Sexual Liberties of Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in London in 1786 (Library of Congress); Portrait of Maria Cosway by her husband, Richard (Museo Nacional de San Carlos).

As a young man studying law in Williamsburg, Thomas Jefferson was admittedly shy and tongue tied around members of the opposite sex. One of his first serious girlfriends as a college kid was a Yorktown heiress named Rebecca Lewis Burwell (Tom called her “Belinda” for some reason). Jefferson spent most of 1763 swept off his feet by her, but unfortunately he could rarely talk to her except in “broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length.”[1]

His friend Jack (Jacquelin) Ambler then swooped in and claimed Rebecca as Jack’s main squeeze. When Jack and Rebecca announced their engagement in 1764,[2] Jefferson got hit with one of his disabling migraine headaches, which he got every time a stressful or tragic event happened to him.

Betsy Moore – John Walker had been almost lifelong friends with Jefferson. They both went to James Maury’s private school, then the College of William and Mary. In January 1764, Jefferson was still in a funk about the engagement of Rebecca Burwell to Jack Ambler. But now, John Walker told Tom that he was engaged to the pretty, young Elizabeth Moore (“Betsy”). John asked Tom, of course, to be “the friend of my heart”[3] and “one of my bridemen”[4] in the wedding. The ceremony took place in June 1764, and John and Tom stayed in touch for the next four years. But by 1768, John Walker, a rising star in Virginia politics, was asked to assist for a few months with a delegation’s Indian negotiation at New York’s Fort Stanwix. Walker, in looking out for his wife and their baby girl, made out a will naming Thomas Jefferson “first among my executors.”[5] Once Moore was gone, Jefferson began looking in on Mrs. Walker … and it sounds like Tom may have made some (polite, but unmistakable) moves on Betsy. She resisted, but John Walker noticed that, for a while after, Betsy was always a little uncomfortable around Jefferson. Tom just didn’t take “no” for a real answer, and once on another visit, he “renewed his caresses”[6] on Betsy, by slipping a written note into her gown’s sleeve describing “the innocence of promiscuous love.”[7] Mrs. Walker tore the note up. Jefferson still didn’t get the hint, so later at a plantation house party given by John Coles, the women all said they were retiring for the night.[8] Jefferson feigned a headache and said he was also turning in. But instead, Tom found Betsy’s bedroom where she “was undressing or in bed.”[9] Apparently nothing really happened then either, but then this was a story that wouldn’t go away.

In 1800, at the beginning of the Jefferson presidency, the sparing between the Republicans and Federalists had been brutal and bloody. The Federalists were still smarting from the opposition resurrecting the stories about Washington not being loyal during the war and of Hamilton’s affair. So James Callender, the muckraking newspaper guy who “outed” Hamilton’s affair, decided to get even with Jefferson for not giving him the position of Richmond postmaster. With the help of John Walker (now a Federalist), he published the now-thirty-year old story about Jefferson seducing Walker’s wife. Jefferson sort of ‘fessed up: “You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady.”[10]

In 1802, Callender also published “well known”[11] stories that Jefferson had fathered several children with the young Monticello mulatto slave Sarah “Sally” Hemings. According to family lore, Sally had been present when Mrs. Jefferson, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, died an early, tragic death after six pregnancies. On her deathbed, Martha made Thomas promise he would never remarry because she couldn’t die happy knowing a stepmother had raised their children (as a child, Martha had experienced such a situation with a mean stepmother). Jefferson promised, and then passed out from the stress of her death. For three weeks, he wandered the grounds in a daze and with constant migraines. Thomas slowly recovered with the help of his children and friends. He jumped back into public life and accepted President Washington’s nomination as United States Minister to France. The widowed Jefferson brought daughters Martha (“Patsy”) and eventually Maria (“Polly”) to Paris to live with him, along with two enslaved servants – James and Sally Hemings[12].

