Thomas Jefferson is certainly on the short list of the greatest of our Founding Fathers. He did not even want the fact that he was our third president on his tombstone. Instead, he believed other achievements, such as his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, were more important. Certainly, the words of the Declaration of Independence, in which he boldly proclaimed that our rights come not from government, but from God, are the foundation of our country.
But the ugly accusation that he fathered at least one child, and probably several, by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, has damaged his historical reputation. This attack is certainly part of the broader assault upon the reputation of the Founders, which is designed to diminish support for the principles of limited government upon which the nation was established.
The charge is not new, however, going back to the days when Jefferson resided in the White House, when a man of questionable reputation, a known political enemy infamous for his vicious smear tactics, first leveled the accusation.
For decades, however, historians routinely dismissed the charge as baseless, but then in 1976, historian Fawn Brodie presented the case in her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History that Jefferson began an affair with Sally while he served as America’s minister to France in the 1780s, when Sally was still a young teenager. Brodie even argued that Jefferson was actually referencing Sally’s smooth Mulatto contours in his 25 pages of notes from his 1788 tour of France and Germany. While Jefferson specifically used the term “mulatto” to comment on the soil of the hills and valleys of the two countries, Brodie insisted that it was code for his mixed-blood concubine.
While Brodie implied that Jefferson took young Sally with him to France when he assumed his ministerial duties, the facts are that he first went to France in 1784. Sally, on the other hand, did not arrive in France until 1788, when she accompanied Jefferson’s nine-year-old daughter, Polly. Writing in his Thomas Jefferson: A Life, Willard Sterne Randall explained why. She was sent to be a nanny for Polly, and Randall notes Sally was “worthless” in that role, being only 13 herself.
“When Jefferson used the term mulatto to describe soil during his French travels, Sally was still on a ship with Polly,” Randall wrote. “If he had ever noticed her or remembered her at all, Sally had been only ten years old when Jefferson last visited Monticello hurriedly in 1784 to pack James Hemings [her brother] off to France with him.” Jefferson had not even lived at Monticello in the two years prior to that, since shortly after his wife’s death. “Unless Brodie was suggesting that Jefferson consoled himself by having an affair with an eight-year-old child, the whole chain of suppositions is preposterous.”
The Origins of the Smear Against Jefferson
Yet, this was the beginning of the affair, according to James Callender, the man who originated the smear. Callender enlisted in the new Republican Party launched by Jefferson to combat the political views of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Callender was among those jailed for violating the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to write or publish false or scandalous material about certain high-level government officials. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he pardoned those who had been convicted under the odious law.
But a pardon was not enough for Callender. He expected to be rewarded with a post mastership from Jefferson, but that did not happen. Whereas before, Callender had used his specialty of smearing political opposition against the Federalists, he now targeted Jefferson. In the Federalist newspaper The Richmond Recorder, published in September 1802, Callender wrote, “By this wench Sally, our president has had several children.” Callender even claimed that one child, Tom, closely resembled Jefferson.
While Jefferson never publicly responded to the charges directly, in 1805 he did write Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith that he was “guilty” of only one charge made by his political opponents. He told Smith that he had attempted a courtship of a married woman before he married his late wife. Because of the romantic nature of the admission, it can be fairly presumed that Jefferson denied any other sexually related scandal, especially one involving his slave.
Callender had incorrectly asserted that Sally went to France “in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson.” Because of such inaccuracies, Callender’s sleazy reputation, and his obvious motives for revenge, most professional historians largely dismissed the accusations until Brodie resurrected the story in 1976. Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone said it was amazing that any real scholar could give serious consideration to Brodie’s thesis.
This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.