude to his disdain for the founder when, upon witnessing a cruel slave master sell a man’s children and wife away from him, exclaimed “Ah, yet another American champion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”³
Jefferson’s ownership of slaves has long been cited as evidence of his “moral shallowness,” while softer critiques label this aspect of his life as “paradoxical” or “ironic.” But regardless of whether the attacks on Jefferson’s character are boldly stated or cloaked, those on the offense are forced to either wrestle with, or ignore, mountains of his abolitionist writings before they can even begin to make their arguments.
It would be a fool’s errand to assert that Thomas Jefferson was only a quiet objector to slavery and had never publicly spoken against it. While plenty have accused the founder of hypocrisy, none — you may have noticed — have accused him of cowardice. This is because Jefferson was an outspoken opponent of the enslavement of Africans from the very outset of the birth of our country. In the original Declaration of Independence that he wrote, listed among the many colonial objections to King George III was the following passage:
“He [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative [royal veto] for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Why isn’t that statement still in the Declaration, you ask?
As briefly mentioned a moment ago, it was because Georgia and South Carolina threatened to walk out of the Second Continental Congress if it remained. The abolitionist sentiment, thus, was discarded in order to preserve the alliance of the colonies against what was then the most powerful empire in the world. But Jefferson didn’t drop the issue of slavery after his defeat in Philadelphia.
In his Notes On The State Of Virginia written five years later, Jefferson reflects on the moral impact slavery has on the young nation when he writes:
“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. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy of his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to the worst of his passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious particularities.”
The grotesque and harmful nature of human ownership was a self-evident truth Jefferson held all of his days. In a letter written to Edward Coles twelve years before his death, Jefferson opines — then at age 71 — that:
“The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation.”
Jefferson was so much an abolitionist, in fact, that the abolitionist press from the 1830s till the end of the Civil War reprinted his anti-slavery writings as moral firepower for their cause as well as proof that their cause was a thoroughly American one.
But with Jefferson’s outspoken abolitionist nature being established, why did the man keep the slaves he inherited? The answer lies in a 1790 letter written to Benjamin Vaughn, where Jefferson reveals that for years he had attempted to chip away at his fellow Virginians’ support of slavery, by discouraging the cultivation of crops that relied a lot on slave labor (like tobacco) and encouraging by contrast the cultivation of crops that required little-to-no slave labor (like wheat, olive trees, and grapes). Jefferson thought that lack of desire for the cultivation of crops which heavily relied on slave labor would, in turn, drive the demand down for slave imports themselves. But Virginia was unfortunately going the opposite direction. It wanted tobacco, it wanted cotton, it wanted sugar, and it wanted more Africans. Thus Jefferson, consigned to defeat a second time, chose to make the best of a bad situation.
Having known the slaves he had inherited his whole life (and likely having formed friendships with quite a few of them), and knowing that upon their release his slaves would likely be captured again and sold to cruel masters, Jefferson chose instead to ensure his slaves’ quality of life at his estate. If he could have no moral alternative to being a master, he would damn well be a benevolent one at least. To condemn Jefferson then, because he owned slaves, is to ignore the complexity of the situation he was in. And should you make the argument that “complexity is no excuse for complicity,” I would like to remind you that a majority of the clothing and electronics we purchase are made in sweatshops by wage-slaves in third world countries, making you and I complicit in that form of slavery’s continuation (regardless of our stated values). And no, distance is of no consequence. Just because Jefferson could see his slaves, and ours are hidden from sight, this does not make us any less involved in the barbaric system than he was. So perhaps some self-reflection is called for before self-righteousness, and perhaps the complexity of immoral systems should be taken into account before pointing out the complicity of someone in that system (who, like you and I, may not desire to be part of such a system but can see no way out).
