Spotlight: Sally Hemings

Published:November 27, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Yesterday we published our entry on Sally Hemings. Part of a larger section of content on Thomas Jefferson that you can read about here, it is a long-ish and I think thorough account of both her life and the controversy surrounding the children she is supposed to have had by her famous master. It was written by Virginia Scharff, author of The Women Jefferson Loved (2010) and Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico. But the entry does not represent Scharff’s (excellent) work alone; it was vetted by a number of top scholars, including Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, who recently retired as Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian, and J. Jefferson Looney, editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Retirement Series.

The result? I think this is the best introduction to Sally Hemings that you can find on the web, free or otherwise.

A few quick notes about the entry:

  • You’ll find almost twenty primary-source documents linked in the entry—images and transcriptions that in many cases you will find nowhere else on the web or even in print. These include the letters of Abigail Adams (here and here) describing a young Sally Hemings, the recollections of Hemings’s son Madison, and the famous newspaper article accusing Jefferson of having a concubine. You’ll find these documents mentioned in various places, but nowhere do you find all of them transcribed and/or completely and accurately transcribed.
  • We considered breaking the entry into two: what we know about Sally Hemings (very little) and what we know about the scandal regarding her children’s paternity (almost too much). But we thought it valuable to provide a single place where readers could be introduced to the full picture.
  • One of our scholarly readers worried that too much in the article could be considered speculative. Our goal was to present many of the stories in circulation about Hemings—e.g., the handbell supposedly given to her by her half sister Martha Jefferson—and contextualize them with what the historical record says or doesn’t say on the subject. This is more helpful, I believe, than not mentioning them at all.
  • The entry asserts that the current historical consensus is that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children. We aren’t interested in proving that this is true, and there seems little likelihood that we’ll ever know for sure or that all of us will ever agree. The entry’s goal, especially with its linking to primary sources, was to provide a transparent introduction to the way in which historians have viewed and now view the subject.

So read the entry and let us know what you think. And, in the meantime, a big thank-you to our contributor and to our readers. We are grateful for their time and effort.

IMAGES: Two paper dolls—“Topsey” (left), McLoughlin Bros., publisher, 1863, and “Sally Hemings” (right) by Donald Hendricks, Legacy Designs, 2000—from the Smithsonian exhibit 200 Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson, photo by Steven M. Cummings; Experimental Beds 5 by Judy Watson (2012); from “The President, Again,” by James Thomson Callender, published in The Recorder; or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, on September 1, 1802; a detail of Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson) from the series All the Presidents’ Girls by Annie Kevans (2009); detail from “Life Among the Lowly, Number 1,” Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873 (Ohio Historical Society); cropped detail of Thomas Jefferson by kamilya on


4 Comments on “Spotlight: Sally Hemings”

  1. Richard Dixon

    This biographical account of the obscure Sally Hemings is intellectually disappointing. You assigned the task for this account to an author who has a conflict of interest. Virginia Scharff has just released a book committed to the storyline that Jefferson started a relationship with Hemings in Paris that resulted in his paternity of some or all of her subsequent children.

    Scharff does not cite “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission” in her suggested “Further Reading.” This work provides the most detailed examination of all of the evidence which would indicate paternity or might mitigate against it. In spite of her personal belief, or whether she was encouraged by similar beliefs among those who control history at Encyclopedia Virginia, the evidence supporting paternity is at best circumstantial, and the arguments against it are compelling.

    Central to the paternity belief is the hearsay information in the Madison Hemings interview, which occurred almost 40 years after he left Monticello, does not reveal on what basis he thought Jefferson was his father, and his recollection is supported by no other person. He is also the source of the so-called treaty negotiated in Paris by a pregnant Sally Hemings, a condition that has no other evidentiary support. Unless you take it on faith that Madison Hemings alone got it right, there is no paternity.

    I don’t know how Scharff counted up the “most scholars” that apparently agree with her, but this is not an issue left to counting noses. It is also not an issue that can be debated in a blog retort. The reliability of the circumstantial evidence and the assumptions that must be accepted to make this paternity claim standup should be presented in this report.

    Essentially, this report adds nothing to the 12-year-old report of the Monticello staff committee, makes all of the same assumptions, and ignores any contrary voice.

  2. John Kennedy

    Mr. Dixon’s response is pretty much classic reactionist, conservative anti-history bunk. His argument is very intellectually disappointing and overlooks the now overwhelming evidence (even genetic) that suggests Mr. Jefferson fathered children such as Madison Hemings.

    This report does an okay job of highlighting how such an event came to be and an even better job of providing the reader with primary sources which can aid them in their own research into the matter and find out what evidence is actually out there and where it points.

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