The President and his girl
A new Merchant Ivory film reveals Thomas Jefferson's amazing love affair with his black slave girl. Chris Peachment reports
Sunday 11 June 1995
The devious workings of an ancient culture upon the upright puritan minds of Americans is a theme which has persisted through literature, down through Henry James to Hemingway in this century. And Jefferson was the first to succumb. He was not quite the puritan that John Adams was, but nonetheless he was profoundly shocked by the excesses of the French court.
Yet he was bewitched by the culture around him. He studied architecture, and later used his new-found knowledge in creating his beloved house at Monticello in Virginia, and for the state buildings of Washington. He witnessed manned ascents in balloons, he noted the workings of a propeller and wrote that it might serve better for screw propulsion in water. He was entranced by the invention of the sulphur match; he found time to write two volumes on the horticulture of Europe and America. He was also an accomplished violinist, and amassed over 5,000 pieces of music. When he returned to the States in 1789 he took over 80 crates of artefacts back with him.
In the States, Jefferson had been described by a relative as a man who "could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play a violin". Europe was to round the education of this Renaissance man.
But Jefferson had arrived in France in a state of some unhappiness. He had been married since 1772, very contentedly, to one Martha Skelton, who had borne him six children. Only two survived to adulthood, and after the death of the fourth in 1782, Martha succumbed to grief and prolonged illness. On her deathbed, Jefferson vowed never to re-marry.
Jedfferson was a rather chilly man, and it was said of him by a friend that "he was the most approachable, yet the most impenetrable of men, easy and delightful of acquaintance, im-possible of knowledge". In America he had buried his emotions. But, true to the spirit of the American in Paris, the sensuality of the older culture soon began to work upon him.
The affair he had in the city is surely one of the most bizarre liaisons ever undertaken by a US President, JF Kennedy notwithstanding. He had sent for his young daughter, Patsy, to keep him company, and she duly arrived in Paris accompanied by a 15-year-old slave girl, Sally Hemings. Sally had been bequeathed to Jefferson by his wife's father, John Wayles, one of more than a hundred black slaves who served Jefferson at Monticello. Wayles had been a slave trader, a profession Jefferson despised. Indeed he was staunch libertarian, who had only been prevented from banning slavery in the Declaration of Independence by the intervention of the southern states. But in Paris, he took Sally Hemings as his mistress and over the years had many children by her.
In fact Sally was the daughter of John Wayles by one his own slaves, and therefore was half-sister to Jefferson's dead wife. She was des-cribed as having olive skin, long straight auburn hair, and the bearing of a refined lady. Jefferson must have seen some resemblance between his wife and this beautiful girl. Since slavery was illegal in France he employed her in a privileged position in the house, and spent large sums of money on her wardrobe. 18 months after her arrival she became pregnant.
Jefferson gave her his sacred word that any children she bore him would be freed at 21. He also freed her two brothers, James and Robert, on his return to the States. Sally refused to stay in France, where she could have been free, and returned to America with Jefferson as his slave, living with him until his death. The sacrifice suggests the strength of her love for him.
That Jefferson took her as a mistress is still in slight dispute. It was Fawn Brodie's biography Thomas Jefferson; an Intimate History which first proposed the theory in 1974. But the original source of the story is rather more infamous.
In 1801, three months after Jefferson had been installed as the third President of the US, a journalist, James Callender, who had already fled a libel action in Britain, tried to blackmail him over his affair. When this failed, he wrote in a Federalist newspaper of the "wench Sally, by whom our president has had several children" and alluded to the eldest son, Tom, who bore such a resemblance to Jefferson that many later mistook them for each other. Soon Jefferson's opponents were singing a song to the tune of Yankee Doodle, which went:
Of all the damsels on the green,
Or mountain, or in valley,
A lass so luscious ne'er was seen,
As Monticellian Sally.
Yankee Doodle, who's the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock,
A blackamoor's a dandy.
It was the first ever public attack on the private life of a US president. Jefferson refused to reply, saying that the press was "impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood", but the scandal raged for two years. Jefferson's friends issued furious denials, which only fanned the flames. Interestingly, alone of all his friends, John Adams, under whom Jefferson had served as Vice-President, believed the smears.
It was not an uncommon practice in the South for slave owners to practice droit de seigneur on slaves. But to carry on an affair with a free black woman was to court disgrace. This may well be the reason that Sally continued in her slavery, in order to avoid ruining Jefferson's career. Installed at Monticello, she undertook the light duties of attending to his private chambers and wardrobe. This, along with her maternal duties, were her entire life for the next 35 years until Jefferson died. The third son born to them, Madison, wrote of his white father: "He was uniformly kind to all about him. He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman."
After the scandal broke, Jefferson's two daughters by his late wife pleaded with him to abandon his slave family, and even stopped visiting the house when he refused. True to his word, all five children were freed, properly educated by him, and allowed to leave Monticello and set up on their own elsewhere. Madison wrote of his elder brother: "Beverley went to Washington as a white man."
Yet Sally alone of all the family was never freed, because under the law this would have meant her leaving Virginia. After Jefferson's death in 1826, she lived on at Monticello for two years. Then, as previously arranged, she was freed by Jefferson's daughter Martha, and she joined other members of her family living in obscurity in a small house on the estate until she died in 1835 at the age of 62.
While in Paris, Patsy, Jefferson's daughter by his wife, had been placed in a convent, where he was assured that no attempt would be made to convert her to the Catholic faith. Alas, she fell under its spell, and she wrote to him requesting his permission to become a nun. The horrified Jefferson withdrew her immediately and ac-cused the mother superior of duplicity. She in her turn upbraided Jefferson by pointing out that America was supposed to be a country where freedom of religious expression was an inalienable right. Jefferson's reply to the mother superior can stand as a summation of all that is contradictory between the great man's impulses towards libertarianism and the perplexing way that such beliefs often collide with private conduct: "independence is not a plaything to be given to a child."
! 'Jefferson in Paris' opens on 16 June
THANDIE NEWTON: A STAR IS BORN
THE FILM may make a new British star. Thandie Newton (right) plays Jefferson's mistress, the young quadroon Sally Hemings, with a tenderness which belies her years. Newton is a 22-year-old now sitting finals in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, a subject she has fitted alongside an acting career - shades of Emma Thompson. Brought up in Cornwall, she is the daughter of an English artist and Zimbabwean mother. She has been acting since the age of 16 when a back injury quashed plans for a dancing career. First seen in the Australian film Flirting, she has specialised in slave girls: besides her role in Jefferson in Paris, she was Brad Pitt's ill-fated slave in Interview With A Vampire, and plays another slave in the forthcoming The Journey of August King. ''I hate the idea of slavery,'' says Newton. ''Still, I'm getting good at it.''
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