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Sally Hemings Takes Center Stage

A new exhibit at Monticello tells her story through the words of Madison Hemings, the son of Sally and Thomas Jefferson.

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Sally Hemings’s and Thomas Jefferson’s fame requires that they be seen as symbols: she as an archetype for all enslaved women (and, therefore, utterly powerless), he as a stand-in for all who enslaved other human beings (and, thus, all powerful). To fend off people who doubt that slavery was indeed an evil institution, we are required to depict in the most general terms the vagaries of their individual lives and personalities, the quirks of their particular circumstances in their time, things that good history normally attends to: The law says this. So, therefore, this must have happened, or that could never have happened.

Madison Hemings did not see or write of his parents as symbols but as human beings living in a specific context. Sally Hemings’s negotiation with Thomas Jefferson, in a place where the law was on her side on the question of freedom, does not drain a single drop from the evil of slavery. Nor does Thomas Jefferson’s willingness to participate in this transaction absolve him of the moral crime of holding people in bondage. In fact, it mattered a great deal that Sally Hemings was the half sister of his deceased wife; this connection influenced the way he treated Sally Hemings and her family, a course of dealing he did not extend to other people enslaved on the mountain.

The law, the family connection and the personalities all provide insight into how these two people, in extraordinary circumstances, handled each other. Historians are supposed to notice and analyze details and make distinctions. Why bother researching if we are unwilling to allow ourselves to be surprised, informed and disabused of preconceptions about how a situation must have unfolded?
And then there is the question of family. People often tell me they think it’s ridiculous that Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and their children could be a true family. It is so far removed from what they think a family should be — an institution where the mother and father are “equal,” where the children are acknowledged by the father and receive his attention and patrimony — that it makes no sense to think of them as such.

But Madison Hemings, a product of a 19th-century slave society, clearly believed that he and his siblings and parents were a family.