by Kelly Wilkens
Sally Hemings was born in 1773 to her African American mother Elizabeth Hemings and her mother’s white master John Wayles. Sally was one of six illegitimate children, and she was half-sister to Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife. After Wayles’s death, Thomas Jefferson inherited the Hemings family and moved them to Monticello. This is where Hemings would spend most of the rest of her life. But Sally Hemings’s time in Paris changed the course of her life.
Thomas Jefferson was American minister to France from 1784 to 1789. Since his wife was dead, he took his oldest daughter to Paris with him, but left his two younger daughters in Virginia. While in France his youngest daughter Lucy, age three, died so he decided to bring his second daughter Polly, age eight, over to France as well. Sally Hemings, who was in her early teens, arrived with Polly at the Hôtel de Langeac in 1787, which wasn’t in line with Jefferson’s directions. Jefferson “had specifically requested that an older woman travel with her,” particularly Isabel, a slave who had had smallpox, making her resistant to the disease and establishing less of a chance for Polly to obtain it. (Gordon-Reed, Jefferson, 160). Jefferson decided to keep Sally in Paris mainly due to the relationship she had with Polly.
Throughout her time in Paris, Sally Hemings continued to serve as a slave to Jefferson. Sally spent most of her time in Paris taking care of Polly, doing other chores, and working alongside her brother James, who had arrived in France with Jefferson in 1785 (Newman 1). However, soon after her arrival, both she and James began to earn a small wage for their work. Since they were essentially free in Paris, Jefferson felt that paying them for their efforts was the right thing to do. Sally and James had a strong relationship, and it is likely that he showed her around Paris and taught her what he had learned when she first arrived. It is also possible that she benefited from a French tutor upon her arrival, who was employed to teach both French and English language and writing skills (Gordon-Reed, Jefferson, 163). She stayed with Madame Dupre for five weeks to learn how to be a French maid as well. The skills that she gained put her in a better position going back to Monticello, even though she was still a slave.
Sally Hemings “was considered to be very beautiful” and was “described as being almost white in appearance with ‘straight hair down her back’” by the slaves who worked on Jefferson’s plantation, as well as his grandson (Gordon-Reed, Jefferson, 160). However, no known portrait exists. If paintings or drawings were ever created, they were either destroyed or lost somewhere over the years. Some speculate that due to their kinship, Hemings and Martha Jefferson may have looked very similar which could have been a key factor in Jefferson’s attraction to Sally Hemings. With no actual writings by Jefferson or Hemings about their relationship, historians have relied on the writings of others, their knowledge of the times, and their imaginations to portray their relationship.
Speculation suggests that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began in 1788, approximately one year before they returned to Monticello, at which time Sally was pregnant. The occurrence was not hard to believe; Sally’s mother and grandmother had children by white men. But for Sally, there was a difference–freedom if she stayed in Paris. The fact that both Sally and James were free in France probably weighed very heavily in their decision about whether or not they should return to Monticello. In Sally’s son Madison’s memoirs, he states that James and Sally did threaten to stay in Paris once Jefferson announced their departure for Monticello. Madison believed that Thomas Jefferson took their feelings into consideration, and eventually made a deal: Sally’s children would be free and James would be free when he had trained a chef for Monticello. However, Annette Gordon-Reed “wonders whether [Sally’s] threat to stay in France for the sake of freedom was not, in the end, merely a ploy she used to get what she really wanted”, which was “to go home with assurances that she could expect a certain type of lifestyle at Monticello” and eventual freedom for herself and her unborn child (Hemingses, 352).
Sally Hemings, her brother James, and the Jefferson family left Paris in 1789 after the French Revolution began. The relationship between Sally and Thomas Jefferson continued until his death and produced four children who lived past a young age. While their relationship is still doubted by a few historians and some relatives of Jefferson today, the DNA evidence collected in the 1990s combined with the circumstantial evidence, which Annette Gordon-Reed compiled, gives the theory a strong standing (Newman 1). Whatever the truth of their relationship, there is little doubt that Sally Hemings’ life changed dramatically in Paris.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. Print.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997. Print.
“Jefferson’s Home in Paris.” Jefferson in Paris – 1784-1789: Ambassador before the Revolution. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2010. http://jeffersoninparis.com/parisinjeffersonseyes/parisintjseyespg2.html.
“The Memoirs of Madison Hemings.” Reprinted in Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997. Print.
Newman, Richard. “Hemings, Sally.” American History Online. Facts on File, 2010. Web. 8 Sept. 2010. http://fofweb.com/NuHistory/default.asp?ItemID=WE52&NewItemID=True.