What the Blacksmith Saw

Published:October 23, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Ahead of the publication of our entry on Sally Hemings, we are beginning to publish some of the primary resources associated with her life story. One of these is the recollections of Isaac Granger Jefferson, the product of an interview the blacksmith gave in 1847 while living in Petersburg. (That’s him above, in the blacksmith’s apron.) Some scholars and so-called Jefferson defenders have argued that Thomas Jefferson‘s brother Randolph was actually the father of Hemings’s children, and they point to Isaac Jefferson’s account as evidence. In it, Isaac Jefferson says that Randolph Jefferson “used to come out among black people play the fiddle and dance half the night.” And because Isaac Jefferson was born and raised at Monticello, perhaps he ought to know.

In his new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek argues that the context of this claim—obscured by past published editions—is a description of events happening far away from Monticello; i.e., Randolph Jefferson may have danced the night away with enslaved women, but Sally Hemings wasn’t one of them. My own reading is that the account is neither clearly about Monticello nor clearly not about Monticello. Regardless, our entry notes the following:

Prior to 2000, no [Jefferson] family members or historians had argued for Randolph Jefferson’s paternity, and historians have found no solid evidence of his presence at Monticello during any of the known periods of conception. Most scholars now agree that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of Sally Hemings’s children.

But don’t let us tell you what to think! Read it for yourself. The manuscript promises “a full and faithful account of Monticello and the family there, with notices of the many distinguished characters that visited there, with his Revolutionary experience and travels, adventures, observations and opinions, the whole taken down from his [Isaac Jefferson’s] own words.”

RE THE POST’S TITLE: It’s a chapter title in Wiencek’s book.

IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); “Life of Isaac Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia, Blacksmith,” pages 1–2; Isaac (Granger) Jefferson (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)