A Forbidden Romance
While nothing of this nature has been said before of Jefferson in biographies and histories, it seems obvious to me that the founder was polyamorous. That is, he loved several women in his lifetime and a few at the same time. I base this not-so-radical radical claim primarily on the fact that his three-year-long passionate affair in Paris with Italian-English composer Maria Cosway (1786-1789) overlapped with the period of time when he first began his lifelong affair with Sally Hemings. (The sexual adventures Madame Cosway and Mr. Jefferson engaged in during his stay as ambassador was not favorably looked upon, of course, by Maria’s husband-by-arranged-marriage Richard Cosway, who was twenty years Maria’s senior and frequently described as effeminate both in tone and in dress.) It should also be observed that, even during the year Jefferson began courting his future wife Martha (1768), he had fallen madly for Elizabeth Walker, wife to his best friend John Walker; and while these feelings were unrequited, Jefferson may have continued to pursue Elizabeth’s affections for up to a decade — well into his marriage — but this is debated among historians.⁴
I feel that the word “loved,” however, cannot be stressed enough when speaking of Jefferson’s romances. Both the actions of his lovers toward him (Hemings chose to leave Paris with him on his return to Virginia rather than stay and be a free woman in France) and the language he employs in letters written to many of them (e.g. his “head and heart” letter to Cosway), suggest that Jefferson was not some playboy or womanizer but was genuinely capable of having feelings of deep affection for a number of women simultaneously, and that they likewise felt the same way toward him (with the exception of Elizabeth Walker).
Of course connecting these dots and coming to this conclusion is no easy task for the lay historian. Mostly because contemporaries of Jefferson, and those who lived shortly after him, who wrote histories and biographies of the man would not have included sexual details — or personal details at all for that matter — about him which did not fit into the box of Christian social norms; let us not forget that it took the invention of DNA testing and nearly 200 years to prove that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings even did have an affair. But Jefferson’s polyamorous disposition offers an important window into how the man loved, and explains on a deeper level the nature of his numerous romances than does the simplistic accusation that he was merely a horndog with a wig.
It is here, then, where we reach the doorstep of the modern Hemings controversy.
Since 1998, it has no longer been a debate that America’s third president had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings after the death of his wife Martha. While the subject was a heated controversy for two centuries, it has now made way for a new — and far more difficult — argument: Was the affair consensual or forced upon Hemings? In order to give this question any kind of answer, we first must lay out the facts surrounding the “scandal.”
Sally Hemings — to the surprise of many people I tell this to — was Martha Jefferson’s half-sister. Martha’s father had taken Sally’s mother as a concubine, and out of that affair six children were produced of which Sally was the youngest. Thomas Jefferson had inherited the Hemingses upon marriage to Martha, and more importantly Martha treated her half-siblings like siblings her entire life (as much as was possible, at least, in a world where slavery reigned). After Martha’s death in 1782 and his daughter Lucy’s death in 1784, Jefferson — now ambassador to France — sent for his other daughter, Mary, to join him in Paris in 1787. Jefferson also asked for an older woman named Isabel to accompany Mary on the journey to ensure her safety, but as Isabel was about to give birth to a child, who arrived with Mary instead was Sally Hemings. It was not long thereafter when Mary was sent to a Parisian convent school to complete her education (the Abbaye Royale de Panthémont) and Sally received French tutoring which was paid for by Jefferson. It was during this same year that the lifelong affair between America’s third president and Sally Hemings began.⁵
15 years later, in 1802, journalist-for-hire James Callender became the first to report the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings in the Richmond Recorder, accusing Jefferson of forcing a non-consensual sexual relationship on Hemings because he [Callender] had heard rumors that the couple had produced multiple offspring.
“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. 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. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. By this wench Sally, our president has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighbourhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story; and not a few who know it… ‘Tis supposed that, at the time when Mr. Jefferson wrote so smartly concerning negroes, when he endeavoured so much to belittle the African race, he had no expectation that the chief magistrate of the United States was to be the ringleader in shewing that his opinion was erroneous; or, that he should chuse an African stock whereupon he was to engraft his own descendants.”
To ask how Callender knew the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson was non-consensual, based solely on the fact that the couple had produced several mixed children, would be to miss the point of who James Callender was. Callender did not write what he did as a neutral observer, nor as a reluctant friend of Jefferson’s who had simply grown a conscience, but had written instead with malicious intent. Jefferson had previously befriended Callender and had hired him for several journalistic projects, and because of this Callender believed he had a good chance of being appointed Postmaster of Richmond if the founder put in a good word for him. When Jefferson refused to use his influence to do so, Callender became furious and assured him there would be consequences. However, even having succeeded in making Jefferson’s life more difficult by exposing the affair, Callender’s life and reputation did not seem to drastically improve thereafter. A year later he succumbed to alcoholism by falling from a bridge into three feet of water and drowning because he was too drunk to save himself.
But talk of the Hemings affair — despite the initial fool who revealed it — not only continued because it had propaganda value for the Federalists, who were Jefferson’s political rivals, but also continued because it had propaganda value for the British Empire, who wanted to portray American democracy in general as being dysfunctional and degenerate. The image of Jefferson bedding his slave had become an indictment, in English eyes, of “what happens when peasants are free to rule themselves.”