Maria Cosway – while living in Paris in 1786, Jefferson became extremely attracted to the sophisticated, beautiful, and talented Euro-star Maria Cosway. But, Maria was married … to a pretty strange guy, Richard Cosway, who at twice her age was shorter and squattier than Maria. Richard’s usual dress was wearing outfits like “mulberry silk coats embroidered in scarlet strawberries – and purple shoes.”[13] For obvious reasons, Maria was equally attracted to someone like Thomas Jefferson who didn’t look like an idiot. They began to spend every day for weeks together, touring the Parisian gardens, fountains, pavilions, and shady paths. Dining at the Royal Palace and watching the nightly fireworks together. Jefferson came out of his depression from his wife’s death and seemed very happy again. This is in spite of leaping over a “fence in the Petit Cours”[14] one day with Maria and dislocating the bones in his right wrist.[15]

When Maria had to leave to go back to London on October 5, 1786, Jefferson wrote her that he was sorry, but he couldn’t see her off. “I have passed the night in so much pain that I have not closed my eyes. It is with infinite regret therefore that I must relinquish your charming company for that of the Surgeon whom I have sent for to examine into the cause of this change. I am in hopes it is only the having rattled a little too freely over the pavement yesterday.”[16]

Maria sent him a very sympathetic note back: “I am very, very sorry indeed, and [missing words] for having been the Cause of your pains … it will be with infinite pleasure I shall remember the charming days we have past together, and shall long for next spring. You will make me very happy …” [17]

When she was gone, Jefferson wrote the strangest “love letter” ever – writing with his left hand, of course. It was less a confession of love and more a rational conversation about the pros and cons of love – with a married woman. He wrapped it within a famous discussion between the heart (love) and head (logic). It might have been very cerebral, but didn’t exactly fan the passion flames with Maria, with his phrases like, “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals …”[18] When she returned the next year, it was a bit of a distant relationship between the two, but Jefferson hadn’t given up. In 1787, he went on a business trip to southern France, although it seems it was equally as much to visit the famous healing waters of south France for his wrist. “I have great anxieties lest I should never recover any considerable use of it. I shall, by the advice of my Surgeons, set out in a fortnight for the waters of Aix in Provence.”[19] Jefferson wrote poetic lines to Maria of what he had seen in France and Italy: “Imagine to yourself, madam, a castle and village hanging to a cloud in front.”[20]

But by the end of September 1788, it was over. “I am going to America, and you to Italy. The one or the other of us goes the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong which leads us farther apart.”[21] Jefferson offered to show her such American views as “the Natural bridge or the Falls of Niagara”[22] if she came to visit. She never did. Her husband soon died and she moved to a small Italian village where she opened a girl’s convent.

Sally Hemings – Jefferson and his two daughters, along with James and Sally Hemings, sailed back to Virginia. Technically, the Hemings were freed slaves after spending so long in Revolutionary France. But Jefferson promised James his freedom back home if he trained his brother, Peter Hemings, to the same level of culinary expertise that James had attained in Paris (Jefferson kept this promise). He promised Sally to free her four children if she returned also (Jefferson also kept this promise).[23] So began the story of Thomas Jefferson’s “decades-long liaison with Sally Hemings.”[24] Did Jefferson or didn’t he have sexual relations with Sally Hemings? No letters, diaries, or journals can tell us. But maybe science will. Or has.

It’s been a centuries-long controversy. However, the groundbreaking work of Annette Gordon-Reed in her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family used the 1998 Y-DNA[25] findings to establish that “a male in the Jefferson line had fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children.”[26] Worded differently, it “showed a match between a descendant of the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son. It showed no match between the Carr line and the Hemings descendant, nor between the Jefferson line and Thomas Woodson descendants, who had an oral history of descent.”[27] After the Y-DNA results came out, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation did an intensive, academic study of the available evidence. In January of 2000,

the committee reported  that the weight of all known evidence – from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data – indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children listed in Monticello records – Harriet (born 1795; died in infancy); Beverly (born 1798); an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy); Harriet (born 1801); Madison (born 1805); and Eston (born 1808).[28]

One examiner disagreed and wrote a minority report. The link to both reports is in this article’s Note 28.

Then, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (a completely different group from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) came out with a study in 2001 (revised in 2011) that came to completely different conclusions, after examining the same evidence:

namely that Sally Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life and that it is very unlikely he fathered any of her children. This committee also suggested in its report … that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph (1755-1815) was more likely the father of at least some of Sally Hemings’s children.[29]

In 2012, in a joint exhibit at the Smithsonian, The National Museum of American History and Monticello presented a showcase entitled Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty. And so it goes. Historian Joseph J. Ellis reflected, “”The alleged liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may be described as the longest-running miniseries in American history.”[30]

 

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Page, October 7, 1763, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0005), accessed February 11, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 11–12.

[2] Jacquelin and Rebecca Ambler were married in Yorktown in May 1764. Jefferson did not attend the wedding.

[3] Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, Jefferson and His Time, vol. I, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1948), 449.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Distances between plantations in the south were so great that very often guests spent the night(s) at the home of the host following parties.

