Sally Hemings’s Parisian Affair

by Kelly Wilkens

Sally Hemings was born in 1773 to her African American mother Elizabeth Hemings and her mother’s white master and partner John Wayles.  Sally was one of six illegitimate children, and she was half-sister to Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s late 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.  Sally Hemings’s time in Paris changed the course of her life for the better, even if it was through scandal, eventually granting better lives for her children.

After the death of his youngest daughter Lucy at age three, Thomas Jefferson decided to bring his third daughter Polly, age eight, over to France.  Sally 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 her 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 doing 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 benefitted 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.  Hemings clearly benefitted from her time in Paris, and her 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 affair between Jefferson and Hemings began in 1788, approximately one year before they returned to Monticello.  The occurrence of the relationship was not hard to believe; Sally’s mother and grandmother were involved in similar relationships that produced children.  But the notion of freedom in Paris was also a factor.  The fact that both Hemingses were free in France probably weighed very heavily in James and Sally’s decision about whether or not they should return to Monticello.  In Madison Hemings’ memoirs, he states that James and Sally did threaten to stay in Paris once it was announced that they were to leave on short notice. He notes that Thomas Jefferson took this into consideration, and eventually made a deal that neither Hemings could refuse: 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).  The underlying circumstance that led to Sally and James’s return to America was that Sally was pregnant.  This may have led Jefferson to be more lenient in his negotiations.

Sally Hemings, her brother James, and the Jefferson family left Paris in 1789 after the French Revolution began.  The affair between Sally and Thomas Jefferson continued until his death and produced four children who lived past a young age.  While the affair 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 provided by biographers over the years gives the theory a strong standing (Newman 1).  Whatever the truth of their relationship, there is little doubt that Sally Hemings benefitted from her time in Paris through education and wages that she received.

Works Cited

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.‌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.‌NuHistory/‌default.asp?ItemID=WE52&NewItemID=True.


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One Response to Sally Hemings’s Parisian Affair

  1. Vlcs says:

    Sally’s mother ‘Betty’ was bi-racial being the child of a white sea captain and an African slave mother. May explain Jefferson’s genetic race calculations. Based on 2 known descriptions of Sally, she was white with long straight dark hair. If her mother was mixed, her father white then Sally was one qtr black and her kids with Jefferson being 1/8th black so if they also looked white (and reportedly they did with red hair, freckles, etc) at that time, passing would have been easier for them. What determines our race-our physical appearance, our DNA, the race of our parents & grandparents-all of the above? Hard question.

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