As I have said before, and will say again, there has been little doubt over the past two decades that James Callender — despite being James Callender — was right about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But the extra charge of coercion Callender tacked onto his invective (“belittling the African race,” Jefferson “engrafting” his own descendants on “African stock”) is unlikely to be true. My specific doubts are as follows: Why, if Jefferson had forced himself on Hemings, did he ensure their children were set free in the aftermath of his death rather than sold and forever silenced upon their birth? Why, if Jefferson had forced himself on Hemings, did Hemings not write any account of this in the last nine years of her life when she was free and living with her two sons? Why, in fact, did no slave at all living at Monticello at the time voice any such suspicion after Jefferson had died? On these points, the enemies of the sage are silent and shamefully so.
Let me be frank: I believe that the lifelong affair between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was not just a sexual affair but a love affair. I believe this primarily because, as mentioned before, Hemings had the chance to be free in Paris. Slavery had been abolished in France in 1784, which was three years before Sally Hemings’ arrival. She could have petitioned the French court for her freedom, and if Jefferson had been the sort of man who would have raped her, she could have simply fled and sought refuge with those formerly a part of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (founded by Jacques Pierre Brissot) or refuge from members of similar groups which were still prominent in Paris in the aftermath of abolition. The fact that she did not petition for her freedom nor flee from Jefferson, but instead returned with Jefferson to Virginia in 1789, is strong implication of what the nature of the affair really was. According to the memoirs of Madison Hemings (the son of Hemings and Jefferson), Sally did, however, mention to Jefferson that she knew that if she were to stay behind in Paris while he left that she could be a free woman for the rest of her life. Jefferson’s response was to give Sally Hemings the choice of staying or going with him, but Hemings was quick to respond that so long as Jefferson freed their children when they came of age she would stay with him. James Callender, of course, would have known none of this, and if he had he wouldn’t have cared.
As I write this, my mind travels to a few pages I recall reading from Chapter 5 in Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, where Gordon-Reed writes:
“Sally Hemings was also beautiful in a city where beauty was of extreme importance. If she was thought of as dashing at Monticello, there is no doubt that she would be made even more aware of her attributes in a city and a country whose inhabitants are notorious for expressing their appreciation for attractive women. Paris was fashion mad even then. It was important for the Jeffersons and the Hemingses to be dressed appropriately, for being ill-attired or having servants who were poorly outfitted would reflect badly upon the minister [ambassador] and the country he represented. As a result, Jefferson spent lavishly on all of the members of his household. A young woman in this situation could begin to think of herself differently. Or, in Sally Hemings’ case, since she had led such a privileged existence up until that point, her new way of life probably confirmed what she may have thought of herself all along: that she was special. In either case, we cannot accept the view that her experiences in Paris would not change the way Hemings thought about the world and would not have had an influence on her. Seeing herself differently may have changed the way others, including Thomas Jefferson, saw her. Most commentary on this subject proceeds from the assumption that any relationship between Jefferson and Hemings would have involved a degree of force. Again, this is implied largely to make the situation look as bad as possible, so that no one will believe, or want to believe, that the story could be true. At this point we have to confront the unpleasant notion for many, both black and white, that Sally Hemings may have welcomed any advances that Thomas Jefferson might have made.
Some commentators have deemed the possibility that Sally Hemings could have loved Thomas Jefferson and that he could have loved her as fanciful. This sentiment apparently stems from the view that love between a master and a slave could not take place. It is interesting to compare that notion with some common ideas put forth about other aspects of the slave system. For example, consider the image of ‘Mammy’ that has comforted southern whites for so many years. Mammy is a caricature. ‘Lawdy, Massa Joe, you betta git in here ‘fo’ you ketch yo’ death!’— as if she cared. Whites seem willing, almost anxious, to believe that Mammy really did care, when Mammy may have been thinking to herself, ‘Joe, I hope you slip on that ice and break your goddamned neck.’ Of course, not all slave women in that position would think that way. We are talking about human beings. There must have been women who raised children from infancy to adulthood who did feel affection for those children, for all the reasons that women feel affection for children whom they raise. This would be so, even though they knew these children would grow up to be their masters and their children’s masters… If a woman who was a slave could love a child who was her future master for all the reasons that women love children, why could not a woman who was a slave love a man who was her present master for all the reasons that women love men? In every era women have loved men who they thought were intelligent, attractive, kind, and, most important of all, had some prospect of helping them make a good life for their children. This has been a fact of life driven by the relative positions of women and men with respect to childbearing and family life. Hemings could have seen all these things in Jefferson.” ⁶
What is also telling, regarding the nature of the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, is that even after James Callender and the Federalists had dragged Jefferson’s name through the mud, the founder did not attempt to distance himself from Hemings, play down her importance to the estate or to his late wife, or send Sally away to another place. While admitting to the relationship would have been political and social suicide for Jefferson (as he was president at the time), the fact still remains that Sally did not go anywhere during that tumultuous period, and the founder was not going to indulge his attackers with nervous denials and drastic actions. Thus, it appears that just as Sally had chosen bondage in the colonies over freedom in Paris in order to be with Jefferson, so Jefferson chose love over reputation in order to be with her.