[9] Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 449.

[10] Ibid, 448; Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, (Random House, 2012), 40.

[11] Michael Durey, With the Hammer of Truth: James Thomson Callender and America’s Early National Heroes (Charlottesville, VA., 1990), 157-158.

[12] Sally Hemings was the enslaved half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

[13] Thomas Fleming, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 297.

[14] Also referred to as “Cours-la-Reine,” in Paris of the day, it was the concourse or promenade which extends along the Seine westward from the Place de la Concorde; L.G. Le Veillard to William Temple Franklin, Sept. 20, 1786, in Notes, Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 5, 1786, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0297), accessed February 23, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, 431–433.

[15] Expense records show Jefferson paid twelve francs to “two Surgeons” to reset his wrist bones. But it wasn’t successful and Jefferson suffered pain in his right hand for the rest of his life. Basically, from 1786 to the end of his life, his daughter, Maria, said he could only write with his left hand.

[16] Jefferson to Cosway, October 5, 1786, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0297)., accessed February 24, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, 431–433.

[17] Cosway to Jefferson, October 5, 1786, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0298)., accessed February 24, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, 433.

[18] Ibid., 391.

[19] Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0095)., accessed February 24, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 1 January–6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 92–97. Aside from the healing waters, the trip would allow Jefferson “an opportunity of examining the canal of Languedoc and of acquiring knowlege of that species of navigation … it will enable me to take the tour of the ports concerned in commerce with us.”

[20] Jefferson to Cosway, July 1, 1787, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0435), accessed February 24, 2016. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 519–520.

[21] Jefferson to Cosway, 26 September 1788, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0513), accessed February 24, 2016). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 13, March–7 October 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 638–639.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Jefferson did not however, free Sally in her lifetime. Upon Jefferson’s death, his daughter Martha gave Sally “her time”, which was a form of freedom which allowed her stay in Virginia. State law of the time said if a slave was freed, the slave had to leave the state within a year. Sally then, reportedly, was able to live with sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville, until her death in 1835. Her gravesite location is unknown.

[24] Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, 522-523.

[25] The Y chromosome of DNA was used because Thomas Jefferson had no sons (direct male heirs).

[26] Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, 522.

[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson%E2%80%93Hemings_controversy (accessed February 21, 2016).

[28] https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account . The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Final Report can be accessed here: https://www.monticello.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/jefferson-hemings_report.pdf . The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Minority Report can be accessed here:

https://www.monticello.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/minority_report.pdf

[29] https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account

[30] http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/jefferson/ (accessed February 21, 2016).

 

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10 Comments

  • I believe “Belinda” is a literary allusion. Belinda is the gorgeous heroine of Alexander Pope’s epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock.” (1712) She is so beautiful that “every eye was fixed on her alone.”

    • Thank you, Seldon. In regards to Rebecca Burwell, you very well might be right about where Jefferson’s source for “Belinda” originated; knowing Jefferson’s familiarity with the poetry and the popularity of Alexander Pope in his day. Thank you for sharing that contribution.

  • The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Foundation is flat out completely wrong. Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings and that was well known in the area at the time. Annette did her research very, very well. She made a great case for the relationship and the facts support her conclusion.

    Herbert Barger of the TJHF has tried numerous times to reject the relationship, but his conclusions ignore the fact that Randolph could not possibly be the father of all of Sally’s children whereas TJ could. Also, TJ only freed his children and members of the Hemings family. No other slaves were ever freed by him.

    • Jimmy Dick – your feelings are valid and state some of the evidence for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Because Jefferson had no direct male heirs, the only thing the DNA evidence (taken from an uncle, Field Jefferson) could was two things: it ruled out centuries-held family rumors that the Carr nephews or Thomas Woodson were the fathers of some or all of Sally Hemings’ children. They were not. And it confirmed a male Y-chromosome of a Jefferson lineage person fathered Eston Hemings, born in 1808.

      On the flip side, in 1808 there were 25 male Jeffersons in Virginia and records show some visited Monticello. As you know, the TJ Heritage Society purports that Randolph Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings. The TJ Foundation (using the same evidence and same intricate records examination) had said there was a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father. To me, it’s important that Monticello also presents both sides, but it seems to side with the latter, accepting the Foundation’s conclusions, and with Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking, voluminous work “The Hemings of Monticello”.

