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Was Jefferson Guilty?

July 2024
1min read

On September 1, 1802, the Richmond, Virginia, Recorder; or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany , asserted that President Thomas Jefferson “keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY . The name of her eldest son is TOM . His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”

Thus did the editor of the Recorder , James Callender, create a mystery that continued to haunt American history for the next 188 years. The accusation tormented Jefferson and his family during their lifetimes. It resurfaced in the 187Os, reinforced by Sally’s descendants, who claimed she told them Jefferson was their father. After being dormant for another half-century, it became a public issue again in the 1950s, when J. C. Furnas in his best-selling Goodbye to Uncle Tom flatly declared Jefferson guilty. By the late 1960s, when debunking America became a national obsession, this conclusion was accepted in many quarters as an established fact.

This much is certain. Sally Hemings (or Hemmings), herself a mulatto, lived at Monticello and had five mulatto children, several of whom had reddish hair and some resemblance to Jefferson. In private, Jefferson denied his guilt several times but never made a public statement. In my opinion, the reason for his silence was, first, Sally Hemings was the illegitimate daughter of his wife’s father, John Wayles, and, second, the father of Sally’s children was Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr, who grew up at Monticello and was a virtual son to Jefferson.

The question of Jefferson’s guilt or innocence has become more than a merely historical mystery. As a Jefferson biographer I have received letters from high school students and teachers, some black, others white, who view the assertion with enormous symbolic weight. For blacks, many of whom presume Jefferson’s guilt, it is a paradigm of white betrayal. Feminists also lurk on the fringes of the debate. I think the question is sufficiently serious to warrant the appointment of a committee of scholars from the Society of American Historians or some other leading historical organization who would attempt to determine with all the authority the facts can muster where the truth lies—and publicize the conclusion vigorously.

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