The Jefferson - Hemings ControversyHistory on trial Main Page

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Prologue: The Two Jeffersons -- Public and Private, Saint or Sinner
Episode 19 ImageTo frame the Jefferson-Hemings controversy, watch award-winning cinematic historian Ken Burns's 1997 Jefferson documentary and make a virtual visit to Jefferson's home through the excellent Monticello web site -- and consider two basic questions: 1) why is Thomas Jefferson important to "us"? 2) why does it matter if Thomas Jefferson had or didn't have a long-standing relationship with a slave? Prime your mental pump. The controversy will mean nothing to you unless there is something at stake. Does it matter if a Founding Father is taken down? Should we care about the private life of a Founding Father? Form tentative answers to those questions. Then lock and load.
Episode 1: The Birth of Black Sal
Episode 1 ImageIn 1802 disgruntled political hitman James Thomson Callender dumps a bucket of scandal on President Jefferson. Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye! proclaims the scandalmonger, "It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years 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." Callender's "wooly-headed" Black Sal is, disgustingly but sensationally, a "slut as common as the pavement."
Episode 2: Thrashing the Hypocrite
Episode 2 ImageThe war of Independence long over but not forgotten, nationalistic British travelers to America in the early 19th century whip Jefferson's heritage with Jefferson's hypocrisy. "An unprincipled tyrant and most heartless libertine," charge the pugilistic John Bullers, the "venerable" Jefferson "purchased his immortality by a lie." The father of the "monstrous falsehood" of democracy and the "mischievous sophistry" of human equality also fathered "whole gangs of slaves" and "dreamt of freedom in a slave's embrace." Credit our Founding Father with a giant libido and a dwarfish conscience.
Episode 3: The Tragic Mulatto
Episode 3 ImageBid 'em in, Bid 'em in!! Behold the auction block where "two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder!" Talk about deadbeat dads. From a suicide in our nation's capital, to a tragic paraplegic in New York, to a shouting Methodist in Liberia, Jefferson’s ghosts -- his mixed-race children -- haunt the landscape. Abolitionists and the African American oral tradition in the early 19th century map the Monticellian diaspora.
Episode 4: Tales of Two Families
Episode 4 ImageImagine yourself a fly on the wall if Jefferson's "white" family and Jefferson's "black" family could have sparred over "dusky Sally." "Thomas Jefferson is my father," says Madison Hemings (1873), literally the blackest of Sally Hemings's "black" children, "my mother told me so." A "moral impossibility," pontificates Jefferson granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge (1858). And "as immaculate a man as God ever created," contributes her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph. As they throw Jefferson nephews under the controversy bus.
Episode 5: Making It Official
Episode 5 Image19th-century Jefferson biographers execute and embalm the scandal. Henry S. Randall (1858) character-assassinates that very character-assassin Callender himself as a "common blackguard," a "pertinacious mendicant," author of a "putrid stream" of "monstrous fabrications," who fittingly and ignominiously died a drunkard's death; and James Parton (1874) relegates the "Dusky Sally" story, with its seamy insinuations of "yellow children" and "Congo Harems," to the junkyard of campaign lies. Slate clean, official narrative in place, the elevation of Jefferson to political sainthood begins.
Episode 6: The Myth of Miscegenation
Episode 6 ImageSeventy-five years later, the 1950s Civil Rights era exhumes the scandal. Ebony profiles the mostly squalid condition of "Thomas Jefferson's Grandchildren." From the Book-of-the-Month Club to the racial rhetorical barricades, the story that "dragged after Jefferson like a dead cat" is news again. "Jefferson Establishment" scholars rush to defend their hero, decrying the use of this juicy story "as a weapon to embitter the battle over Negro rights," calling it a tall tale, a myth, a legend. Game on again!
Episode 7: Loving the Forbidden Woman
Episode 7 Image"Does a man's sexuality atrophy at thirty-nine?" Fawn Brodie's 1974 psychobiography claims the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was not "scandalous debauchery" but "a serious passion" that brought them "much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years." Sadly, though, it was Jefferson's "psychic fate . . . to fall in love with the forbidden woman." Critics take upstart Brodie behind the woodshed for such logically-absurd, sexually-obsessive, post-Watergate, Jefferson-belittling psychobabble and iconoclasm. But the public eats it up.
Episode 8: Voiceless No More
Episode 8 ImageFrom age fifteen to fifty-something, "Sally" tells all. Yes, she and Jefferson "do it." And "It's a love story," says African American novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud, boldly going where no man has gone before, to the Hotel de Langeac bedroom. Chase-Riboud brings Sally out of Callender's pig-sty so we can meet her, hear her. She's no "wooly-headed concubine." She's no "slut as common as the pavement." Braving the firing squad of purist Jeffersonian historians, in 1979 Chase-Riboud gives Sally a voice for the first time in history, and it's a compelling one.
Episode 9: Cooley Stops the Show
Episode 9 ImageIt's a Sally Hemings moment. At the 1992 Jeffersonian Legacy conference at Jefferson's own university, Robert H. Cooley III, suffering "hot waves of resentment and indignation" at the cool, dispassionate academic discourse on the dry seminar topic "Jefferson, Race and Slavery," rises to declare himself a Jefferson-Hemings descendant. "There are hundreds of us," he says, at which the room goes silent: "You could have heard a pin drop on a cotton ball." The Hemings family's emergence from the shadow of Jefferson as a sort of first family of slavery pressuring the official narrative of Jefferson non-involvement till it cracks begins in earnest with this dramatic intervention by Cooley.
