What the Son Insisted

In part five of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider the recollections of Madison Hemings. (Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.) This particular document is better understood as a “recollection,” rather than a memoir, because it’s the product of an interview with S. F. Wetmore, editor of the Pike County Republican in Hemings’s new home of Ohio. Hemings spoke, Wetmore presumably took notes, and the result was a first-person piece that appeared in the paper on March 13, 1873.
Anyway, the reason “Life Among the Lowly, Number 1” is so important is because Hemings declares that Thomas Jefferson was his father and Sally Hemings his mother. He also details the story of Elizabeth Hemings, his enslaved grandmother, and John Wayles—her owner, Hemings’s father, and Jefferson’s father-in-law. If you know much about Sally & Tom, then you know about the promise Jefferson is alleged to have made her in Paris: accompany me back to Virginia and I will free any our of subsequent children when they reach the age of twenty-one. That story comes from Madison Hemings, too.
So is Hemings to be believed? Until around 2000, when the consensus began to shift, many historians wondered if Wetmore, a former abolitionist, had not put words into Hemings’s mouth. An editorial published in a rival newspaper said as much, while claiming that Hemings, like so many other African Americans, simply wanted to claim more illustrious parentage.
We’ll have that primary document published on the site soon, but in the meantime, read what Madison Hemings had to say and make a judgment for yourself.
IMAGES: Monticello (; a detail from “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1” by Madison Hemings, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873 (Ohio Historical Society); Sandra Seaton (top row center) and some descendants of Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings, at the Library of Congress, photo by Robert Barclay (Michigan Quarterly Review)


3 thoughts

  1. The story appearing in the Pike Co. Republican was severly trounced by the other Waverly newspaper. Annette Gordon-Reed chose not to print this opposition story in her latest book, “The Hemings of Monticello.” Your article does mention this article though.
    I did extensive research. as an assistant to Dr Foster on the DNA Study, and list a few items that your readers should be fully aware of. Madison’s claims, as written by reporter Samuel Wetmore, concentrated on just one claim that I deeply researched, but others are equally questionable.
    Madison is made to claim that he was named for James Madison upon the visit of Dolly Madison’s visit to Monticello on his birth, Jan. 19, 1805. This is a false statement. The Madison Papers state that the Madisons NEVER visited Virginia during the winter from Washington. The reporter sought to render further contempt for the white people in stating that Dolley promised a gift but never gave it because that is what white people did.
    There are several inaccurate statements but space and time limits make this impossible at this time. Does not the claim of “a guarantee promise” signed by TJ to Sally that all of her children would be freed at age 21 seem a bit odd and misleading? In fact TJ let Harriet II (age 21) and Beverly (age 24, what happened to that guarantee?) run away but NO formal freeing. Did TJ go back on his word?
    No, it is just a concocted story and was taken by Annette Gordon-Reed and others as fact and used in the official Monticello Study.
    This false and mishandled study was just used to further the Monticello changing atmosphere from “memorializing” Mr Jefferson to the present emphasis of the Getting Word Project there. This need for reconstructing history is explained on pg. 280 of Prof Peter Onuf’s book, “Jeffersonian Legacies.”
    Herbert Barger
    Founder Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

  2. Mr. Barger,
    Having read both of Annette Gordon-Reed’s books, it’s not clear to me at all that she takes Madison Hemings’s recollections as fact. In fact, here is what she says on page 58 of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings”:
    “Was Madison Hemings telling the truth when he said that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were lovers and that Jefferson promised his mother that their children would be free at twenty-one? Some might say definitely yes, others would say definitely no, and depending upon the time of day, I might agree with either position.”
    I think you should reconsider your characterization above. And as long as you’re interested in errors of omission, why mention Wetmore’s so-called “contempt for the white people” and not the Waverly editor’s far, far more egregious contempt for black people, who are compared to “scrubby” horse stock seeking to improve their pedigree?
    This is not meant to be a game of tit for tat, however. Our goal is to provide readers full and accurate transcriptions of the relevant documents, something you won’t find elsewhere online.
    Thanks, as always, for your feedback.


Leave a Reply to Herbert Barger Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.