Skip to main content

Jeffersonian Contvoversy and Character

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. By Annette Gordon-Reed. University Press of Virginia. $29.95. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. By Joseph J. Ellis. Knopf. $26.

Finding someone who doesn’t know that Thomas Jefferson is alleged to have had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings is about as likely as finding someone in America today who has never heard of O.J.Simpson. In both “cases,” race is a key issue when it ought not to be, and a controversy over DNA testing looms. O.J. blew his lie detector test; Jefferson never took one. And Law Professor Annette Gordon-Reed believes she may have located a figurative bloody glove near the ruins of the slave quarters on Monticello’s Mulberry Row.

Gordon-Reed is a provocative writer. Her book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, is captivating, thoroughly researched, in many places strong enough to shake the staunchest defender of Mr. Jefferson’s honor, in other places a disturbing reminder that defense attorneys are trained to represent their clients by introducing as many variables, appearing plausible, that can serve to redirect the jury’s attention. On most of the pages of her book, Gordon-Reed’s client seems to be Fawn Brodie, late author of Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), who first treated modern readers to the age-old allegations and created the new and irresistible Jefferson image of a man physically passionate and possessed with a revolutionary kind of love.

The first problem with the Jefferson-Hemings story is that it has become an allegory for modern America’s confusion over race mixing and a reflection of the general frustration over racial attitudes. But Hemings was three-quarters white and said to have been fair-skinned. The 18th-century racist, admitting his physical revulsion to any black-white union, would not have found Hemings sexually desirable if she bore any resemblance to her African heritage. The real Jefferson-Hemings question has to do with the less combustible but historically more accurate issue of class and gender: an elitist Virginia planter famed for statements about human equality may have bedded his female house servant.

Gordon-Reed skillfully addresses the key questions: Was the popularizer of the 1802 miscegenation charge, James T.Callender, the mercenary journalist who turned on Jefferson after being denied a patronage job, accurate in his writing? Was the statement of Sally Hemings’s son Madison to an Ohio newspaperman in 1873, claiming Jefferson as his father, contrived either by the interviewer or subject? Was Peter Carr, Jefferson’s favored nephew who had his run of the mountaintop plantation, the real father of Sally Hemings’s “white” children?

Historians, Gordon-Reed points out effectively, are prone to factual errors and misreading the record in order to protect an American icon. But is criticizing the work of past historians necessarily the same as tilting the balance toward the oral histories of the Hemings descendants and the imaginative renderings of Fawn Brodie? For one, characterizing Sally Hemings is problematic. Fifteen or 16 when she is said to have begun her long affair with Jefferson in Paris, she is alternately called his lover, a prostitute, a woman without choices, a woman with choices. Jefferson was present each time she conceived and she never conceived when he was not present—can this be mere coincidence? Jefferson bought her clothes—is this significant? Her children were freed—was there a quid pro quo? Lacking any new real evidence, the author indulges in fascinating—but highly speculative—meditations.

Sally Hemings named her children after people whom Jefferson respected or was connected to through his maternal relations. Gordon-Reed plants the idea that Jefferson helped in the naming, and in doing so was not patronizing his human property but caring about the names because these were his own children. In critiquing Carry Wills for writing that Hemings was “like. . . a prostitute,” Gordon-Reed presumes knowledge of the inner thoughts of both Hemings and Jefferson: “If Hemings were having sex during Jeffer-son’s absences, she would have been at high risk for getting pregnant, but she did not. Perhaps she was afraid that Jefferson would punish her if she became involved with another man.” In attempting to explain how a distraught Jefferson could have impregnated Hemings in 1804, at the age of 61, while waiting anxiously on his dying daughter Maria, Gordon-Reed invokes a knowledge of male sexuality that she presumes to be universal and timeless: “Human beings have sex for many reasons other than depraved lust. Humans have sex when they are happy and carefree. They also have sex when they are depressed and do not know how to express their feelings, or when they are frightened and need to be distracted.” Jefferson at 65 bought whiskey the week after Sally’s son Eston was born. Was this to celebrate Eston’s birth, the author asks, or simply for the slaves to celebrate the harvest? While offering choices, Gordon-Reed constantly reminds the reader that for every mundane possibility there is the alternative that involves Tom and Sally’s private world.

While Fawn Brodie’s unproven assertions are sometimes given the same weight as antiquarian sources, Gordon-Reed does not want her readers to have before them the equally compelling evidence that Jefferson was a man of self-restraint who, one could even say, was afraid of exhibiting passion. He shied from sexual humor and flirted with married women of his own class, while he disdained seductive lower class women who he feared might dissuade American men from their primary moral and intellectual pursuits.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that this reviewer has taken no prior position on the controversy. In my treatment, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, I place Jefferson within the republic of letters, examining the Virginian’s self-fashioning through his participation in 18th-century epistolary culture. The Hemings matter is of rather limited concern to a study of intellectual and cultural life, yet Gordon-Reed seems to want to brand me one of a new generation of Jefferson apologists. She uses what she calls my portrayal of “an extremely sensitive man who made deep connections to others and held fast to those connections” to suggest somehow that Jefferson would never have abandoned his beloved Sally Hemings while sitting in the President’s House, having (allegedly) fathered her children in the years before he became president. And this is meant to explain in part how, in his mid-sixties, the president could continue to have unrestrained sexual relations with his slave, ignoring his reputation in the years after the politically motivated charges surfaced, fathering two more children.

