The Jefferson Paradox: 168 Words

John Trumbull, “Presenting the Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” 1818.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Clause deleted from the Declaration of Independence

Fans of Broadway shows may recognize those opening words–he has waged cruel war– and hear a lush breeze of violins rise in a syncopated “beautiful waltz” in a song about molasses, rum, and slaves. Slavery was nearly abolished as an American practice–at least, it was proposed to be abolished by Thomas Jefferson before the country became these united states.

But Jefferson also owned slaves and fathered children with one of them, who was 15 when the relationship began. The statesman who argued so passionately for the morality of individual liberty did not entirely practice what he preached. There are nuances worth examining in this paradox, little-known facts that should be included in the conversation. To either stick him on a pedestal just because he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” or join the ubiquitous bands of protesters pulling down statues just because he was a slave owner seems overly simplistic. If we are going to judge historical figures, we should include as much of the picture as we know.

Portland has already opted to topple Jefferson, the slave owner. Photo by Joy Bogdan.

Persons of a Distant People

The affair between Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings has been referred to as one of the “longest running miniseries in American history.” The “alleged liaison” between Jefferson and Hemings was long denied by historians and Jefferson’s descendants, although asserted by Hemings’ children and great-great-greats. A DNA test ultimately done in 1998 suggested a more than 99% likelihood that the Hemings descendants were fathered by one of the Jeffersons. While some still argue that doesn’t prove Thomas was the father, most skeptics, including the holdouts at the Monticello Foundation, now support the claim.

Much of the information about Sally herself was written by her son Madison. Most slaves were not taught to read or write, and, if Jefferson did have a long relationship with Hemings, it did not appear to include any formal education. But details that Madison provides paint a world even harder to understand than that a 42-year-old had a child with a 15-year-old.

Start with Hemings’ grandmother, Parthenia. She was an African woman taken as a concubine by Captain Hemings, on a ship he sailed regularly between England and Williamsburg. Yet when Parthenia became pregnant, the captain acknowledged the daughter Elizabeth (Betty) as their issue, so perhaps there was affection there. He tried to purchase mother and daughter from Parthenia’s Virginia owner, John Wales. But Wales would not sell. Madison Hemings said that the captain even tried to take his daughter from the estate by force, but Wales thwarted those plans, and not because Wales felt Betty was valuable:

…for slave masters then, as in later days, had no compunctions of conscience which restrained them from parting mother and child of however tender age, but …just about that time amalgamation began, and the child was so great a curiosity that its owner desired to raise it himself that he might see its outcome.

Madison Hemings’ memoirs, reprinted in 1873.

Amalgamation refers today to corporate mergers, but Madison is talking about the mixed race of his grandmother, Betty. Wales was three times widowed and married, and Betty had children from a relationship (i.e. marriage to) another slave. Yet Wales must have found Betty’s “amalgamation” satisfied his curiosity because, at age 26, she gave birth to the first of six children by John Wales. Thus, by the time Betty’s daughter Sally Hemings was born in 1773, she was half-sister to Wales’ 25-year-old daughter, Martha Skelton. Who later became Martha Skelton Jefferson.

So, Sally Hemings was a third-generation concubine, which makes it no less heinous but shows how appallingly commonplace it was. She was also the sister of Jefferson’s dead wife, Martha. Martha, depicted as young, pretty, and waltzing in the musical 1776, died after only ten years of marriage to Tom, trying to give birth to the Jefferson’s sixth child. For Tom to take up with Sally, his wife’s sister (“half-sister” so many historians quickly emphasize), wasn’t entirely uncommon. Henry VIII married his dead brother’s wife, after all. But of course, Jefferson and Sally Hemings would never marry.

Jefferson’s older daughter went with him to Paris, when he was sent as ambassador in 1784. Shortly afterwards, he brought his other child to France, and Polly (born Maria), arrived with her 14-year-old maid, Sally. Because slavery was not practiced in France, Sally was considered a free woman and paid a wage. Although only there 18 months, she became pregnant with Jefferson’s child. When Thomas was called to return home, she wanted to stay (no sh*t Sherlock!). Sally was three-quarters European, which meant her children would be seven-eighths European. They would have been legally white, even in Virginia; they would have been white and free in France. Still, Jefferson persuaded her to return, promising to free any of their children when they turned 21, a promise he honored.

Political cartoon depicting Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 1802. Photo from wikipedia.

