The rumors about President Thomas Jefferson’s affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, started while he was in office in 1802. It had been a disgruntled journalist – once an ally of Jefferson’s but later an embittered enemy – who set the ball rolling with articles in the Richmond Recorder.
That journalist, James T. Callender, wrote, “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps – and for many years past has kept – as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally.” The article went on to mention Jefferson by name, in case any of his readers were in any doubt about who “the man” referred to actually was.
Jefferson was 58 years old when these allegations were published in September 1802. He had also been president since March 1801 – a position he was to hold through two four-year terms. But the eminent American had already earned his place in the history books by that point; he was one of the Founding Fathers, after all, and had been the lead author of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1772 Jefferson had also wed 23-year-old Martha Wayles. She was his third cousin and a widow, and by all accounts the marriage was a loving one. Martha subsequently gave birth to six children, although only two reached adulthood; they include her first-born, also Martha, who is pictured here.
And after marriage, Jefferson and his young wife lived in a small cottage on the 5,000-acre Monticello plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. The future president would ultimately build a grand mansion, however, in the Classical Revival style. As was normal practice in Virginia, the estate land was worked by African-American slaves, while other enslaved people tended to Jefferson and his family in the great house.
Jefferson had inherited the land at Monticello from his father, Peter, after Peter’s death in 1757. He had been only 14 when his father had passed away, however, so he had had to wait until he was 21 before he took control of the estate. Also included in Jefferson’s inheritance were 52 slaves; he and Martha were bequeathed another 135 slaves when her father, John Wayles, died in 1773.
So, here we have the central contradiction of Jefferson’s life. Undoubtedly, he opposed slavery and actively campaigned for its abolition. He had also been the person who had written the immortal words, “All men are created equal.” Yet the Founding Father was himself a slave owner and remained one until his dying day. And as we shall see, this contradiction is thrown into even sharper focus by his relationship with Sally Hemings.
Then in 1782 tragedy struck the man who would become the third president. After having perhaps been debilitated by childbirth, Martha died at just 33 with her husband at her side. And, unsurprisingly, Jefferson was deeply affected by the loss of his wife.
Jefferson spent the weeks after Martha’s death riding deep into the countryside, often accompanied by his eldest child. Tellingly, Jefferson’s wife had made a death plea with him never to remarry as she could not stand the idea of another woman bringing up her children; he, in turn, obeyed her wish.
But although Jefferson was never to wed again, that did not mean that his life was without romance. Although the claim was a controversial one for many years, most historians now accept that Jefferson had a long-lasting affair with Sally Hemings. Indeed, she had six children by him, proved through DNA testing of the descendants of those children – some of whom are pictured here.
Who was Sally, though? Well, sadly, while no confirmed images of her exist today, we do nevertheless know quite a lot about her – and some of her story is quite astounding. Sarah “Sally” Hemings was born into slavery in approximately 1773 to a woman named Betty. Betty’s parents, meanwhile, were Susanna – who had arrived in America from Africa as a slave – and a British ship’s captain called John Hemings.
And the original owner of Sally’s mother Betty and grandmother Susanna was one Francis Eppes IV. When he died, his daughter Martha Eppes then inherited the two women and employed them as personal slaves. Martha subsequently married John Wayles, who was the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha.
After that, Wayles took Betty as his mistress and fathered six children with her – the youngest of whom was Sally. And as we’ve already seen, the Jeffersons inherited 135 slaves from Wayles when he died in 1773, with one of them again being Sally.
So, the astonishing fact is that Sally was a half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Then, after Martha’s death, Sally became Jefferson’s mistress. We can only speculate, however, as to whether Jefferson’s attraction for Sally was partly caused by her relation to the grief-stricken widower’s late wife.
And when Sally came into the ownership of Jefferson in 1773, she was but a babe in arms. Her childhood was spent on the Monticello plantation, in fact. Neither she nor any of her siblings worked in the fields, though; instead, they were given positions as craftsmen of various kinds or as house servants. Sally herself would become a servant.
Yet while we cannot know precisely when Jefferson’s relationship with Sally started, there is perhaps a clue to be had. From 1784 Jefferson spent time in France as an American envoy; and, while there, he decided that one of his daughters, nine-year-old Maria, should join him in Paris. But she would need a companion for the journey, and so Sally was chosen for the role at the age of 15 or 16.
Consequently, Sally spent more than two years in Paris. If she had chosen to, she could have left the Jefferson entourage to be a free woman, since slavery was abolished in revolutionary France. Nonetheless, she later returned to Monticello and a life of slavery. Sally’s son Madison would go on to claim that she had in fact become pregnant by Jefferson in Paris.
So, in 1789, Sally returned once again to the Monticello plantation. It’s been said that Jefferson enticed her to Virginia with the promise that any children she had would be freed from slavery when they reached the age of 21.
Sally lived out the rest of her life in Monticello, working as a maid and seamstress. She died in 1835 at the age of 61 or 62, living to see all her children freed from slavery – although she herself was never a free woman as far as we know. And until 2017, it was believed that no trace of Sally remained at Monticello. That year, however, a extraordinary discovery was made: the Monticello room where Sally had lived.
The tiny room – measuring just 13 feet by a little less than 15 feet – dates from 1809 and is in a wing of the Monticello house next to Jefferson’s bedroom. It’s currently being restored and will be open to the public when work is completed. And of the find, Monticello’s director of restoration, Gardiner Hallock, told NBC News, “This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room.” Now, at last, Sally Hemings’ life at Monticello has a contemporary physical presence.