The Great Man’s Dirty Linen

Published:June 24, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Miscegenation is all the rage! It’s been the focus of a couple of entries on this blog and will, in the coming week, be a concern of the weekly history radio show BackStory. (If you’re interested in the topic, be sure to check out the episode description and then email the show at backstory[at]virginia[dot]edu. They’ll invite you on as a caller.)

In their cultural history of Colonial Williamsburg, The New History in an Old Museum (1997), Richard Handler and Eric Gable risk the obvious when they state that the union of black and white has always fascinated the public.

In the historical imagination of many Americans,” they write, “such unions are exemplified by a standard scenario that has become a kind of archetype: an older master takes a younger slave as a mistress and they have a child to whom, as social conventions require, the master pretends to have no substantive connection. The slave mistress and the disenfranchised mulatto become the symbols for the fundamental inequities of slavery itself—or, perhaps, for the seamy side of history, the great man’s dirty linen, which the official custodians of his memory will do anything to hide. Either way, the existence (hidden, suspected) of the slave mistress and the mulatto child points to a moral scandal.

And who doesn’t love scandal? In fact, this “steaminess” has already crept into the presidential campaign. A woman who this month organized a meeting between John McCain and former Hillary Clinton supporters turns out to be the same “wife of a Thomas Jefferson family association official” who, in 2003, “masqueraded as a 67-year-old black woman on an Internet chat room in a bid to keep descendants of a reputed Jefferson mistress out of this weekend’s family reunion.”

Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemingsa political scandal that has had legs now for more than 200 years!

“The great man’s dirty linen” also came up as we were editing an Encyclopedia Virginia entry on the Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, who was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and only the second African American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Her biographer also suggested that her mother was the product of scandal. Here’s the relevant paragraph from our entry:

Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales on February 6, 1882, on a farm in Henry County. Both parents were of mixed lineage. Her father, born a slave in Henry County in 1862, was of black, white, and Seminole Indian ancestry. Her mother was born in 1866 on Reynolds plantation in Critz in neighboring Patrick County. According to Spencer’s biographer, J. Lee Greene, Sarah Louise ‘was an illegitimate child; her mother was a former slave and her father a wealthy Virginia aristocrat . . . well known in American aristocracy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ Rumors passed down in the Spencer family long have suggested that Sarah’s father was a Reynolds, which would have made her a close relative of R. J. Reynolds and J. Sargeant Reynolds.

We’ve been told that Spencer, who died in 1975, preferred to keep such speculation on the down low. The “steaminess” and “scandal” may seem exotic to some, but to Spencer, it was nothing to brag about.

UPDATE: See also Great Man’s Dirty Linen (Cont’d) and Vindication Nation


19 Comments on “The Great Man’s Dirty Linen”

  1. Brendan Wolfe

    Mr. Barger,

    Thanks for the link. We at EV certainly have no stance — official, scientific, or personal — regarding the alleged relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. For what it’s worth, even the tour guides at Monticello don’t seem to agree.

    Such is the nature of science and history. Still, the point here is not whether they were a couple, but the scandal surrounding the speculation. Which has hardly abated in two hundred years.

    Thanks again.


  2. Herbert Barger

    Thanks Brendon for your comment. Nice to know that the Monticello tour guides do not all agree. May I say that three of the long time tour guides there resigned rather than give the official stance there when the Monticello Study Report was released without the Minority Report written by a Monticello employee and guide, Dr, Ken Wallenborn. The report was “swept under the rug” until I complained to Brenton Hausley, then Chairman, TJ Foundation. Dr. Jordan then apologized to Dr. Wallenborn.

    For some time I have suggested to Dr. Jordan that a new study needs to be initiated to include ALL facts. Two major research references used there as “roadmaps” were defective in certain instances. To this very day he refuses to do another review of the controversy Just emagine how outrageous a finding of ALL possible children of Sally being fathered by TJ…………only ONE was tested. Do I detect bias here?

    It would be very interesting to the public if a debate could be arranged to debate this famous misunderstanding.

