What the Friend Affirmed

Published:November 7, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In part 7 of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider “Life Among the Lowly, No. 3,” the recollections of Israel Gillette Jefferson published in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican on December 25, 1873. (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.)

Earlier in the year, the Republican‘s editor, S. F. Wetmore, had interviewed Madison Hemings, who famously announced that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Now it was Israel Gillette Jefferson’s turn to tell his story. Like his friend Madison, he had been born and raised at Monticello, and while he did not claim anything but the name Jefferson, he corroborated his friend’s account:

Sally Hemmings … was employed as his [Thomas Jefferson’s] chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.

So can we trust his word? Annette Gordon-Reed leans in that direction, pointing out that he

even gave a basis for his alleged knowledge about the nature of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Israel Jefferson did not simply say, “I lived at Monticello and I heard all the talk about the ‘Master’ and Sally.” He said that in his boyhood he ran errands and did other small tasks for Jefferson that gave him access to Jefferson’s living quarters, of which Hemings was a chambermaid. Israel Jefferson would have been in a position, on some occasions, to have observed the interactions between the two parties.

Those inclined to disbelieve Israel Jefferson will point to a long letter to the editor—never published and probably never sent—written by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in which he offers an often point-by-point rebuttal of many of the former slave’s claims. We’ll consider that soon enough. In the meantime, Gordon-Reed acknowledges “inaccuracies in Israel Jefferson’s account, but they are of the sort that can be attributed to the passage of time and understandable confusion about the way in which Sally Hemings and her family achieved their freedom.” However, other facts in his account can be verified, she writes.

Thankfully, it’s not our job to judge this one way or the other. Our job is simply to give you the source, accurately transcribed, and let you read it yourself.

IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); Perri Jenkins, 9, of Houston, Texas, looks at a display depicting Israel Gillette during a tour of Monticello (Associated Press)