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Tom and Sally
People always ask me, “Did they love each other?” As if I could know that. I can say I find it hard to believe that Thomas Jefferson would have had a purely sexual interest in Sally Hemings for 38 years. A woman for that length of time, seven children—there had to be something else. From her standpoint we don’t really know, except that before she died she gave her children things that had belonged to him. Some glasses, shoe buckles—she’d kept them.
Rape was endemic during that time period. But there were slave owners and slaves who did have sustained connections to each other.
You’re always looking for the hidden, crazy, obscure, bizarre piece of evidence, and often it’s something that’s right there, obvious. For me, it was the names of the children. I remember I had been up all night working on An American Controversy, and I was sitting in my office, and I thought, Wait a minute, these are strange names, and I haven’t paid attention to them.
All of Hemings’s children were named for people who were Jefferson’s favorite relatives or who were close to him. William Beverley, a distant relation, went with Jefferson’s father, Peter, on a surveying expedition; the two men carved their names together on a tree. Madison Hemings—that was James Madison, a friend of Jefferson’s. Harriet was the sister of Jefferson’s son-in-law, and a favorite of his. Thomas Eston Randolph was Jefferson’s first cousin, and Jefferson described their two families as one.
Sally Hemings had 12 siblings. When I pulled together the Hemings family tree, I noticed they named their children after one another. Sally was the only one who did not name any of her children for anybody in her family. All of her sisters had a Sally. When she had a daughter, it had to be Harriet. Harriet’s not a Hemings name; there was no James, no Eston. There were no other slaves on the plantation with these names.
Jefferson picked the names.
Annette Gordon-Reed is a member of the Harvard Law School faculty; her books include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), which garnered the Pulitzer Prize. This text was drawn and adapted from a talk she gave in Higgins 300 on September 12, sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and the Boston College Legal History Roundtable.