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian

  3. Kalela Williams

    I think the biggest miscegenation story of the 20th century is the Hemings/Jefferson scandal. And when I’ve read about the possible relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in these post-DNA-bombshell articles, I’m often interested in the defensive, protective language that is used. I find words like “allegations,” and claims of “assaults” on Jefferson’s character. If Jefferson did have a relationship with Sally Hemings then what, exactly would he have done wrong? Slept with a “decidedly good looking” woman who was not his wife–even though his wife was dead, and he may have promised her he’d never remarry? So maybe he couldn’t keep his waistcoat buttoned and his breeches on–but I hope he would have had normal needs and desires. For that matter, Benjamin Franklin has been discussed as being a philanderer, and few criticize his character because he had extramarital relationships. I believe the real problem some have is that Hemings was an enslaved, black woman. But why, in the 20th/21st century, do people think it’s a big deal if a guy had a relationship with someone of a different social position, or a different race? What do we need to defend Jefferson from? If what the DNA evidence suggests is true, all Jefferson would have done was hook up with the cute chick from Mulberry Row who darned his stockings. As long as it was consensual, that should be okay—and should in no way tarnish the legacies Jefferson left us.

  4. Herbert Barger

    Kalela you are correct, “if” TJ DID have a relationship with Sally what exactly would he have done wrong?” I say IF that had been proven true then researchers would have no problem with that. That is NOT the issue. This is where the “soap operas” and political correctness become active.

    The issue is, it was a DNA study conducted BUT did that test PROVE that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally’s children? Absolutely NOT, I worked on the study and I can say NO and so does Dr. E.A. Foster. DNA does not identify given names, only last names in a common male line.

    Much manipulation has been done in certain quarters to leave the public with this impression. Dr. Foster should NEVER have conducted the test WITHOUT informing Nature Journal, the media, Monticello and all researchers that he was using the blood of a known male descendant of Eston Hemings whose family had ALWAYS claimed that they descended from “a Jefferson uncle”, meaning TJ’S younger brother, Randolph. SURE there would be a match but this would be caused by the “uncle Jefferson with common Jefferson DNA.ALL of Sally’s children were conceived when Randolph was “between wives”, meaning his first wife had died before Harriet I was born in 1795 and when Eston was born in 1808 and then Randolph would soon marry his 2nd wife and only six days after the birth of Eston Randolph would visit Monticello to have his will updated by brother, Thomas.

    Randolph would come among the slaves, dance and play the fiddle until late night hours and was invited by TJ to visit Monticello EXACTLY (his twin sister had arrived), nine months prior to the birth of Sally’s youngest son, Eston.

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian

  5. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Kalela. I, too, am puzzled by some of the defensiveness surrounding the idea of a Jefferson-Hemings hookup.

    On the other hand, you write, “As long as it was consensual . . .” This point is worth more than the offhanded mention you give to it.

    You say that Hemings “was an enslaved, black woman,” but then you describe her as “the cute chick from Mulberry Row who darned his stockings.” I’m no expert on Jefferson or Hemings (an important caveat), but these two characterizations are not altogether compatible.

    To be enslaved by Jefferson was to be under his complete control. How can we, from the vantage point of two hundred years in the future, make judgments about what was consensual? Certainly it was possible — assuming, for the sake of argument, that they did hook up — that it was consensual. But it also could have been consensual only in the sense that she considered herself to have no reasonable means of resistance.

    She was enslaved, after all. And to describe her as a “cute chick” strikes me as downplaying that reality.

  6. Kalela Williams

    Oh, absolutely, it is a very valid arguement in and of itself on what is consensual when one individual has complete power over another–when one individual owns another. I did not mean to downplay Sally Heming’s station at Monticello.

    I think two hundred years is a very long way to judge anything, including a person’s charecter. Herbert Barger mentioned “no proof” of a relationship as found by the Scholars Commission Report. Well of course you’re going to find no proof. We’re talking about a man who was very protective of his posterity and, didn’t he destroy letters from his wife after her death? We will never know for sure whether or not Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings, or what were the terms of the relationship. And from our standpoint it is difficult to judge what is consensual because our ideas about it are so different than centuries ago. For instance, maybe Sally Hemings might have thought the relationship was perfectly consensual in an era when she was property and even free women didn’t have as many rights. From a 2008 standpoint, I could look at it however, and say there’s no way a master/slave relationship can be based on consent. Again, I did not mean to imply that everything was peachy-keen and they enjoyed a healthy, fulfilling relationship with long walks on the beach, etc. If Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemings it would be amazingly complex even from the vantage point of 200 years ago, and in a different era as today it would be just as difficult to assess. But what is old-fashioned is the idea that an upstanding man like Jefferson was any more than a man. My point in my first comments are simply that some historians take issue with Jefferson possibly having affair with a slave, and they shouldn’t feel so defensive. I believe if there were strong “allegations” he had an affair with Maria Cosway, the lovely, educated Frenchwoman he met in Paris, no one would feel the need to “exonerate” him from anything.

