Thomas Jefferson’s Mixed-Race Children

You may be aware of the historical controversy over Thomas Jefferson’ seven children with Sally Hemmings. Many historians, for many years, insisted he did not sire them, and even after DNA evidence was introduced, insisted they were sired by Jefferson’s nephews.

We have evidence the nephews were not where they would have had to have been at key times — they were off managing their own plantations — and Jefferson was, but even so, imagine Jefferson sitting night after night at the dinner table with the mother of his nephews’ children.

Besides that, everyone at the time knew they were Jefferson’s children, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, everybody, and he never denied it. The historians who have defended his chastity over the years have pretty much made themselves look ridiculous.

I always held it against Jefferson that he did not free his own children, even in his will, but in making that judgment, I may have been losing sight of my grandmother’s admonition, “Was ya there, Charlie?’

There’s a brilliant article in American Heritage, June 1972, (before the definitive DNA evidence came in) by Fawn M. Bodie, which does a lot to set forth the facts in the case. And her scholarship has certainly led me to reassess my negative judgment of Jefferson.

When Sally Hemmings, at the age of 15, got pregnant by Thomas Jefferson, she was in France. She did not have to return to the United States if she didn’t want to, and she knew it. Thomas Jefferson wanted her to, and he made a deal with her that her children would be freed when they were 21.

The reason the children weren’t legally freed was that as free blacks they would no longer be allowed to live in Virginia. Bodie’s research shows that all of Sally Hemming’s children were allowed to run away and were not pursued.

Remember, Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. Jefferson’s father-in-law had made no secret of it. Her children were three-fourths Caucasian.

That meant they were able to ‘pass’ as white and could stay in Virginia. For the full story, we have the wholly truthful narrative of Sally Hemmings’ son.

I was wrong to judge Jefferson as I did; he was carrying out his end of a deal cemented in Paris in 1788. So always remember: If you’re making a moral judgment about any family that’s not your own, ask yourself, “Was ya there, Charlie?”

And while we’re at it, why can people be half Italian and half Irish but never half black or even one fourth black? Just asking.