Letter from Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868)


In this letter, dated June 1, 1868, the biographer Henry S. Randall writes to James Parton about the longstanding rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by his enslaved house servant Sally Hemings. Randall argues that the rumors are false, citing his own interviews with Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph.


Courtland Village, N.Y.

June 1, 1868

Dear Sir

The “Dusky Sally Story”—the story that Mr. Jefferson kept one of his slaves, (Sally Hemings) as his mistress and had children by her, was once extensively believed by respectable men, and I believe both John Quincy Adams and our Bryant sounded poetical lyres on this very poetical subject!

Walking about mouldering Monticello one day with Col. T. J. Randolph (Mr. Jefferson’s oldest grandson) he showed me a smoke blackened and sooty room in one of the collonades, and informed me it was Sally Henings’ room. He asked me if I knew how the story of Mr. Jefferson’s connexion with her originated. I told him I did not. “There was a better excuse for it, said he, than you might think: she had children which resembled Mr. Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins.” He said in one case that the resemblance was so close, that at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might be mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.—He said in one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all. Sally Henings was a house servant and her children were brought up house servants—so that the likeness between master and slave was blazoned to all the multitudes who visited this political Mecca.

Mr. Jefferson had two nephews, Peter Carr and Samuel Carr whom he brought up in his house. There were the sons of Mr. Jefferson’s sister and her husband Dabney Carr that young and brilliant orator, described by Wirt, who shone so conspicuously in the dawn of the Revolution, but died in 17—. Peter was peculiarly gifted and amiable. Of Samuel I know less. But he became a man of repute and sat in the State Senate of Virginia. Col. Randolph informed me that Sally Henings was the mistress of Peter, and her sister Betsey the mistress of Samuel—and from these connections sprang the progeny which resembled Mr. Jefferson. Both the Henings girls were light colored and decidedly goodlooking. The Colonel said their connexion with the Carrs was perfectly notorious at Monticello, and scarcely disguised by the latter—never disavowed by them. Samuel’s proceedings were particularly open.

Col. Randolph informed me that there was not the shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or any other instance ever had commerce with his female slaves. At the periods when these Carr children were born, he, Col. Randolph, had charge of Monticello. He gave all the general directions, gave out their clothes to the slaves, etc., etc. He said Sally Henings was treated, dressed, etc., exactly like the rest. He said Mr. Jefferson never locked the door of his room by day: and that he (Col. R.) slept within sound of his breathing at night. He said he had never seen a motion, or a look, or a circumstance which led him to suspect for an instant that there was a particle more of familiarity between Mr. Jefferson and Sally Henings than between him and the most repulsive servant in the establishment—and that no person ever living at Monticello dreamed of such a thing. With Betsy Henings, whose children also resembled him, his habitual meeting, was less frequent, and the chance for suspicion still less, and his conexion with her was never indeed alleged by any of our northern politicians, or poets.

Col. Randolph said that he had spent a good share of his life closely about Mr. Jefferson—at home and on journeys—in all sorts of circumstances and he fully believed him chaste and pure—as “immaculate a man as God ever created.”

Mr. Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Mrs. Gov. Randolph, took the Dusky Sally stories much to heart. But she never spoke to her sons but once on the subject. Not long before her death she called two of them—the Colonel and George Wythe Randolph—to her. She asked the Colonel if he remembered when “— Henings (the slave who most resembled Mr. Jefferson) was born.” He said he could answer by referring to the book containing the list of slaves. He turned to the book and found that the slave was born at the time supposed by Mrs. Randolph. She then directed her sons attention to the fact that Mr. Jefferson and Sally Henings could not have met—were far distance from each other—for fifteen months prior to such birth. She bade her sons remember this fact, and always to defend the character of their grandfather. It so happened when I was afterwards examining an old account book of the Jeffersons I cam pop on the original entry of this slaves birth: and I was then able from well known circumstances to prove the fifteen months separation—but those circumstances have faded from my memory. I have no doubt I could recover them however did Mr. Jefferson’s vindication in the least depend upon them.

Colonel Randolph said that a visitor at Monticello dropped a newspaper from his pocket or accidentally left it. After he was gone, he (Colonel R.) opened the paper and found some very insulting remarks about Mr. Jefferson’s Mulatto Children. The Col. said he felt provoked. Peter and Sam Carr were lying not far off under a shade tree. He took the paper and put it in Peters hands, pointing out the article. Peter read it, tears coursing down his cheeks, and then handed it to Sam. Sam also shed tears. Peter exclaimed, “arnt you and I a couple of — pretty fellows to bring this disgrace on poor old uncle who has always fed us! We ought to be — by —!”

