Jefferson and Hemings, Race and Gender

I teach colonial and American Revolution classes to students at a private liberal arts college.  Recently, in my American Revolution course, we did something I’ve wanted to do for years– devote a whole class to the saga of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Most of us know the basics: Thomas Jefferson had a decades-long sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (who, as a result of Jefferson’s father-in-law sleeping with his own slave, her mother, was also Jefferson’s deceased wife’s half-sister.  Confused yet?).


This largely undocumented relationship resulted in six children, a mud-slinging presidential campaign in 1800, and controversy that exists to this day as we delve into the sex life of one of our “founding fathers.”  Although family stories passed down through Hemings’s descendents, and circumstantial evidence have supported the fact of this relationship for over a century, only recently did genetics conclusively close the book on this controversy.  Historian Annette Gordon-Reed has documented all of the subtleties of this story in several books, and I recommend them all.

The issue of Jefferson and Hemings is also is a great lens for analyzing the state of race, gender, and sex in our nation’s early history, as we gradually transitioned from colonies, to republic, to democracy, and as old social hierarchies broke down, and newer ones rose up.  There are plenty of questions, too.  Was this relationship consensual?  Did Jefferson and Hemings love each other?  Above all, what on earth was Jefferson thinking?

This is the guy who wrote “All Men Are Created Equal,” then turned around with “blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”  This is the guy who built Monticello with a series of dumbwaiters and passages so that he could entertain abolitionist French philosophes without them ever seeing a black person. This is the guy who vehemently supported every revolution of his era (America, France, Latin America), but was disgusted at the Haitian Revolution, seeing it as a mere slave uprising, rather than a proper revolution.  To call him conflicted is an understatement.

The story of his and Hemings’s relationship is also hazy and conflicting; today we can hear some polemicists call it a case of psychological coercion and rape, while apologists either continue to deny that it happened, or failing that, point out that this was a decades-long, stable, monogamous affair.  No matter what, when we try to impose today’s values and assumptions on this story, it gets complex, fast.

For starters, our modern sensibilities get uncomfortable when we realize just how young Sally was when she first began sleeping with Jefferson (and quickly became pregnant).  When she arrived as a servant for Jefferson’s daughter in Paris in 1787, where he was serving as a diplomat, Hemings was around 14.  Jefferson was in his mid-forties.  Definitely statutory by today’s standards.  But, it was not uncommon in aristocratic society for young white girls to be bargained and traded off for marriage, with no concern for their consent.  In particular, Jefferson’s home of Virginia had some of the largest age gaps in marriage of any of the American colonies; elite males tended to get married around the age of 30; women around 19.  This was a marked contrast from, say, New England, where marriage actually tended more among couples of the same age, and also more consensual by our modern standards.

Speaking of consent, was Hemings a victim of rape?  This was truly a gut-wrenching tragedy, because as a slave, by the legal standards of her time, she could neither give nor refuse consent.  She (and the 500,000 other slaves in America at this time) could not consent to sex, to freedom of movement, to marry whom she wanted, none of that.  Their fates were tied to their masters’ wishes.  By the standards of the day, she could not be raped, and most certainly not by her master, Jefferson.



Here’s an interesting word game: ask anyone on the street today, “what is the opposite of slavery?”  You will almost certainly get a one word answer:  “freedom.”  Makes sense, right?  It’s actually a very American sentiment.  Slaves could do nothing without the consent of their master, whereas free American men (yes, men) could do whatever they wanted within the bounds of the law; they had no master.  But, this slavery/freedom dichotomy ONLY arose in the relatively new paradigm of universal white male freedom, which certainly had not yet fully developed at the time that Jefferson began sleeping with Hemings.

However, under the older, British paradigm in which freedom and liberty were a tiered scale, and not binary, “the opposite of slavery” would have been this:


Think about that.

Slaves had no rights, no freedoms, whereas masters had the rights and freedoms to impose their will upon their slaves.  Landowners could impose their will on their tenants; Nobles on their serfs; craftsmen on their apprentices; the king on everybody.  Under this old, complex hierarchy, everybody except slaves had some liberties, and everybody except the king was subservient to someone.

In this hierarchy, which the gentleman cavalier culture of Virginia and other British Plantation economies thrived upon, it was a masters’ privilege to do whatever he wanted to his slaves.  The island of Barbados had only one law regarding masters’ treatment of slaves: they had to be clothed.  The law said nothing about regulating torture, protecting families, or requiring conversion to Christianity.  In the British view, excessive laws were for more despotic cultures like France or Spain, both of which had very complex slave codes influenced by Catholic law, and enforced by strong monarchical bureaucracies.  Part of being a free Englishman or American was the freedom to treat your slaves as you saw fit, and the Anglo world was proud of this.



