June 4, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Heming

If the story of the Sally Heming liaison be true, as I believe it is, it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, as the Federalists and later the abolitionists insisted, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years.

Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History,1974

At age 27, Thomas Jefferson married the widow Martha Wayles Skelton and they apparently had a very happy marriage for 10 years. At her deathbed, Martha said that she didn't want her children raised by a stepmother and Jefferson promised her that he would not re-marry. He kept his promise.

Martha had an interesting family history. Her father John Wayles was widowed three times. He then took Betty Heming as his mistress. She was the daughter of a sea captain and an African slave who belonged to Wayles. One of the children of that liaison was Sally Heming. She was, therefore, Martha Jefferson's half-sister. On the death of John Wayles, Martha inherited 135 slaves, including Betty Heming and 10 of her 12 children, plus 11,000 acres of land. At the time, Jefferson had 5,000 acres of land and about 50 slaves.

Martha and Thomas Jefferson's ten years together had its share of tragedy. Her child from her first husband died at about age 4. She had 6 more children, of which only two daughters survived to adulthood.

After his wife's death, Jefferson was ambassador to France. He sent for one of his daughters, who was accompanied by the slave Sally Heming, then between 14 and 15 years of age, who served as her servant and traveling companion. When Jefferson left France to returned home, two years later, Sally was pregnant. She did not have to return with him and could have remained in France, which had no slavery. Jefferson persuaded her to return to Virginia and she remained there for the rest of her life as Jefferson's house slave(chambermaid). She had 6 more children and she was reported to have told one of her sons that Jefferson was the father of all of her children. She died at the age of 64. Some of the Hemings went into the white community and some into the black community.

You might ask why Jefferson chose a young slave in Paris when there must have been an abundance of desirable women. One reason might have been a resemblance to his dead wife Martha. Another might be his cautious nature, as the following quote from one of his letters illustrates:"Do not bite at the bait of pleasure til you know that there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset."

That the great Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress and sired her children did not sit well with Jefferson's southern white descendants, who disputed the Heming's claim that they were Jefferson's descendants.

Last year, as a consequence of scientists' ability to analyze the chemical composition of genes and chromosomes, it became possible to prove that at least one of the descendants of Sally Heming was fathered by Thomas Jefferson. How was this done?

There are two types of sex chromosomes, called X and Y. Everyone has either two Xs or an X and a Y chromosome. One sex chromosome comes from your father and one from your mother. If a person has two X chromosomes, she will be female. If a person has one X and one Y, he will be male. While the X chromosome is present in both males and females, the Y chromosome is passed in an unbroken line from father to son. That chain is broken if a man sires only girls.

Sally's youngest son Eston Heming had males in a direct line through 4 generations. After Jefferson freed him, and after his mother's death, Eston moved to Wisconsin and "passed" as white. All of his descendants apparently showed little trace of their black ancestry. One of Eston's descendants supplied a blood sample. Since Jefferson and his wife Martha had no male children, a Jefferson Y chromosome was supplied by the descendants of Jefferson's father's brother, who had male descendants in an unbroken line. The analysis provided a perfect match, which makes it just about certain that Eston Heming was sired by Thomas Jefferson. Eston's descendants took the name of Jefferson, as they had every right to do.

As would be expected, some of Jefferson's caucasian relatives are scandalized. Some are not, and are willing to accept the Jefferson line mothered by Sally Heming.

Next to Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson is my favorite founding father. It's good to know that, besides his being very bright, he was also very human. He lived in a very different time and it would be unjust to judge him by today's standards.

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