  7. Herbert Barger

    We are commenting in a Virginia History Forum here and should, in my opinion, stick to facts and leave out the “soap opera” stuff. Maria Cosway doesn’t reflect on the issue of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally’s kids or not. Or even whether he was more than just a man.

    The issue is, did he father Sally’s children? I and many other serious researchers say “NO”. Our children’s textbooks are being contaminated with untruths and political correctness, let us get the story correct now. Dr Foster claims that there is nothing proving that TJ fathered Sally’s kids. He said that in the New York Times and in the second issue of Nature Journal (Jan 7, 1999). Even the scholar, Annette Gordon-Reed states in her book that DNA does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was fathered by Thomas Jefferson. The Scholars Commission Report (13 top independent scholars, including the Chairman of that group, Professor Robert Turner of UVA acting as Chairman), found NO proof that it was Thomas Jefferson who fathered those children. Read the full report as a link from The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society web page (

    For some time and even the Monticello Research Group have assumed the Pike County, Ohio newspaper article by abolitionist Samuel Wetmore was a truthful interview of Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings giving all “facts” surrounding the controversy. It has been pointed out that several of the statements are to be called into question. For brevity I will cite only one, however if we can “see through” this inaccurate statement, may we not question ANY statement made in this article, which was challenged by the opposing political paper of the day, the Waverly Watchman.

    The article states that Madison Hemings claims to have been named for James Madison at his birth at Monticello upon the occasion of Dolley Madison’s visit there at his birth, January 19, 1805. A little detailed resaearch reveals that the Madisons NEVER visited Virginia from Washington during winter where Dolley was busy assisting President Jefferson as Hostess in the White House and also busy assisting her husband, the Secretary of State. Just imagine this scenario if you will: Dolley suddenly announces to these two gentlemen that she must apologise for rushing away at this busy time in Mr. Jefferson’s second term, to “name a slave MALE child for her husband.” Now this was well before medical science could know the sex of an unborn child, what name if it had been female? WHY, would this brave lady even conceive of such a hazardess 3-4 day winter trip? Madison was not satisfied enough by concocting such a trip for the media of the day, but topping it off by stating that Dolley had not given a gift which she had promised his mother, but that was what white people did. There is NOTHING in the article that states that “Sally told Madison that he and his siblings were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.”

    The major scandalous newspaper article by James Callender accused TJ of fathering a Sally child, Tom. This Tom would later be adopted to a nearby Woodson family and that family would forever in family “oral” history claim descent from Thomas Jefferson. Judge Robert Cooley(Woodson descendant) would claim this very prominently several times in Ken Burn;s series on Jefferson. At his sudden accidental death, his family requested burial in the Monticello Cemetery based upon “ORAL” family history and the Monticello Assn. refused upon no proof of accuracy. Shortly thereafter test results would reveal NO Jefferson-Woodson match. Thus a near misjudgement based upon oral history was avoided. Can we believe that Ken Burns will revise his inaccurate film series?

    The DNA Study, of which I assisted on with Dr. Foster, found NO Jefferson-Woodson match. This was done twice because the Woodson’s could not believe the test was accurate. SO, Callender’s Campaign Lies werer just that….LIES.

    I call upon today’s historians and the managment of Monticello to come forward with a NEW study using ALL facts as known. A nationally televised debate would also bring out the real truth of this bungled and mishandled important DNA test.

