Although the prospect of Thomas Jefferson having fathered children with Sally Hemings, his slave, is now widely accepted, a few weeks ago I made a little discovery on the subject. As is often the case, it was largely a matter of happenstance. At the time I was skimming letters of Jared Sparks, an early editor of George Washington’s papers, for a recent blog post when I saw the following in a March 30, 1859, letter to William S. Randall :
As to the other mystery, I am exceedingly glad to see it explained. When I once passed a day at Monticello, I confess I was a good deal taken by certain resemblances among some of the members of the household. Your explanation seems to put that matter on the right footing.
While scanning the text “Monticello” caught my eye and the apparent subject of Sparks’ comments slowly dawned on me. As I discovered, Randall had just completed his three-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson and so was a logical person to consult on the matter. Indeed, it seems that Sparks had solicited his “off the record” opinion since the author hadn’t confronted the topic directly in his biography.
Naturally, I was curious how significant a revelation this was, largely because I wasn’t sure when speculation about the relationship had gained traction, aside from Annette Gordon-Reed’s now famous book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Admittedly, that betrays my ignorance but if you haven’t read Gordon-Reed, like me, you might not realize the suggestions have a considerable history. As it turns out, suspicions about paternity among Jefferson’s slaves had been simmering as early as 1802 when James T. Callender began publishing accusatory articles in the Recorder; or, Lady’s and gentleman’s miscellany, a Richmond newspaper.
Apparently, it was not an uncommon observation at Monticello as well; certainly Sparks himself noticed “certain resemblances.” Yet public consensus remained dubious, and a fairly long line of historians who dismissed the accusations followed, including Randall. Most felt assured the rumors were merely a concoction of political rivals, and later perpetuated by abolitionists while some even cast suspicion onto Jefferson’s nephews.
Surely bringing this letter to light isn’t a history-altering discovery but it does offer some nuance to the larger story about how we have come to accept that a revered founding father, and American president, could have been human. In their broadest function, Sparks words prompt us to think about how overly reverent scholars may easily shelter historical figures’ less glorious moments. We may already appreciate this as a matter of fact, and yet a periodic reminder can beget more reliable interpretations. It’s also somewhat curious given that a rather similar presidential paternity mystery has just been resolved!