I could give fifty more facts were there time, and were there any need of it, to show Mr. Jefferson’s innocence of this and all similar offenses against propriety.

I asked Col. R. why on earth Mr. Jefferson did not put these slaves who looked like him out of the public sight by sending them to his Bedford estate or elsewhere—He said Mr. Jefferson never betrayed the least consciousness of the resemblance—and although he (Col. R.) had no doubt his mother, would have been very glad to have them removed, that both and all venerated Mr. Jefferson too deeply to broach such a topic to him. What suited him, satisfied them. Mr. Jefferson was deeply attached to the Carrs—especially to Peter. He was extremely indulgent to them and the idea of watching them for faults or vices probably never occurred to him.

Do you ask why I did not state, or at least hint the above facts in my Life of Jefferson? I wanted to do so, but Colonel Randolph, in this solitary case alone, prohibited me from using at my discretion the information he had furnished me with. When I rather pressed him on the point he said, pointing to the family graveyard, “You are not bound to prove a negation. If I should allow you to take Peter Carr’s corpse into Court and plead guilty over it to shelter Mr. Jefferson, I should not dare again to walk by his grave; he would rise and spurn me.” I am exceedingly glad Col. Randolph did overrule me in this particular. I should have made a shameful mistake. If I had unnecessarily defended him (and it was purely unnecessary to offer any defense) at the expense of a dear nephew—and a noble man—hating a single folly.—

I write the currente calamo, and you will understand that in telling what Col. R. and others said, I claim to give the precise language. I give it as I now recall it. I believe I hit at least the essential purport and spirit of it in every case.

Do you wonder that the above explanations were not made by Mr. Jeffersons friends when the old Federal Party were hurling their missiles at him for keeping a Congo Harem! Nobody could have furnished a hint of explanation outside of the family. The secrets of an old Virginia manor house were like the secrets of an Old Norman Castle. Dr. Dungleson, and Professor Tucker had lived years near Mr. Jefferson, in the University, and were often at Monticello. They saw what others saw. But Dr. D told me that neither he nor Professor T. ever heard the subject named in Virginia. An awe and veneration was felt for Mr. Jefferson among his neighbors which in their view rendered it shameful to even talk about his name in such a connexion. Dr. D. told me that he never heard of Col. Randolph talking with anyone on the subject but me. But he said in his own secret mind he had always believed the matter stood just as Col. Randolph explained it to me.

You ask if I will not write a cheap Life of Jefferson of 600 pages, to go into families who not purchase a larger work. I some years ago commenced such a condensed biography. I suspended the work when the storm of Civil War burst over the land. I have not again resumed it. I may yet do so hereafter—I have been strongly urged to the work by a prominent publishing house, and if I find time I may again mount my old hobby.

I must again express my regret that I cannot send you a fine autograph letter of Mr. Jefferson on some interesting topic—but I am stripped down to those his family expected me to keep. But I send you some characteristic leaves—one from his draft of his Parliamentary Law.

Very truly yours,

Henry S. Randall

June 1, 1868
Henry S. Randall writes to James Parton a letter recounting his conversation with Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, in which Randolph asserts that Peter Carr, not Jefferson, was the father of Sally Hemings's children.

Will and Codicil of John Wayles (1760, 1772–1773) Letter from Elizabeth Wayles Eppes to Thomas Jefferson (October 13, 1784) Letter from James Currie to Thomas Jefferson (November 20, 1784) Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes (August 30, 1785) Letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 26, 1787) Letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 27, 1787) Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis (April 12, 1792) “The President, Again” by James Thomson Callender (September 1, 1802) “Our massa Jefferson he say” by Anonymous (September 1, 1802) Editorial from the Frederick-Town Herald (December 8, 1802) Will and Codicil of Thomas Jefferson (1826) Will of Martha Jefferson Randolph (April 18, 1834) “Life of Isaac Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia, Blacksmith” by Isaac Jefferson (1847) Letter from Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge (October 24, 1858) “Mr. Jefferson’s Blooded Stock”; an excerpt from The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862) “Mr. Jefferson’s Personal Appearance and Habits”; an excerpt from The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862) “Mr. Jefferson’s Servants”; an excerpt from The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862) “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1” by Madison Hemings (March 13, 1873) Editorial in the Waverly Watchman (March 18, 1873) “Life Among the Lowly, No. 3” by Israel Jefferson (December 25, 1873) Letter from Thomas Jefferson Randolph to the Pike County Republican (ca. 1874) Hemings-Jefferson DNA; an excerpt from “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child” by Eugene A. Foster, et al. (November 5, 1998)

APA Citation:
Randall, Henry. Letter from Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Randall, Henry. "Letter from Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 28
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