As Gordon-Reed has turned my words around to support her own position, perhaps the best critique of her detours from historical reasoning is to apply to Gordon-Reed generally her own evenhanded explanation of one of Brodie’s more glaring errors: “Although she must be commended for the seriousness with which she approached this topic, at times her zeal to solve this riddle led her to think things were much more mysterious and complicated than they actually were.”

Now this does not mean that Annette Gordon-Reed is wrong. The simple fact is that the respectable John Hartwell Cocke, who knew Jefferson well in his retirement years, wrote in his diary during the 1850’s that Jefferson had had children by a slave. While Cocke may have been assuming something not true, we cannot assume too easily that Cocke was in error either. Gordon-Reed often seems a bit too clever in her wordplay, but then she does strike close to home. She has made this reviewer squirm, which means that there may be some uncomfortable truths hidden in all the provocation.Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is a must read, a deft exercise in telling it like it may be, and it would be wrong to dismiss so robust an effort too quickly.

In contrast to Gordon-Reed’s virile Virginian, Joseph J. Ellis views his subject in American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson as a closet Utopian containing in his rather erudite skull various personae that do not communicate with one another. Ellis does not sympathize one bit with Jefferson’s humanity. The better he knows him, the more he finds Jefferson to be a slippery character, too smooth for his own good. This comes after the historian’s five delightful years writing Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993), poring through the equally voluminous private and public writings of the testy New Englander. Adams was the most direct (if grumbling) and eagerly self-revealing (if notoriously vain) figure of the Revolutionary generation. Compared with the crusty, voluble sage, the polished Sphinx, for Ellis, is unsatisfying.

American Sphinx is a book that John, John Quincy, and Henry Adams all would heartily approve. Yep, they’d say (if the collected Adamses could share Ellis’s insouciance), we recognize this shadow man. To the Adamses, and to Ellis, there is not just something effeminate, something indistinguishable, but some troubling mystery in Jefferson’s avoidance behavior. He imagined he could shape his country’s destiny with calm persuasion, with the charm and deftness of Benjamin Franklin (while notably lacking Franklin’s original wit), impelling others to carry out his wishes while he himself adopted the pose of a Taoist philosopher lacking in outward aggressiveness. The Sphinx was a political operator who expressed many contradictory ideas—some Utopian, some extremely pragmatic—while behaving as a man of harmonious purposes. This is what leads the author to ask: what was really going on inside him?

Ellis has answers, Jefferson was not a hypocrite but one who sincerely wished “to please different constituencies, to avoid conflict with colleagues. In other cases it was the orchestration of his internal voices, to avoid conflict with himself.” The “separate lines of communication” within Jefferson made honesty “a more complicated internal negotiation.” “Self-deception,” “psychological agility,” “deep distaste for sharp disagreement” all made Jefferson comfortable with the contradictions others saw as untrustworthiness—and historians continue to see as a deficiency. Trained as a lawyer, experienced as a diplomat, the cosmopolitan Virginian was yet a sentimentalist, one who could not countenance any ambiguity in life: “He had the kind of duplicity,” writes Ellis with classic irony, “possible only in the pure of heart.”

As to the inescapable Hemings matter, which Ellis terms “the longest-running miniseries in American history,” he says: highly unlikely. He states that “Jefferson consummated his relations with women at a more rarefied level. . . He made a point of insulating himself from direct exposure to the unmitigated meaning of both sex and slavery.” Once again, his powers of self-deception protected him from what really ought to have been going on, and “his urge to remain oblivious was considerably stronger than his sexual drive. “Today’s biographers, it would appear, need more courses in abnormal psychology to take on the torments—or in this case an inattentiveness to personal hangups—of past leaders.

What Ellis does not care to contend with is why Jefferson was beloved by so many in his own time. Did his famed skill with language represent an unusual commitment to noble ideals, or was it part of the craft, the self-promoting technique, of a man who could deceive the public as well as Ellis informs us he deceived himself? Did Jefferson merely court popularity? Risking a question that borders on praise, could Jefferson’s loving study of classical oratory and 18th-century rhetorical principle, have given him an innocent tool that translated into friendships and political success? Ellis does not want to touch that one. He identifies sentimentality but defies Jefferson to evidence a single, spontaneous moment. If he tried, though, Ellis might find the Jefferson Abigail Adams called “one of the choice ones of the earth,” a man who often soothed her temperamental husband.

It has become unfashionable to celebrate Jefferson’s humanism without expressing shock at his presumed moral failures, But Ellis does not fall into the trap which has lured so many agitated detractors in recent years. He raises disturbing possibilities, it is true. Sometimes he betrays his comfort with the conservative Adams position, which he sees as more politically and socially responsible, Jefferson’s as dangerous and destructive. For example, when Jefferson writes Yale’s Ezra Stiles in 1786, “If the happiness of the mass of people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even a little blood, it will be a precious purchase,” Ellis interprets such language as the “serene endorsement of popular resistance to government in almost any form.” On larger cultural issues, though, Ellis’s points are sharp. He fits Jefferson into the elite of a particular generation, as one of many who wore public disguises while convinced that they were sincere underneath; it was an age when self-exposure and self-promotion—what John Adams verged on— was considered gauche.

In terming Jefferson “America’s Everyman,” Ellis instructs us that we should be skeptical about even our most sagacious heroes. His book is apparently meant to persuade Americans that Jefferson, a transcendent figure crassly appropriated for all lands of political purposes, was not only a flawed man but a cagey political animal. And after complaining publicly that there are too many Jefferson books, Joseph Ellis is now telling us that there are too many Jeffersons.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading