Friday, June 23, 2017


Thomas Jefferson is revered for many things--the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the third president, accepted the Louisiana Purchase. and above all was thought to be a great liberal thinker.  There is one blemish on his record that now is hard to deny.  He likely had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave and fathered some children by her.  Almost over-whelming circumstantial facts plus some DNA evidence point to the likelihood of the relationship.  For many this is proof of hypocrisy.

Historical fiction has a dilemma.  Some things are known and cannot be ignored, but lots of things are not known that would help us to understand better.  There is virtually no records of their actual relationship nor even what Sally looked like so really everything is speculation.  A Picasso quote exemplifies the role of fiction, "Art is the lie that shows us the truth."

Stephen O'Connor couldn't resist and wrote "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," a fanciful speculation.  Was Jefferson a hypocrite?  History records much that demonstrates Jefferson was enlightened and sympathetic to blacks, but was very much constrained by the culture of the times.  When Jefferson was ambassador to France he took over or had sent some of his slaves and he paid them as they were technically free as France did not allow slavery.  When it came time to return they had the option to stay.  Supposedly Sally bargained for her unborn child to be free when turned 21.  Of course they all had family and friends back in Virginia and in reality were treated relatively well.

With over 600 pages it is intimidating to many of us, but it is easy to read as it is broken down in small segments.  It zips back and forth in time and gives a perspective from different angles.  How did the relationship get started?  what effect did it have?  how does Jefferson's personality align with cultural reality?  A curious world is anxious to fill in the many gaps

The author uses different tools including actual letters and records.  Over a range of chapters O'Connor has Jefferson watching a movie sometimes in the company of James Madison and his wife.  Long dead people express their feelings.  In reality we never can know the internal thinking process of actual historical people.  The reader is free to doubt the motivations, but they are interesting.

From my reading Jefferson is a very conflicted man, but also practical.  Not without stereotypical beliefs he advocated equality and took steps to reduce slavery.  His slaves were well treated by standards of the day even getting some trained in trade skills.  He seemed to be concerned what females wanted.  Above all he really was a Renaissance man who enjoyed philosophical discussions and took an interest in a wide variety of activities.  He also enjoyed inventing things, one of which is surprisingly a swivel chair.

He felt that for democracy to survive it required public education and freedom of the press.  He founded the University of Virginia doing the initial architecture and unlike most other universities it was centered on the library rather than a church.

Sex is obviously a driver for the reader.  The author stretches it out.  Thomas Jefferson had never had sex with a virgin  (his wife was a widow and he is said to have visited prostitutes) and Sally is portrayed as a naive 16 year old, thirty years his junior.  The author originally supposed the first sexual encounter was rape, but his research hinted that it might not have been.  In O'Connor's telling, their relationship develops as he tries to teach her to read and have philosophical discussions.  His first attempts result in rejection and fear and his supposed sense of decency creates a wrestling match inside his head.  Eventually they are regular sex partners and she gets pregnant while in France.

Sally is often portrayed as a loving partner, but also one who resented the inequality.  Although given a lot of "freedom", she was not really free.  In reality she probably could pass as a white, in fact her children did.  She realized she was a half sister to Thomas Jefferson's children by his wife and was related to other whites through her mother. but was not given their range of choices

Most of the writing is concerned with the time before Jefferson became president with emphasis on France and Monticello.  In Paris he was very close to Lafayette.  He distrusted both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and liked James Madison, but the reader is not offered too many political insights.

The book itself is not proof that an intimate relationship existed between the two.  The author accepts that such a relationship was very likely and fills in some of the gaps.  One would like to think their relationship was more than sexual, but there is very little concrete evidence.

For an idea of role of black slaves in the American economy and culture plus two interesting references to Thomas Jefferson:

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