Thomas Jefferson Honors Promise to Dying Wife... Sort Of (But creates a brood of Illegitimate children with Slave mistress Sally Hemmings
When Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha, was dying in 1782, he promised her that he would never remarry. He kept his promise, but you could say he found a loophole.
Though Jefferson never admitted it, many at the time knew that he had shacked up with his house slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered 6 children with her. Sally, who was 1/4 black, was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. It was common at the time for men to sleep with slaves, but it was still a scandal. Especially since Jefferson himself had written in 1814 that "[t]he amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent."
Sally Hemmings was the slave mistress of President Thomas Jefferson. There is a possibility that she is buried on her son's property which is currently the site of a Hampton Inn parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Her mother was a slave named Elizabeth (Betty) Hemmings and her father was allegedly John Wayles who was Thomas Jefferson's Father In Law. Technically, Sally and Jefferson's late wife, Martha were half-sisters. Sally's Mother was also of mixed racial heritage. She was the daughter of a white sea captain and an African Slave. Thomas Jefferson inherited Sally and her mother as part of his father-in-law's estate. There are no portraits of Sally Hemmings but it was speculated Sally looked more white than black. A resident slave remembered her as "mighty near white. . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back."
The story is that 14-year-old Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson's daughter Mary to France to join her father on a diplomatic mission. It is speculated that a relationship between Hemings and Jefferson began at this time. Sally became pregnant. Technically, she could have stayed in France as a free woman but how does a pregnant teenager fend for herself. Jefferson agreed to free the child at the age of twenty one. Sally returned to the United States with Jefferson.
All together, Sally Hemings bore three daughters and three sons. Two daughters died in childhood. It was obvious that the Hemings children were fathered by a white man. and closely resembled Thomas Jefferson. All of Sally Hemings's children were freed on or about their 21st birthdays. They choose to pass as white and married into white families. The stories passed down by the Hemmings family through the generations identify Thomas Jefferson as the father of the Hemmings Children. DNA evidence proves that at least one of the children may have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson. At the very least there is a genetic tie to Jefferson's family.
This became a public scandal when a disgruntled political opponent brought the relationship to the media. Jefferson chose not to dignify the attacks with a response.
Today's society would have taken exception to the Sally age rather than the color of her skin. In her era, Sally was considered property and Jefferson was free to do with her as he pleased. In modern times, Thomas Jefferson could have eventually claimed Sally as his wife and she would have been honored as First Lady of the United States.
Sally and her descendants have not been treated fairly. Some historians have tried to erase her existence and she really was. People still want to know about the woman who should have been First Lady. The possiblity that her remains are buried under a parking lot won't change that fact.