Yesterday we published our entry on Sally Hemings. Part of a larger section of content on Thomas Jefferson that you can read about here, it is a long-ish and I think thorough account of both her life and the controversy surrounding the children she is supposed to have had by her famous master. It was written by Virginia Scharff, author of The Women Jefferson Loved (2010) and Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico. But the entry does not represent Scharff’s (excellent) work alone; it was vetted by a number of top scholars, including Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, who recently retired as Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian, and J. Jefferson Looney, editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Retirement Series.
The result? I think this is the best introduction to Sally Hemings that you can find on the web, free or otherwise.
A few quick notes about the entry:
- You’ll find almost twenty primary-source documents linked in the entry—images and transcriptions that in many cases you will find nowhere else on the web or even in print. These include the letters of Abigail Adams (here and here) describing a young Sally Hemings, the recollections of Hemings’s son Madison, and the famous newspaper article accusing Jefferson of having a concubine. You’ll find these documents mentioned in various places, but nowhere do you find all of them transcribed and/or completely and accurately transcribed.
- We considered breaking the entry into two: what we know about Sally Hemings (very little) and what we know about the scandal regarding her children’s paternity (almost too much). But we thought it valuable to provide a single place where readers could be introduced to the full picture.
- One of our scholarly readers worried that too much in the article could be considered speculative. Our goal was to present many of the stories in circulation about Hemings—e.g., the handbell supposedly given to her by her half sister Martha Jefferson—and contextualize them with what the historical record says or doesn’t say on the subject. This is more helpful, I believe, than not mentioning them at all.
- The entry asserts that the current historical consensus is that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children. We aren’t interested in proving that this is true, and there seems little likelihood that we’ll ever know for sure or that all of us will ever agree. The entry’s goal, especially with its linking to primary sources, was to provide a transparent introduction to the way in which historians have viewed and now view the subject.
So read the entry and let us know what you think. And, in the meantime, a big thank-you to our contributor and to our readers. We are grateful for their time and effort.
IMAGES: Two paper dolls—“Topsey” (left), McLoughlin Bros., publisher, 1863, and “Sally Hemings” (right) by Donald Hendricks, Legacy Designs, 2000—from the Smithsonian exhibit 200 Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson, photo by Steven M. Cummings; Experimental Beds 5 by Judy Watson (2012); from “The President, Again,” by James Thomson Callender, published in The Recorder; or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, on September 1, 1802; a detail of Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson) from the series All the Presidents’ Girls by Annie Kevans (2009); detail from “Life Among the Lowly, Number 1,” Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873 (Ohio Historical Society); cropped detail of Thomas Jefferson by kamilya on Worth1000.com