      Thank you for commenting on this controversy. For people reading this, I’m passing along a great, short Monticello page – an examination of the evidence with bullet points of facts. They excellently sum up the story.

      https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account

  • Unfortunately, we will probably never know the exact details of what took place between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. What we do know is that Sally Hemings had a certain number of children of which all the living ones were either freed directly by Jefferson via his will (Madison and Eston) or allowed to escape (Beverly and Harriet). Her other children died (2) died in infancy. The first child born was conceived in Paris.

    Keep this in mind. Under French law Sally Hemings did not have to return to Virginia with Thomas Jefferson. Nor did her older brother, James Hemings. Under the new laws of France, both were free persons. Both could support themselves in France too. James was trained to be a French chef during his time in Paris and became quite good. He spoke French and Sally was learning French (at least the French of Paris!) via instruction. Why did both of them return to Virginia and slavery?

    I think she had an arrangement with Jefferson. Even though he was older than her, that was not an unusual situation in that time. Nor was the idea of a white slave owner sleeping with his slaves. That was a well known and established practice. Consider the way Sally Hemings was treated. Annette Gordon-Reed covered it in her book. It was hard to say that Sally was treated like a regular slave. Consider how her brother was treated. He came and went as he pleased except when summoned by Jefferson to cook for him. He was also freed by Jefferson which was rare.

    Back to the “escaped” slaves. Jefferson always sought to recapture slaves that ran away. Not in the case of these two. They were allowed to escape and even provided some funds to establish themselves not as free blacks, but in white society.

    The TJHS has done a huge job in trying to cast doubt on the facts and has promoted the idea of Jefferson’s brother Randolph as the father of Sally’s children. They have failed to provide conclusive evidence of Randolph as the father of the children. This has been done in my opinion as an attempt to maintain an image of Jefferson that is a false image. He was a man of his time. He owned slaves. He slept with Sally Hemings and had a long term relationship with her and fathered children with her. The evidence revealed by Annette Gordon-Reed is pretty hard to refute.

    Why is it so hard to accept Jefferson as the man he was instead of some infallible deity? He made all kinds of mistakes. He was a hypocrite over and over again. He would write one thing and do another. He had some great ideas. He could not put them all into practice. He had plenty of bad ideas as well. He was a good president and a bad president. Just because he fathered children with one of his slaves doesn’t mean we stop examining Thomas Jefferson’s ideas, writings, or world.

    In fact, it really shows Jefferson the man, not the deity some would have him be.

    • Howard, I read your hilarious blog on Jefferson’s wrist mystery. So we agree on two bone-breaking facts – first, that TJ broke his wrist in a fall, but never said exactly what he was doing before the fall. Conjecture runs from jumping over: a fence, a fountain, a pile of logs, a tea pot, or any one of those “follies”. Or as Tom summarized, “… having rattled a little too freely over the pavement yesterday.”

      A saved letter from Jefferson to Maria Cosway has writing on the verso in Maria’s own handwriting, “This letter was writing [written] when Mr. Jefferson was Envoy from America at Paris in 1785 [1786] with his left hand having sprained his wright [right] by a fall. Maria Cosway.” (Historians also point to the letter as the first manuscript written by Jefferson in his left hand).

      In a letter dated 20 Sep. 1786, Louis-Guillaume Le Veillard (a gentleman servant to the French King) wrote to William Temple Franklin, “Day before yesterday Mr. Jefferson dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the ‘Petit Cours.’” How did Le Veillard know about Jefferson jumping over a fence? He never said. Jon Meacham, in “Thomas Jefferson – the Art of Power” also speculates, “… perhaps a faux-heroic leap over a fence…” But you are correct, we truly do not exactly know what he was doing before the fall.

      Secondly, we also both agree that quite likely he was with Maria Cosway at the time of (as Jefferson wrote) “une chute” (“a fall”). That, and because the same day [5 Oct. 1786] Maria in sympathy, wrote back to TJ that “I am very, very sorry indeed, and [missing words] for having been the Cause of your pains in the [night]… You repeatedly insisted it would do you no harm. I felt interested and did not insist…”

      What did Jefferson insist he could do and that it wouldn’t harm him? “I bet you I can jump over that [blank], Maria!” seems like it could have been the preceding statement. But alas, we will never know for sure. We just know he hit the ground, broke his right wrist, was embarrassed, and said it was a “long story” and didn’t want to talk about it. Oh well.

      Thanks for your note, Howard, and for the link to your blog!
      John

    • One can’t help but wonder if this incident represents the origin of that famous phrase “head over heels”… or perhaps “@ss over teakettle”.

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