Despite all of this, the popular feminist website Feministe published an article titled “Thomas Jefferson: The Face Of A Rapist” which sought to bring Callender back from the dead, or better put, bring back Callender’s accusation that Jefferson had raped Sally Hemings. This article became so popular, in fact, that it was recommended by Counterpunch and Salon as well as repackaged in Vox (recall what I said before about how a worryingly large portion of the left is prone to the telling of a self-flagellating version of history). But in order to make the accusation of rape stick this time, the definition of “rape” had to be changed. Jefferson had not raped Sally Hemings in the sense that he had physically held her down, Feministe argued, but rather Jefferson’s sexual intercourse with Sally was automatic rape because of the “power differential” that existed between the two of them.
“Jefferson may have felt love for Sally but how can we possibly term this relationship a love affair? Once they returned to the U.S., he had the power to have her flogged or even put to death. At anytime he could have sold her children away from her. For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal, and due to the power differential between Jefferson and Hemings what occurred cannot be described as anything other than rape. Some have even had the nerve to refer to Hemings as the first Black first lady of the United States as a way of further legitimizing the relationship between the two. However, to sanitize it and call it anything other than rape is to once again violate her spirit.”
Ignoring, if one can, the annoying tone of sanctimony with which this article was written, a reader from outside the radical feminist bubble cannot help but detect two major errors of logic in this paragraph alone:
- “For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal, and due to the power differential between Jefferson and Hemings what occurred cannot be described as anything other than rape.” Well in this case, all women who existed up until at least the year 1950 were “raped”, and were incapable of reciprocating the love of their husbands, seeing as how women up until halfway through the 20th century were largely financially-dependent upon men and were often seen by men as physically and mentally inferior, not equal. In fact, if one really were to buy into the logic that in order for a woman to consent to sex and give love to a man there could be no differential in power, it could be argued that women today can’t consent to sex or reciprocate love because of the gender pay gap so many modern feminists argue exists. And what of bosses whose spouses are their employees? What of young university professors who date their students? The notion that consent and romantic love hinge on “power differential” would make virtually all sex that has ever taken place between a man and woman non-consensual — and quite frankly that’s a crock of shit. Consent is simply “yes” and non-consent is simply silence or “no.” As for the idea that women can’t properly feel a basic emotion so long as inequity in society exists… that is perhaps more sexist than any portrayal of a woman I’ve seen in a 1930s or 40s film.
- “However, to sanitize it and call it anything other than rape is to once again violate her spirit.” Just because you say something, that doesn’t make it so. Just because Feministe redefines rape and imposes modern gender and racial politics on a relationship between two individuals that took place two centuries ago, this does not make the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings “rape,” nor does it make anyone “guilty” of anything for pointing that out. And aside from the ending phrase being poetic (in a coming-of-age junior high sort of way), “violating spirits” isn’t actually a thing. The consciousness of Thomas Jefferson came to an end on July 4th 1826, and the consciousness of Sally Hemings came to an end on an unknown date in 1835. Neither of them exist anymore, and neither of them are aware of the intense debates that have carried on nearly two centuries after their respective passings (thankfully!)
But the article continued:
“Some may look back at Jefferson and simply claim that he was a man of his time and that he should not be judged outside of historical context. However, in my mind a rapist is a rapist. What he did at the time may not have been considered a violation due to current race and gender relations, but today we can correctly name his actions. Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined.”
It was at this point where Feministe crossed the threshold from the spewing of cringe-inducing fallacies to an exhibition of stunning arrogance: denying Hemings’ emotional agency and doing so — incredibly — in the name of “anti-racism.” It could easily be argued that the amount of racial paternalism displayed so frequently by white progressive “allies” toward African-Americans is more blatantly racist than all of the unchecked privilege and microaggressions in the world combined.
“Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined.”
Not only does Feministe seek to redefine rape, they seek to redefine consent by detaching inclination from the equation. Oh to live in a world where we can change the meaning of words to suit our arguments! Dare I say, it isn’t even that inclination is a “big part” of consent, it is that inclination makes up consent in its entirety. Inclination literally is all there is to it. Consent is “yes.” That is all. If Sally Hemings welcomed Jefferson’s sexual advances, that was consent. Perhaps not according to the latest gender studies textbook, but since when have those ever mattered?
Finally, the last attempt at an attack on Jefferson for his relationship with Hemings, after all others have so miserably failed, is to point out that Hemings, born in 1773, would have only been 14 at the beginning of the affair. This objection to Jefferson’s character is at least an understandable one. In most Western countries today, including the United States, a person 14-years-of-age is considered a child and unable to consent (with the exception of Spain which recognizes age of consent at 13, and Italy and Germany which recognize age of consent at 14). But our perception of who a child is has changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Unlike now, where legal adulthood is reached at age 18 and a semblance of mental maturity at age 25, the dusk of childhood and the dawn of adulthood was expected to happen much quicker in a world where not bearing children was not an option and life expectancy was, on average, 35. It was not uncommon for women in this world to be married at the age of 14, nor was it thought that they were anything else but women; their husbands, lovers, and “sexual tutors” were often much older. Judge this morally however you wish, but no matter how you do so, you cannot say that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was uniquely problematic because of the age factor.
Wiencek’s Villain: Fiction or Fact?
When the historian Henry Wiencek wrote his book Master Of The Mountain, he stated that his work would forever “blow out of the water” the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a kindly master to black slaves. The book, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, claims that Thomas Jefferson went from being an abolitionist in his youth to being pro-slavery in the 1790s. For the sake of being informed about different perspectives, I would never discourage anyone from reading Master Of The Mountain. But if you do not have the time to read Wiencek’s book and simply want to gain a general understanding of his central arguments, you can accomplish this by reading a much shorter article he wrote titled “The Dark Side Of Thomas Jefferson,” which was published by the Smithsonian Institute as a promotion for his book.
Wiencek states that what led Jefferson to change his mind was the recognition that slave births resulted in a 4% rate of return, and thus, maintaining slavery at Monticello and being silent about its continuation nationally was something a profit-driven Jefferson couldn’t resist. Wiencek draws this entire conclusion from a single letter written to George Washington wherein Jefferson, whilst discussing the subject of colonial agriculture and labor, says “I have observed that our families of negroes double in about 25 years, which is an increase of the capital, invested in them, of 4 per cent over and above keeping up the original number.” Wiencek reinforces his view that Jefferson changed his mind about slavery later in life by jumping to a letter written by Jefferson two years later, where the founder explains to a wealthy woman who had lent money to a bankrupt man that — had the man invested in “negroes and cattle, or in good land” instead of West Indian goods — he would have prospered.
Wiencek additionally claims that Jefferson overlooked cruel treatment of his slaves at the hands of overseer Gabriel Lilly, as long as said cruelty improved productivity at the estate. “The Monticello machine,” he writes, “operated on carefully calibrated brutality.”
However each one of Wiencek’s attacks on Jefferson are made in a vacuum. He selects a bit from the founder’s life here and another bit from the founder’s life there, and creates with those bits a patchwork villain that simply does not square with the Jefferson a majority of historians and scholars have studied for two centuries.
For instance, when Wiencek makes the claim that Thomas Jefferson changed his mind about slavery later on in life in the 1790s, and thus betrayed his convicted younger self, the historian seems to have no idea that Jefferson was writing about the abolition of slavery as late as 1821. Recall the aforementioned quote from Jefferson’s autobiography wherein the founder writes, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” This sentence can not only be found in Jefferson’s autobiography (written thirty years after the 1790s), but is also etched into the stone of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. where any member of the public can find it including Wiencek.
In regard to the two “damning” letters Wiencek cites, a reading of them shows that Jefferson made the remarks regarding the 4% theorem and “investing in negroes” as neutral observations, not from a position of advocacy. This might sound like an absurd statement at first. How can mentioning black people in the same sentence as cattle, in a neutral manner, not by default be an endorsement of slavery? But it’s important to realize that Jefferson’s views on race were not progressive despite his forward-thinking abolitionism, and I’ll talk about this later in the article. I would also like to point out that even though Wiencek believes the 4% theorem became the engine that drove slavery at Monticello, a 4% rate of return on slave births actually isn’t all that great; which is why I don’t believe Jefferson made a complete ideological shift due to it, especially if he had been familiar with the institution of slavery and how it worked his whole life. If I may take the risk of appearing calloused to human suffering for only a moment, Jefferson could have sold all of his slaves and lent out the proceeds at 6%, which would have given him a 50% greater return (this has also been brought up in a rebuttal of Wiencek published by the Journal Of The American Revolution).
Still, the problem of Gabriel Lilly remains. Why would Jefferson countenance a supervisor on his estate that was known to abuse slaves?
Colonel Thomas Randolph, the overseer of Monticello during Jefferson’s presidency, had hired Lilly in 1800 after the previous slave overseer, “Great George” Granger, had passed away the previous year. At first, Randolph reported to Jefferson that Lilly was an excellent overseer who was “so good tempered that he can get twice as much done without the smallest discontent as some with the hardest driving possible,” and this news delighted Jefferson so much to the point that he gave Lilly a raise of ￡10 and put him in charge of the nailery. However, a year after this “promotion” of sorts, in 1801, it appeared that Lilly’s kind temperament toward slaves had merely been a show. The overseer began whipping the slaves at the nailery in order to make them work harder, and worse, was doing this on a daily basis. When Jefferson caught word, he immediately wrote to Randolph saying “Speak to Lilly as to the treatment of the nailers. It would destroy their value in my estimation to degrade them in their own eyes by the whip.”
This was not the end of the founder’s problems with his new overseer.
In one instance, Lilly and Jefferson got into an argument because Jefferson insisted that the slaves have unsupervised access to gunpowder for blasting during construction projects. Lilly made clear that he was fearful of the slaves having access to gunpowder unsupervised (likely because he feared retaliation for how he had treated them), but these fears fell on deaf ears as Jefferson continued to insist that the slaves have their gunpowder.⁷⁸ We can deduce from this argument two important details about how Thomas Jefferson viewed life at Monticello: 1) That he desired that his slaves be treated as rational human beings who could be trusted, and 2) That he clearly was not aware of the full extent to which Lilly hated black slaves and was not willing to treat them this way (and this is likely because Col. Randolph preferred to send Jefferson glowing reports while he was away). Not surprisingly then, this argument between Jefferson and Lilly is never mentioned in Master Of The Mountain. Could it be because the fact that slaves at Monticello having unsupervised access to gunpowder would undermine Wiencek’s central premise of the slaves being ruthlessly persecuted with Jefferson’s full endorsement? After all, if the ill-treatment of slaves at the hands of Gabriel Lilly had been approved of by Jefferson, then surely Wiencek would not be so condescending as to think that said slaves wouldn’t put gunpowder to better use than construction. This is why it’s essential to keep in mind that Jefferson was President of the United States the entire time Lilly worked at Monticello, and thus, was not a witness to Lilly’s day-to-day atrocities. Even at this, in 1805, Lilly seems to have left Monticello without explanation save for that he “wished to settle in Kentucky.” Perhaps his departure was due to his being poisoned by one of the slaves and nearly killed, but this being the cause is only conjecture⁹. Little is known of Lilly’s life after this, except that he did indeed go to Kentucky, but more importantly there is no evidence suggesting that Jefferson ever attempted to dissuade him from leaving. It would seem then, that although Jefferson had kept Lilly out of necessity, he had formed a lasting impression of the overseer as soon as he had heard from Randolph that he liked to resort to the whip, and determined from that moment forward not to hold the bastard in any high regard.
But even after addressing Wiencek’s two main pieces of “evidence” for Jefferson changing his mind about slavery later in life (the letters and the employment of Gabriel Lilly), there is an additional problem that disrupts the historian’s entire thesis. Within the first seven pages of his book Wiencek is forced to confess that the slaves at Monticello were “professionally trained” in valuable skill sets like furniture-making, gardening, textile manufacturing, and even French cuisine, and that they worked equally alongside white laborers; yet, at the same time, Wiencek would have us believe that the lives of slaves at Monticello were based upon “carefully calibrated brutality.”¹⁰ This view of slave life at Monticello isn’t so much “complex” as it is contradictory. To spend so much of one’s personal fortune on the travel and education of slaves (even if it was for the purpose of them working on Jefferson’s estate), and to have them work side-by-side with white workers, is inconsistent with an attitude of malice. Not surprisingly then, renowned historians of early American history like Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis have recently come out to say that — despite Master Of The Mountain‘s popularity among the general public — it shouldn’t be taken seriously as a history book.
But aside from my specific rebuttals to Wiencek’s claims, and aside from what professional historians have said about his views on Jefferson, my general criticism of Henry Wiencek’s work is twofold:
- His article, as well as his book, is filled with more “likelys,” “may haves,” and “probablys” than a congressional testimony, and when you’re presenting your work as a thing which “blows something out of the water,” cover-ass words and phrases like “likely,” “may have,” and “probably” simply won’t do.
- Wiencek concedes a lot of ground and then bases his “eureka” conclusion on the very little that is left. Again, he concedes that the slaves received “professional training” in what would, at that time, be enviable skill sets. He also concedes that the State of Virginia would not legally allow masters to free their slaves up until 1782, and even after 1782 masters had to pay for their freed slave’s transport out of the state and the slave could never again return to Virginia — which would have broken up a lot of slave families, especially at Monticello where nearly all slaves were related.¹¹ But when Wiencek attempts to make the case that Jefferson changed his mind about abolitionism, his primary pieces of evidence are a neutral sentence in a letter that Jefferson wrote to Washington once, a neutral statement made to a wealthy woman concerning the stewardship of a man she had lent money to, and the employment of an admittedly terrible person by Jefferson’s estate manager whom Jefferson hardly interacted with. Not to mention, again, that Wiencek seems to have no knowledge of Jefferson’s abolitionist writings that were written only a few years before his death. In short, having read Master Of The Mountain, I was baffled at how Wiencek seemed to be destroying his case before he even began to make it.
All in all, Wiencek’s book Master Of The Mountain and article “The Dark Side Of Thomas Jefferson” are a classic example of selective seeing. In fact, if we can leave out the weight attached to Thomas Jefferson’s name for only a moment, Henry Wiencek has done to an individual what our worst nightmare would be somebody doing to us: he has painted a portrait of a person’s life using only the details he thought unflattering and chose to leave out any noble qualities. I dare say if this happened to me, and most likely if this happened to you, we would all come out looking like monsters in our biographies.
I also have to wonder, in general, how far we are willing to go in renouncing men who made notable contributions to history because of their “sins” (whether real or alleged). If we only take presidents into consideration, Lincoln held deeply prejudicial views against Native Americans; but he also ended slavery and kept the nation from falling apart. Franklin Roosevelt was a womanizer who — let’s not forget — sent thousands of Japanese-Americans to detention camps out of fear of espionage; but he also brought us out of the Great Depression and saw America through most of the Second World War. Kennedy also was a womanizer who — with the help of his influential father — cheated his way to political power; but Kennedy was also a war hero, pulled us back from the brink of nuclear holocaust, established the Peace Corps, and was the first president to be an outspoken supporter of Civil Rights. Outside of the presidency, and even outside the United States, purity-testing heroic figures doesn’t get better. Gandhi was a hypocrite who slept with several women every night while preaching celibacy to his followers; but he also freed India from the British Empire. And speaking of Britain, Churchill was a drunk who liked to parade around naked in his office to the chagrin of staffers and foreign dignitaries alike; but he also saved Britain from being invaded by Nazis (though not all by himself).
Superman is fiction. In real life heroes are human. And the uncomfortable truth about the humanity of historical heroes is that these individuals can be — and often are — flawed in unglamorous ways. Historical figures American and elsewhere have been bad-tempered, egotistical, substance-addicted, sex-addicted, and in some cases even bigoted, and yet what sets them apart is their refusal to be the sum total of these things and their drive to push humankind just a little bit further or at least to save it from total destruction. This isn’t to say that the flaws of historical figures should be glossed over, or that their flaws are erased by their contributions. But it is to say that the severity of the flaws should be weighed against the value of the contributions, and if the latter outweighs the former, it should be that about the individual which gets emphasized in our histories. So, again, what exactly is the endgame when it comes to renouncing historical figures in American history who — despite their flaws and blunders — ushered in eras of progress? Is it the complete abolition of heroes? Is that the goal? We are constantly warned about the dangers of “idolization,” but on a psychological level idols exist for a reason. People we idolize are often idolized because they show us that we can be a better version of ourselves. The danger only lies in who it is we idolize and why. I would not, for instance, look down on someone who idolizes Nelson Mandela but I would definitely look down on someone who idolizes Kanye West. I see in Wiencek’s undertaking, and in the undertakings of others who think they’re “lifting the lid” on American history, a very Machiavellian attitude that seeks to portray the Enlightenment values America was founded upon as a “total lie” when, in fact, it isn’t a total lie by a long shot.
