Thomas Jefferson and Illegitimacy

Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings is by now well known. Technically, the DNA tests of 1998 were inconclusive, but it seems likely the two had a relationship for 38 years and possibly as many as six ("illegitimate") children together. Certainly his contemporaries thought so. Below is a caricature attributed to James Akin, Newburyport, Massachusetts, from around 1804 - it shows Jefferson on the left and Hemings on the right.


What is more interesting, though, is the desire to deny their relationship, or hush it up, by the family, by historians and by Wikipedians. Why even bother? There may have been a relationship, there may not, but it is enough that they could have. Interracial relationships between slave-owning families and their slaves were common at the time, sometimes lasting for generations, so if Jefferson had a long term sexual relationship with Sally (his late wife's half-sister), and they had children, so what?

Jefferson's passionate assertion of American political legitimacy - independence from Britain - is consistent, in a way, with his likely "illegitimate" sexual relations. Not that I'm being critical here; but I am including in this his pursuit of married women like Elizabeth Walker and Maria Cosway. He was a rebel.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson portrait from 1791 by Charles Wilson Peale

It matters more though if Jefferson, the man who is said to have written "All men are created equal" (it is not a sure thing that he did), took a less than enlightened approach toward African-Americans and Native Americans. Many argue he did more than anyone else besides Lincoln to end slavery in the United States and this may well be valid. Certainly Lincoln thought so. We could even say, that the fact that his relationship with Sally Hemings was well known for decades to come, gave abolitionists some great ammunition.

Relatedly, Jefferson also pushed for more lenient laws regarding illegitimacy, with his influential 1785 Virginia statute. He undermined it by encouraging slurs on Alexander Hamilton's illegitimacy.

Others, though, are more skeptical, arguing that if Jefferson was such a great thinker, he displayed a conspicuous lack of moral courage when it came to race. For a truly scathing view of Jefferson's failings, check out Conor Cruise O'Brien's denunciation (here), particularly of Jefferson's terrible idea of deporting all black slaves and free Negroes once slavery was hypothetically abolished. Or there is Paul Finkelman's denunciation (here): "He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time... Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men." Historian Alan Taylor is similarly critical in his book, The Internal Enemy, in which the slaves (the "internal enemy") come across as more noble than the savage Virginian slaveholders like Jefferson.

Below are the burial grounds of unnamed slaves at Monticello.

Photo: Awadewit

How ironic then that the "Birther" controversy would erupt around President Obama, the US's first "mulatto" president, and his supposedly illegitimate birthplace and birth certificate.