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian

  8. Adrian Zolkover

    Thanks for these many interesting prior comments. Let’s play some Sherlock Holmes here. Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife and mother of his children, died in 1782. Sally Hemings had her first child Harriet in 1795. The following evidence leads to the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was NOT the father of any of Sally Heming’s children. 1) Sally lived at Monticello for many child bearing years and didn’t become pregnant until Sally was 22 years old, 13 years after Martha died. 2) Only Sally’s last child’s, Eston’s, lineage has been tested for DNA and shows he descended from Sally and A male Jefferson, not necessarily Thomas. Because Thomas Jefferson had no sons they must use the DNA from his brother’s descendants. They can’t trace this DNA lineage through generations of females. Sally’s son Madison’s descendants, who were located after much effort, have refused to be DNA tested. 3) We don’t know that any other of Sally’s children were fathered by a Jefferson. 4) Even if we want to make the BIASED ASSUMPTION that one or more of Sally’s other children were fathered by a Jefferson, it is again MOST UNLIKELY that Thomas was the Jefferson that fathered them. 5) Thomas Jefferson was 52 years old when Harriet Hemings, Sally’s first child, was born. 6) Thomas’s younger brother Randolph Jefferson had become widowed not long before Sally conceived Harriet, her first child. 7) Randolph’s wife had died when Raldohph was 37 years old. 8) Randolph’s farm was within an hour or two from Monticello. 9) Randolph had sons who were of child bearing age and Randolph and his sons visited Monticello. 10) Randolph socially intermingled with the slaves and it is historically reported that he taught them to play the fiddle. I think it is nauseating that people publish BIASED AND MISINFORMING opinions [and to the extent that they ignore most pertinent scientific evidence and historic evidence, LIES] about the very person who probably did the most to establish a democratic form of government in the United States; and did the most, in the most formative years, to end slavery. Thomas Jefferson wrote numerous articles, including his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, where he said he thought slavery was against mankind, and should be phased out. They made him delete his opinions about slavery from his draft of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote in several articles that he thought inter-racial sexual affairs were degrading to all races involved. If he were having an affair with Sally why didn’t she become pregnant before she was 22 years old, or during the 13 years after Thomas’s wife died? I think it would have been much out of character for this brilliant, most principled, most important and dashing man to have an affair with the family slave Sally, who helped raise his children. I think there would be many other Caucasian not slave women who would desire to hook up with Thomas Jefferson. And I think this unfair conclusion that Thomas fathered her children is historically degrading to Sally as well as to Thomas. Thanks to Herbert Barger for his excellent work to keep these most important historical records accurate and not untruths.

    1. Mike Huffman

      I believe that Sally Hemings was 8 or 9 years old when Jefferson’s wife died. That may have accounted for her not having a child
      for a while. Madison Hemings’ account says that Sally gave birth shortly after returning from Paris, which, if true, would have been
      1790, I think, when she was 16. It is possible that she didn’t get pregnant because she wasn’t having sex.
      One reason you give in defending Thomas Jefferson, is that he was 52 when the first Harriet was born. You offer Randolph Jefferson as a candidate. Eston Hemings is the only one linked by DNA testing to the Jefferson line. When he was born, Randolph was, I believe, 52 years old, and, I believe that he fathered a son a year or two later. Apparently, men in their 50’s were able to have children back then. Thomas Jefferson’s wife died when he was 38 or 39, and his farm was not an hour or two away.
      Principled Thomas Jefferson, I believe, admitted to advances on the wife of a good friend. He, apparently, was very fond of Maria Cosway, also a married woman, in France. I read that, when a friend of his named Coles, I think, tried to persuade Jefferson to
      free his slaves as Coles was going to do, Jefferson tried to dissuade Coles from freeing his own slaves. It seems he may have been
      a man of some contradictions.
      I was interested in your comment that the unfair conclusion that Thomas Jefferson fathered her children is degrading to Sally Hemings. Would your implication that Randolph or his sons fathered them be degrading, as well?
      I think, if Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children, then he enslaved his own children. If Randolph Jefferson
      fathered any of them, then their uncle, Thomas Jefferson, held them as slaves. If Randolph’s sons … well, you get the idea. None
      of these scenarios are very attractive.

  9. Adrian Zolkover

    Addendum: I got my statistical information from the book THE JEFFERSON-HEMINGS MYTH AN AMERICAN TRAVESTY, published 2001 by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society. I recommend reading this book. On page 197 there is a most helpful Jefferson-Hemings Chronology.

  10. Shaun Spencer-Hester

    I visited the Reynaldo House in Winston Salem, NC with my father Chauncey Edward Spencer the son of Anne Spencer, in the early eighties. We met with Nancy Susan Reynolds to discuss her knowledge of she and my grandmother being of the same blood line. Nancy clearly stated that she was aware of the fact that the Reynolds were indeed related to Anne Spencer, poet. On the way home we stopped in Patrick County (Critiz, VA) and visited the slave cemetery where my great-great grandmother and other relatives are en-tombed.