Episode 10: Giving in to the Dark Side
Episode 10 ImageWhen is rape a good thing? When you are a Founding Father in a funk. Loathing slavery, yet lusting after slaves, Jefferson is himself a slave to contradiction, crippled in his own personal pursuit of happiness, shackled by his own self-conscious hypocrisy. Raping Sally again and again frees him from the self-splitting onus of "people's champion" and liberates "the god of reason" within. Steve Erickson's 1993 novel exposes "the libidinous other, the demon we imagine must have dwelled within" Jefferson. Get ready to meet "the private demon within the civic saint."
Episode 11: The Dating Game
Episode 11 ImageThere's the "delectable" Maria Cosway -- a beautiful, intellectual, cosmopolitan, sophisticated artist, composer, and socialite. And then there's Sally -- the "markedly immature, semi-educated, teen-age virgin." Which one will the amorous Jefferson in Paris pick? The earthy Sally gradually eclipses the angelic Maria. "It's unspeakable," spits young Patsy Jefferson, at the thought of her idolized father and her caramelized maid in flagrante delicto. What's more unspeakable is the ruthless climactic deal a suddenly soulless Jefferson forces on his pathetic pregnant pickaninny in this 1995 film.
Episode 12: Jefferson in Court
Episode 12 ImageWas Madison Hemings telling the truth? Could there be love between a slave and her master? Find here a "forensic survey of the evidence" relating to a veritable plantationful of such crucial questions. Shameful scholarship is the "real scandal," says African American lawyer Annette Gordon-Reed, not whether Jefferson slept with Hemings. Kangaroo-court scholars have mishandled evidence and mistreated black people in the process. Though labeled "vengeful" and "contemptuous" and accused of playing the "race card," Gordon-Reed's 1997 "political intervention" is widely accepted. Her trenchant deconstruction of previous interpretations rips a gaping hole in the tender belly of the official narrative.
Episode 13: "Thomas, you are the father!"
Episode 13 ImageOn November 1, 1998, DNA fires a shot heard round the world: "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." DNA tests proved that a Jefferson male, most likely Thomas, fathered one of Sally's children. As of "today," says the leading Jefferson scholar of the moment, reversing his own position, the "likelihood of a long-standing sexual relationship" between Jefferson and Hemings "is now proven beyond a reasonable doubt." The guardians of the Jefferson shrine at Monticello, joining the groundswell of public opinion, even extend paternity to "perhaps all" of Sally's children. Henceforth, the "handful of vociferous deniers" are the underdogs.
Episode 14: Doin' the "Historians' Scramble"
Episode 14 ImageBut what now? What happens the figurative Day One of the new official narrative? What happens in the ivory towers after the "we shoulda knowns," the "aw, shuckses," and the mea culpas? What happens when the historical community is forced back to page one? What happens is similar to a popular new dance craze -- call it “The Historians' Scramble.” Most everyone was doing it. Some to a Jefferson beat, some with a Hemings partner, and some on the hard wall of the color barrier itself. What a difference a day makes. Shake, rattle, and roll. Witness history deconstructing and re-constructing.
Episode 15: An American Love Story
Episode 15 ImageOn February 13, 2000, a Mulberry Row mid-wife dramatically thrusts a "white as snow" baby into 20 million American living rooms. Say hello, America, to Thomas Jefferson Hemings, that is, to Callender's President Tom, with whom this entire brouhaha started. His mother Sally is now undeniably the center of the story: she reads Shakespeare, she frees slaves, she dazzles Tom Paine, but, most importantly, she romances Thomas Jefferson through thick and thin, with passion as well as compassion, past the death that does not part. Over the subsequent decade the subtitle of Tina Andrews's television film fittingly morphs from "An American Scandal" to "An American Love Story."
Episode 16: The Hemings Family Reconstruction Project
Episode 16 Image"The Hemings are as much a part of Monticello as the Jeffersons," writes Tina Andrews, anticipating Annette Gordon-Reed's exhaustive award-winning archaeology of this "American Family," which promises to extend eventually far beyond the Little Mountain. "At last, Jefferson is a man with a body as well as a mind," notes a superbly written encomium on Gordon-Reed's 2008 recovery work, "and Hemings is a woman with a mind as well as a body." Feels like a happy ending. Though the vociferous deniers are still auditioning Randolph Jefferson, fresh from the tomb and total obscurity, to play Sally's phantom lover, the curtain has come down on "the longest-running miniseries in American history." Or has it?
Epilogue: History Matters
Episode 21 ImageIt's time to reflect. First, after reliving the controversy episode by episode here in our miniseries, do you believe Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a sexual relationship? If so, what kind was it -- rape, coercion, consent, seduction, love, some combination, something else? If so, what convinced you? If not, why don't you believe it? What's the source of your reasonable doubt? Second, after reliving the controversy here, what significance does it have? Why has it stayed alive for over 200 years? What can we learn from it? What impact has studying the controversy had on you? Should it continue to be studied? In short, now that the show is over, make meaning. And talk back.