 Where laws did not tread, however, an unwritten code of gentlemanly conduct dating well back into medieval feudalism existed for British Planters, at least in theory.  It was seen as lowly and trashy to do things like beat your slaves too much, clothe them in rags, or refuse to give them holidays off.  But at the same time, it was also seen as offensive and intrusive to have laws specifically prohibiting these things.

 Sex was tightly, though informally, regulated this way.  If a master purchased a slave girl solely for sex, kept her tied up in a shack, and raped her daily, that would have been an abuse of his noble station.  If word of this got out to his peers, he would lose status, connections, and become a social pariah.  But, the same thing would happen if a master fell in blissful love with a slave girl, taught her to read, freed her, and then moved to Pennsylvania where they both became Quakers and got married.  Both extremes would have been a transgression of this gentleman’s code.

In fact, one of the main points that Harriet Beecher Stowe made much later in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was that American (as opposed to British) slavery made it too easy for un-gentlemanly types to own slaves, and that low-class, white trash men with nothing but money could own another life, but had no gentlemanly code of conduct, no sense of noble obligation, to keep their violent, sexual whims in check.  Upper-class slave owners in the novel are all benevolent, well-intentioned, and thoroughly non-predatory to the point of asexuality.

So, in the British, Virginian, and “honorable” Old Southern models of mastery, gentlemen masters were supposed to know how to exercise their dominance over their slaves in a restrained, reasonable, and civilized fashion.  But, plenty of them were still having sex with their slaves.  We know very little about this, because part of their gentlemen’s privilege was the freedom to sleep with slaves, and not have it gossiped or written about.


Painting by an unknown artist, circa 1800.

But let’s get back to Jefferson and Hemings.  She had been raised from birth to see her entire world as revolving around her master, to devoting herself to his every need, just as her own mother had devoted herself to her master John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law.  Quite likely she would have been told as a child, “Someday, if you really carry yourself properly, Mr. Jefferson might choose to sleep with you.  This is a good thing.”  A term like “Stockholm Syndrome” cannot begin to describe this relationship.

The point is, Jefferson’s status as a gentleman meant that he did not have to physically coerce Hemings when he chose to sleep with her.  That would have been beneath him.  But, she could not say no, either.  In this sense, it was rape, regardless of whether they loved each other (they probably did), that they stayed together for decades, that Hemings was at Jefferson’s deathbed, or that he freed all of his children by her.  They were operating under a very old slave/master dynamic that, at least in theory, the American Revolution and Jefferson’s own declaration had sought to destroy.



But we can take this further, into the experiences of all women in the early American or British colonial world.  Hemings could not say no, because she was the property of Jefferson.  But very few married women could say no to their husbands either, because in many ways, they were also possessions.  Law designated a married woman as feme covert– literally a “covered female” who could not legally own property, broker transactions, sign contracts, or testify in court.  All of these rights flowed through the husband.

It was not until the early 1970s that the feminist movement finally prompted many states to make the radical declaration that, “YES, rape can occur within marriage, and it should be illegal!”  Beneath this is the age old assumption that rape is less an assault on a woman, and more an assault on the honor of that woman’s father, brother, or husband.  This was reflected both in law, and in the abstract, unwritten “gentleman’s code” that I’ve already alluded to.  This was unusually so in the case of Virginia’s laws and traditions of gender hierarchies, since this was the colony most tied to neo-feudal myths of chivalry, gentility, and noble obligation.  However, not all British colonies were operating under these assumptions.

Quaker and Puritan societies farther north were in some ways more modern in their views of how men and women related to one another.  Marriage in Puritan New England was seen only as a social contract between two people who loved each other (though the man was still very much head of the family).  It was not a church sacrament– they believed that religiously-instituted marriage minimized one’s devotion to God.  Women could retain their own property, and both men and women could file for divorce for equally diverse reasons.

Adultery was punished harshly (torture and mutilations, in addition to scarlet letters and public shamings), but the punishments were dealt out equally to men and women.  The few slaveholding New Englanders could also be charged with adultery and punished for it if they raped their slaves.  Puritan diaries and letters indicate significant numbers of couples who loved each other in a much more egalitarian sense than their neighbors to the South did.  Most Puritans even believed that, in order for conception to occur, both man and woman had to orgasm during sex (this sounds nice in terms of sensitive lovers, but less nice when we consider that this is tied to Todd Akin’s recent moronic comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancies, but that’s another topic altogether).