To quote David McCullough in the introduction to his book The American Spirit: “Yes, we have much to be seriously concerned about, much that needs to be corrected, improved, or dispensed with. But the vitality and creative energy, the fundamental decency, the tolerance and insistence on truth, and the good-heartedness of the American people are there still plainly.”
To be clear, Jefferson was not perfect. I’ve devoted a lot of time to defending him, and I think who he was (who he really was) should be defended. But he was not perfect. I mentioned before that while Jefferson was an abolitionist, his views on race were not progressive. One can look at Jefferson’s letter to French bishop Henri Gregoire, and find that the founder believed in the innate superiority of the white race over the black:
“Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them [African-Americans] by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves.”
If one wanted to portray Thomas Jefferson as a racist, they could do so by referencing this letter. At least according to modern standards. But to do this would essentially be to accuse nearly everyone — on earth — back in the 18th and early-19th centuries of being racist, as every racially homogeneous tribe/nation/and culture back then thought itself superior to others, and thus it’s a rather meaningless and elastic accusation. Human beings evolved to be tribal creatures, and only recently in respect to world history have we begun to realize that we are all of equal intrinsic value. Jefferson was not a deity. He was a product of his time when it came to the intellectual consensus back then that some races were inherently superior to others. The moral arc has bent so far toward justice these past 240 years in the United States, that we need to remind ourselves when studying history where the arc once was.
Having said this, even with Jefferson believing that the white race was an inherently superior race to the black race, he continues to show his abolitionist fervor when he continues writing to Gregoire:
“Whatever be their [African-Americans] degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
In other words, even if certain races were inferior to others (which they are not), Jefferson believed very firmly that superiority and inferiority should have no bearing on the rights of an individual. He believed, as we do today, that rights are ours at birth and are ours regardless of identity.
The significance of Thomas Jefferson to anti-totalitarian and secular philosophy, in America and in Europe, is too much to state here. In fact it would likely take up another article entirely. But it needs to at least be realized that Jefferson played a large role in forming an ideal of human liberation that informs our response today to theocracy and terrorism, informed our grandparents’ response to communism, and informed our great grandparents’ response to fascism; and bad attempts at “exposing” him only really serve to further the cynical notion that the moral progress brought by the Enlightenment in general is not a thing worth fighting for or believing in.
Notes & Citations
1. The number and timeline of Europeans kidnapped by Barbary pirates can be found in Robert C. Davis’ book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). You can also find information about their religious justification for kidnapping “infidels” in the article Jefferson Versus The Muslim Pirates (written by the late Christopher Hitchens and published by City Journal in Spring 2007).
2. You can get good general information on the slave trade in Latin America by reading the Wikipedia entry, but a legitimate source that shows how South America specifically was the main destination for African slaves can be found in David Eltis and David Richardson’s Voyage Database of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Emory University, 2013.
3. See Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker, President Tom’s Cabin (September 22nd 2008) for both the Moore poem and the Dickens quote. In regard to Charles Dickens, his disdain for the Sage of Monticello admittedly takes him down several notches in my book. I love Dickens’ stories, which always shined a light on the English poor and on the absurdities of the Victorian world, but reading this about him makes me like the man himself a bit less.
4. See “Major Events In The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy”, Lehigh University Digital Library, 2012, (http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/jefferson/time/). See also “Sexual Liberties Of Thomas Jefferson” by John L. Smith Jr., Journal Of The American Revolution, April 18th 2016.
5. See Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Chapter 5, University of Virginia Press, Second edition. 1999, (Kindle location 3601-3607)
6. Ibid. (Kindle location 3727-3747)
7. Ibid. (Kindle location 3097-3104)
8. See Peter Onuf’s Jeffersonian Legacies, “Those Who Labor For My Happiness”, Pg. 158, University of Virginia Press, 1993
9. Letter from Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, November 30th 1804
10. See Henry Wiencek’s Master Of The Mountain: Thomas Jefferson & His Slaves, Chapter 1, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2012, (Kindle location 260-272)
11. Ibid. (Kindle location 403)
The books and articles I read to prepare for writing this essay, aside from those cited and linked, are as follows: The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff, Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution Of Ideas by R.B. Bernstein, and Jeffersongate: The Case Of Henry Wiencek by Michael D. Hattem.
Support the author on Patreon