Scandal Begets Scandal

Sally Hemings eventually had six children with Jefferson, four of whom survived. Their relationship came to light as a political scandal in 1802, by James Callender, a pamphleteer, what we’d call today a “political operative.” Callender was the one who exposed Hamilton’s relationship with Maria Reynolds. At Jefferson’s urging, Callender also published pamphlets denouncing Jefferson rival John Adams, who had the scandalmonger prosecuted and found guilty under the Sedition Act. After Callender got out of jail and Jefferson was voted in as President, the pamphleteer wanted a cushy job as postmaster. When he didn’t get it, he began spreading rumors about Jefferson’s long relationship with his slave.

Numerous accounts describe Sally and her siblings as white in appearance, with long flowing hair, even though in the drawing, she is depicted as dark-skinned, wearing a turban, all the rage in French fashion. Jefferson as coq is not only a barnyard analogy, but also meant to evoke the Gallic Rooster of the French Revolution. Scandal or not, Hemings stayed with Jefferson until his death in 1826; she was freed by his surviving daughter, Martha.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact that Jefferson did not free the other slaves he owned, even after his death, although that was because he died in debt. A large part of the debt had come from his amalgamation-curious father-in-law, John Wales, and the rest was due to Jefferson’s spending habits and mismanagement of his estate. By the time he died, Jefferson owed more than $2 million in today’s currency ($107,000 in 1826). The estate couldn’t free what they didn’t own.

This Execrable Commerce

Still Jefferson, for most of his political career, railed publicly and privately against slavery. His most famous attempt to legislate abolition was the 168 word-clause arguing against slavery in the draft of the “Declaration” presented to the Continental Congress. The anti-slavery passage was intended to be placed among the list of grievances against the king, along with quartering British troops in American houses and taxation without representation.

One curious part of the 168 words is the complaint about the king “exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” Jefferson is referring to the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, who offered freedom to slaves who joined the British army in an attempt to incite a massed rebellion within the state. Some of Jefferson’s slaves became runaways, so however much his moral purist heart was hurt by the cruelties of the peculiar institution, his pocketbook was also directly attacked by Dunmore’s offer.

Ultimately, Jefferson miscalculated with the anti-slavery clause. South Carolina and Georgia, whose economies thrived because of the “free” labor, would not sign any document with such wording included. Other states were not as vocal, but were likely also not keen on the language. New England shipping fortunes were built on the slave trade and slavery was not illegal in many northern states. Wealthy families of New York, like the Schuylers whose daughter Alexander Hamilton married, owned slaves. (Hamilton was no abolitionist, whatever his other contributions to history.)

Cartoon portraying Jefferson and Franklin discussing the “Declaration” draft. Alamy stock photo.

The drama of the removal of the anti-slavery passage is the pivotal scene in the movie 1776, though I have often wondered whether Jefferson was gaslighting his southern brethren. Surely, he must have known that he’d not get away with a passage that undercut their livelihood in addition to his own. Adams, that political junkyard dog, must have been aware. Was it a ploy to put it in just as a bargaining chip to take out? Perhaps I’ve watched too much House of Cards; nothing Jefferson wrote afterwards suggested that was the case.

Viva La Liberte! Viva La Revolution!

Jefferson returned to Virginia and continued trying to enact anti-slavery legislation. In 1778, he persuaded the Virginia Legislature to ban the importation of slaves, the first state to do so. As the territories expanded, he proposed in 1784 to prohibit the expansion of the practice in new states, a proposal never taken seriously. At the same time, Jefferson did not support immediate emancipation. He also wrote of the inferiority of black slaves, while still espousing the notion that it was a crime against nature for human beings to be put in chains. In later years, he stopped pushing for the end of slavery.

Jefferson’s lofty ideas about the theoretical pursuit of liberty were at odds with his role as slave owner. He was ever a devout francophile, enamored with the French Revolution, from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror. His political rivals, Adams and other federalists, were appalled that he saw almost a religious act in the bloodbath: “The mobs and murders under which [the revolutionaries] dress this fact are like the rags in which religion robes the true god.”

Jefferson’s political rivals believed he supported anarchy, and political cartoonists had their own field day depicting Jefferson–the original Antifa–as pulling down the Federalist institutions.

Political cartoon 1801, “Mad Tom in a Rage.” Alamy stock photo

It is thus ironic to see Jefferson the radical, debtor, moralist, writer, idealist, architect, and slave owner now pulled down off the pedestals. Perhaps Jefferson’s ghost is behind them all, helping to knot the ropes around the statue of one who embodied so many of the practices he criticized.

4 Replies to “The Jefferson Paradox: 168 Words”

      1. Me too. I just wanted to read up a little on the anti slavery clause but i had 5 screens open on Sally Hemings before I knew it. We thought our politics was crazy! Thanks for the comment.

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