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Wed Jan 9, 2013, 06:30 PM

Jefferson and Hemings.

I wrote this as a reply that got out of hand in another thread. I thought I'd post it here, too, for anyone who is interested in this topic. The DUer I was replying to remarked that Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. I couldn't exactly dispute it; but I counted fully concur either. So here's how I split the moral difference.

It's harsh, and problematic, to judge 18th century behavior by 21st century standards. I certainly see the case for calling the Jefferson-Hemings relationship de facto rape. Obviously, legally speaking, it was not. How much consent Sally Hemings had will never be known. Absent that, all we can do is project--it's not even guessing--what we think might have happened there.

Sally Hemings was not just a slave. She was also Jefferson's sister-in-law. Sally's father was also the father of Jefferson's beloved wife Martha. Upon Martha's marriage to Thomas, her mother compelled her father (John Wayles) to send off the little quadroon girl (Sally's mother was at least mulatto, and quite possibly more than half white) who reminded her of her husband's on going affair with one of his slaves. Sally, then just a child, became a gift to the newlyweds, and thus legally owned by her own sister. Gossips as she grew up liked to note how much she resembled Martha Wayles Jefferson.

There's a special sort of denial-of-the-obvious that has to go on in a slave-owning household, but deep in their guts the Jeffersons must have known they were in legal possession of blood kin.

After Martha's death in 1782, Thomas went into a deep depression. His horrible performance as war governor also played a part in his funk. His friends tried to buck him up, keep him busy. They returned him to Congress, where he worked on plans to develop the west, including keeping Ohio free of slavery. Next they sent him off to Paris to replace Ben Franklin as minister (ambassador) to France. Once settled there, he sent for his daughter to join him there. Sally, now a teenager, came along as part of the retinue.

While single in Paris in the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson dogged it up. His most serious dalliance was with a brilliant English actress, who also happened to be married. If I recall correctly, she was not the only Mrs. he dallied with. I'd have to look that up but I'm not around my books right now. But Maria Cosway, the actress intellectually stimulated him. See his Debate between the Heart and Head letter to her. He made a fool of himself for Mrs Cosway. Once he tried to impress her by hopping over a fence in a single leap. He was not an athlete. He stumbled and broke his ankle. Maria left him anyway.

It's probably about this time that Sally caught his eye, with her resemblance to his wife and her doubtless compliant character, what with her being a slave and all. She was also, alas, not as bright as her sister. Abigail met Sally and, probably not knowing the family dynamics, was thoroughly unimpressed with the girl. Whatever charms she held for TJ, it was not her scintillating wit. This, along with her race and lack of capicity to actually refuse sexual consent, sets Sally Hemings apart from most of Jefferson's other known paramours.

On the other hand, it's not like Sally wouldn't have benefited in some small degree from yielding to her master's* advances. A slave cannot hope for freedom, but she can aspire to more comfortable circumstances. Becoming the boss's bedwarmer would certainly afford her that, along with less work duties and the occasional bauble TJ might've lavished on her out of affection. Was the relationship coerced? At some implied level, almost certainly. And yet we have plenty of character witnesses in history recounting Jefferson as a gentle, introverted, brainy man. He had a track record for pursuing smart women.

But who knows, perhaps Jefferson himself was tired of the games the smart girls play. Perhaps Maria's come-hither-go-thither games burned him out. He was in his 40s when he took Sally as a mistress--well into middle age in that day--and quite the bumpkin at love. A simple lover and an uncomplicated affair can be quite a comfort to a man who needs sexual healing more than he needs the thrill of the chase. He was always a man who sought peace, harmony, and equilibrium in his other relations. He acquired no personal enemies in life, only political ones. He didn't suffer from "testosterone poisoning" as many sexual predators tend to do. He was a slaveowner, but hardly the possessor of an Ottoman harem. It seems unlike him to be a tyrant in his household, although for all that can be known we must always remember that absolute power has the capacity to corrupt absolutely even the gentlest human characters. At what is more absolute than the power to sell another soul down to a Carolina rice swamp over a lover's tiff?

If to Jefferson the children they had represented secret little octoroon joys, to Sally they might have also represented a kind of domestic insurance. But again, these are only stabs in the dark. My guess, as much idle speculation as is anyone else's, is that he sought the path of least resistance in taking his half-sister-in-law to bed, but didn't exactly need to threaten violence (beyond that which slavery entails) to close the deal.

People are complicated and, when slavery is a social institution rather than a simple felony, passing judgment on them from 200 years away is bound to folly.

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