Contrast that with the more hierarchical views of gender and sex that Jefferson’s homeland of Virginia held.  Women tended to be married off at young ages, as chattel to secure property transfers and inheritances; more than one Virginia gentleman referred to the fine “stock” that his wife would produce, and even white, upper class women were frequently referred to as “breeders.”  The laws of femes covertes stipulated that, while a woman could inherit her father’s property (provided that there was no male to do so), her position as an unmarried adult woman was precarious; she could not testify in a court of law, and could not sign contracts; she needed a husband to do all of these things for her.  As soon as she married, all property went to her new husband.  This happened when Martha Wayles inherited her father’s property, then married Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson became owner of all her property, including the Hemings family.



 Rape laws were very light in colonial Virginia; it was essentially a misdemeanor.  This is not to say that rape could not be very serious, but it was tied more to the elaborate neo-feudal system of racial and class hierarchies than it was to protection of women.  Enforcement for transgressions was done informally, not legally.  Young aristocratic men (as well as older ones, if you read the secret diary of William Byrd) were socially encouraged to attack “unprotected” women.  But who were unprotected women?  Those who lacked honorable husbands to defend them.  While legally, rape was not serious, if a man seduced, raped, or otherwise had sex (it is not clear that they distinguished between all these) with a woman of honor, the dueling code or the mob would take care of him, not the law.

 Confused?  Here are a few scenarios which Virginia “cavaliers” would have been familiar with:

Sex with a young virgin from a wealthy family?  This was a big deal, since the cavalier would have stolen assured paternity from any future suitors, and also stolen the honor of her father and brothers.  If she was of the same social status as the cavalier, he would probably be forced to marry her, with threat of a duel if he refused.  If she was of significantly higher status, than the young man would not be granted the gentleman’s honor of a duel; he would probably be beaten, castrated, and possibly killed by the deflowered girl’s male relatives.

Sex with a young virgin from a poorer family?  Not a big deal, depending on the social status of that girl’s father.  If this was on the Appalachian frontier, and the girl was from a poor, but independent farming family, a duel still might be in order, since social hierarchies tended to be less pronounced on the fringes of the colony.  A vigilante raid by the “common folk” against the cavalier might even happen in some circumstances.  At the very least, they could charge him with the legal misdemeanor.  If a young aristocrat deflowered the virgin daughter of a poor farmer who rented land from a gentleman, the grievance process might be more complex, as the dishonored farmer might be able to appeal to his landlord.  Of course, this did not help if it was the landlord who did the raping, which was common; law even allowed landlords to add a few years to the indentures of servant women who became pregnant.

Sex with non-virgins?  In the case of well-off, property holding widows, she would probably not be able to sue in a court of law, but might entice the cavalier into marriage, which, given the fact that he would now hold her wealth, was a good deal for him.  Sex with another man’s wife?  Not surprisingly, if the two men were of similar gentlemanly social standing, a duel would be in order.  If the dishonored husband was of lower social status, he might not be able to do anything beyond sue in a court of law, although the rapist’s gentlemanly honor might be called into question.

Sex with young, poor, single mothers who had no males to protect them?  Virtually no consequences whatsoever.  Unwed mothers were fined heavily under Virginia law, and essentially made social pariahs.  The rapist had obviously not stolen any assured paternity from anyone, since she was not a virgin.  Furthermore, given the aforementioned notion that conception required a female climax, the assumption was that this woman was a whore who had “asked” for her pregnancy, and thus wanted all future sexual contact with whomever attacked her.  She had no honor, had no honorable males to protect her honor, probably never would, and thus was a de facto prostitute, unable to consent for the rest of her life.

The point of this elaborate system is, once again, that rape in Virginia ONLY mattered if it threatened a man’s honor, whether it was the honor of blood (fathers and brothers), or by legal marriage (husbands).  If no males’ honor was threatened, predatory sex was a semi-socially condoned activity for virile young males, on par with fencing, boxing, or horseracing.

Now, on to slave women…

By definition, slaves (and, quite frequently, the few free blacks who lived in Virginia) had no honor.  Black women were assumed to be lascivious vixens who were constantly craving sex, and thus would and could never say “no.”  White men from William Byrd in the colonial period, to Jefferson during the Revolution, to Clarence King during the Gilded Age all wrote at great length about how black women were more passionate, emotional, and nurturing than white women. What they meant was that it was more socially permissible to sleep with black women than white women: black women wanted it.

Furthermore, black men could not legally marry, which both prevented husbands from defending their wives, and even made it legally impossible for fathers or brothers to prove that they were, in fact, related to their female relatives.  So, if a young Virginia cavalier raped a slave woman, he was only dishonoring her master; not her husband, not her father, not her brother, and most certainly not herself.  If he was the master, he was dishonoring no one.