  11. Herbert Barger

    Readers interested in the FALSE accusations of a Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy are invited to read two forthcoming books: “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal” (due out June 9, 09) and Professor Robert Turner’s (UVA), exciting, well and long researched book by 13 prominent scholars who found NO Thomas Jefferson Sally Hemings liasion, (due out: Nov.09).

    Other important books on this FIASCO are already out: “The Jefferson-Hemings Myth, An American Travesty”, “Anatomy of a Scandal, Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story”, “Jefferson Vindicated, Fallacies,Omissions and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search.”

    The public is, in my opinion, being “CONNED” in the name of political correctness and historical revisionism.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
    Asst. to DNA Researcher, Dr. E.A. Foster

  12. LR

    Herb Barger’s biggest fault is the manner in which he asserts that TJ did not father Sally Hemings’s children. The DNA test prove that a Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings child, this could have been Randolph or any of the other Jefferson’s, but it also could have been Thomas Jefferson. Barger, or no one else, can know for sure.

    During the confirmed times that Randolph was at Monticello, Sally Hemings did not conceive. He was invited to Monticello around Eston’s conception, but unlike the other times, his arrival was never confirmed.

    If it is true that Sally Hemings could have been impregnated by multiple other men, why would Jefferson allow for such sexual exploitation during his watch as she only conceived during the times that Thomas Jefferson was around Monticello.

    It is true that Jefferson was known to travel away from Monticello to his other farms, but no one can prove that he was away from Monticello within the range of conception of Sally Hemings’s children, or that Sally Hemings was apart from him during the times that he traveled from Monticello and she conceived.

    In defending his stand against slavery, he could be as any other Virginia slave owner. He was know to hunt runaway slaves down, and offer rewards. He at one time had a runaway slave whipped in front of the other slaves.

    Regarding Jefferson’s character, he was accused, and admitted to, soliciting sexual favors from a married woman. The woman’s husband stated that Jefferson did this during a time period he would have been married to his own wife who he was said to have been so devoted to. He had an illicit liaison with Maria Cosway, who was married. It seems clear that his character was weak in resisting sexual temptation.

    He was an amazing man, who made great contributions to our country. But he was not perfect. The obsession with trying to defend Thomas Jefferson against character flaws seems inexplicable.

  13. LR

    Mr. Zolkvover refers to the claim that Madison Hemings’s descendants refuse to allow Madison’s son to be DNA tested. While I will give his argument some weight, I have to also respect the read claim that Madison’s family does not wish to have his body exhumed from his final resting place. On the other hand, if the family would agree to an exhumation, and the DNA was once again positive for Jefferson’s genes, based on what we have seen, it appears as though they would once again say that Randolph or some other Jefferson is the father. Therefore, the objective seems to be to prove that someone outside of the Jefferson lineage was the father of Madison’s son which would give weight to the claim that Sally Hemings slept with men outside of the Jefferson lineage.

    In defense of Madison’s family lineage, the online images of Madison’s descendants bear an uncanny resemblance to Thomas Jefferson.

  14. Herbert Barger

    FLASH! Professor Robert Turner of UVA has just had a Press Conference at the National Press Center in Washington, D.C. reviewing his new book, “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, Report of the Scholars Commission Report.”

    The book is the most complete and accurate portrayal of this controversy and 13 prominent scholars concluded that Thomas Jefferson did not father the Sally Hemings children.

    Annette Gordon-Reed and Monticello should abandon their false claims and insuations that he did.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( and

    1. Mike Huffman

      In your post dated June 26, 2008, you wrote, “Even the scholar, Annette Gordon-Reed states in her book that DNA does
      not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was fathered by Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t believe that Professor Gordon-Reed
      has ever accused Thomas Jefferson of fathering the descendants of Eston Hemings.

    2. Mike Huffman

      You say that the scholars concluded that Thomas Jefferson did not father the Sally Hemings children? Is that a true statement?
      I read that most of them concluded that the allegations were probably false. I also think that Robert Turner, the editor of the report,
      said that a member of the organization that sponsored or funded the report, an organization with which you, I believe, are associated,
      attempted to limit the input of one of the commission members.

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