Did Tom Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States father children by one of his black slaves, Sally Hemings?
Contrary to what you may have read or heard, there is zero, zip, zilch conclusive proof that he did. There is conclusive proof — via the DNA of one of Hemings’ descendants — that someone belonging to the Jefferson family, perhaps Tom himself, fathered at least one of Hemings’ children. But it is not a certainty.
The accusation first surfaced this week (Sept. 2) in 1802 in The Richmond Recorder, a Federalist newspaper that was openly hostile to Jefferson and his Republican Party. What’s more, this Recorder story was written by James Callendar, an unscrupulous hack-for-hire who had once been paid by Jefferson to malign the Federalists. Angered that President Jefferson had denied him a political appointment, Callendar promptly switched sides and began spreading rumors and gossip for the Federalists. Thus anything that Callendar wrote about Jefferson was of dubious veracity.
And yet there is a body of circumstantial evidence that supports Callendar’s charge. Not only was Sally young, attractive and light skinned, but also she was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha (Sally’s mom was the slave mistress of Martha’s father), who, before she died young, extracted a promise from Jefferson that he would never remarry. Given Jefferson’s relative youth and physical robustness, it is possible that he saw a relationship with Sally as a way to “square the circle” of honoring Martha’s request, yet still have a “conjugal” relationship with someone close in blood, body and spirit to his dead wife.
But perhaps the most compelling circumstantial evidence centers on the fact that, with almost clock-like regularity, every time Tom returned home to Monticello from one of his many trips, Sally produced a child approximately nine months later. In her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes, “Jefferson comes home for six months and leaves. Hemings bears a child four months after he is gone. Jefferson comes home for six weeks. Hemings bears a child eight months after he is gone. Jefferson comes home for two months and leaves. Hemings bears a child eight months after he is gone. This went on for fifteen years and six children. He was there when she conceived and she never conceived when he was not there.”
Then again, many other male members of the Jefferson clan — male cousins and a brother — hung out at Monticello when Tom was home, and didn’t when Tom was away. So Reed’s point that Sally only got pregnant when Tom was there would apply to those fellows as well. Interesting, even compelling, but to repeat, inconclusive.