What the Journalist Claimed

Published:October 25, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

This is now our third in a series of primary resources associated with Sally Hemings. (Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.) Our not-yet-published entry on Hemings explains why “The President, Again,” by James Thomson Callender, was so important:

In 1802, James Thomson Callender, who once had been Jefferson’s own hatchet man against the Federalists, turned on his former patron, now president. Having joined the staff of a Federalist newspaper in Richmond called the  Recorder, or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, Callender published a series of vitriolic items beginning on September 1, 1802, when he wrote: “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 slaves. Her name is SALLY … 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.” Callender also suggested that Hemings had an eldest child, named Tom, “whose features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”

So is Callender to be believed? Arguments against: He was not a disinterested observer, but felt betrayed by Jefferson and sought to exact some measure of revenge. He was not what you’d call an upstanding citizen, but a person who has regularly been described as “loathsome,” “drunken,” and “vile.” His claim that Sally had a son Tom has not been corroborated by Jefferson’s records at Monticello. Arguments in favor: Rumors of Jefferson and a slave mistress had existed prior to Callender. Other newspapers at least claimed to independently verify the most basic allegation and added new details, doing so in such a manner as not to suggest Callender’s same animus. Callender’s claim generally fits with that of Sally Hemings’s son Madison, who declared his father to be Thomas Jefferson.

Now go read it, and see what you think!

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); detail of The Recorder, or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, September 1, 1802, page 1 (Library of Virginia); first paragraph of the page-2 article from the same paper, “The President, Again” by J. T. Callender