Indeed, even the very fact that African slavery eventually became an inheritable condition in the 1600s was tied to masters sleeping with their slaves.  An old colonial law stated that, if a slave or servant woman gave birth while “bonded,” that baby would be sentenced to 30+ years of servitude.  In fact, if a free white woman gave birth to a black baby, that child would also be sentenced to the same term.  In turn, if that enslaved child was female, and became pregnant within the period of her servitude (usually by the master), her baby would suffer the same fate.  At a time when life expectancy of underclasses was barely 30, this was very much a life sentence, and it was all tied to the rape of servile women.



 Now we return to the case of Sally and TJ.  The point that I’m trying to make (and to break from academic language), is that this whole saga is, from our modern perspective, unabashedly dysfunctional and fucked up in ways that we cannot begin to comprehend.  It was also not that unusual for its time.  However, we simply cannot use modern terms or phrases– rape, consent, love, Stockholm Syndrome, force– to describe what was going on here.

Hemings was unfree– legally, socially, psychologically.  By 21st century standards she was coerced and raped by one of our Founding Fathers, who abused his status as a guardian, employer, and half-brother-in-law.  But by 18th century standards, Jefferson was NOT a guardian, employer, and certainly not her kin.  He was a master.  This dynamic was a fact of life, and was not limited to slave women.  ALL women, especially those in Virginia, were to some degree unfree, and NONE, regardless of their social class could ever legally say “no” to their master, whether that master was a plantation owner or a husband.

But Hemings had it unusually bad.  Not as bad as many other slave women, or even as bad as many poor white single mothers, but she was still more vulnerable than any legally married female.  Here is why: at any point in their decades-long relationship, whether as a scared, pregnant 15 year old, or an aging grandmother, Jefferson would have been within his legal rights to sell her, ensuring that she would never see her mother, sisters, children or grandchildren again.  This was a hanging axe that concerned few legally married white women in Virginia; most white women did not even need to worry about abandonment.  Divorce was difficult and costly in Virginia (and much rarer than in New England).  Part of the age-old agreement that white women entered into when they gave up their property and sexual freedom to their husbands was that they received security.  Sally (and thousands of other slave girls) did not even have that.

Or did she?  A fascinating scenario, undocumented but still plausible, is presented by Hemings biographer Annette Gordon-Reed, in which Hemings may have secured her future as much as any slave girl could.  1780s Paris was one of the world’s hotbeds for the emerging abolition movement, and most Parisians found slavery detestable.  Technically, slavery was illegal within the city. Jefferson– that Enlightenment celebrity whose words about universal human dignity and equality would soon spark the French Revolution– was incredibly stupid to have brought Hemings and her brother John into this city.  At any point in time, either of these slaves could have simply walked into any courthouse and pled for asylum– this happened not infrequently in Paris.  They could have gained their freedom, and made Jefferson and the new United States look very bad in the process.

But Hemings did not do this.  Perhaps it is because she preferred secure slavery to the prospect of being a teen mother in a French poorhouse.  However, it is very likely that the teenage Hemings approached Jefferson, and laid her cards on the table:

“Mr. Jefferson, I have the potential to destroy you, but I am pregnant and scared.  I will promise to accompany you back to Virginia, on the condition that you provide for me and our children, send my brother to culinary school, get him a job, and promise to free our children after our deaths.”

This is what happened through the rest of their lives.  Hemings’s entire existence depended on a promise from Jefferson, but he was a gentleman (both in the dysfunctional, male privileged sense that I’ve discussed here, but also in the nice, storybook fashion that most people think of when they hear the word.), and his promise was enough.  Though very few written records detail it, they lived a long life together, they probably loved each other, they continued to have a lot of sex, and Hemings wound up better off than nearly any other slave, and most underclass white women.

But unfortunately, this was not the case for millions of other women in the new United States, slave or free.  Jefferson’s idea of “All MEN Created Equal” gradually congealed into uniform constitutional law, universal white male suffrage, and democracy; social tiers collapsed, mastery ceased to be the opposite of slavery, as all white men reveled in their new freedom, their new mastery.  But they had merely traded the older, complex British hierarchy of tiered freedom, privilege, and social class for a more brutal, binary hierarchy of race and gender.  By the early 1800s, egalitarian Puritan and Quaker gender laws (women could vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807) had been subsumed by national standards of exclusive male suffrage and property ownership.  As the U.S. spread into the French Mississippi Valley, Spanish Southwest, and over dozens of Indian cultures, all of which had their own traditions of more permissive female property ownership and even sexuality, those ended, too.

And for slavery, part of the exuberance of this new nation was that any man, regardless of social status, could make his way in this new democratic capitalism.  This meant that slavery was no longer limited to outdated British concepts of gentlemanly conduct and noble obligation; it opened the doors for characters such as Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree, a tobacco chewing, barely literate clod who nonetheless had the privilege and right to buy black lives for profit, brutality and sex.  Jefferson’s revolution may very well have made stories such as his own and Hemmings’s less likely to occur.

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