Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Romance Made in Hollywood

By Robert N. Mathis

Dr. Robert N. Mathis, retired as Chair of the Department of History at Stephen F. Austin State University after nearly two decades of service. He taught courses in The Federalist Era, The Age of Jefferson. and The Age of Jackson, as well as the departmental senior seminar. He has written articles and reviews on Jefferson and is currently working on a book about the Jeffersonian era.

Two movies, Jefferson in Paris (1995) and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000), promote an image of Thomas Jefferson that will most likely prevail well into the twenty-first century.[1] The Jefferson of these movies is the epitome of white America's convoluted struggle with slavery and freedom. He is a slave owner who penned words that still inspire liberty throughout the world and an unabashed racist who maintained a romantic liaison, for almost forty years, with a slave woman. In short, he symbolizes the best and worst in white America's long and often tragic interrelationship with black America.

The Jeffersonian image popularized by both of these movies rests on the premise, dating back at least to 1802, that Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, was the mother of several of Thomas Jefferson's children.[2] Until the late twentieth century, Jefferson's descendants and most leading Jeffersonian scholars scoffed at this allegation. It seldom appeared in mainstream publications, even though the oral traditions of the Hemings family and a published account by one of Sally Hemings's sons (Madison Hemings in 1873) seemed to substantiate it. During the nation's twentieth century crusades against fascism and communism, the usable Jefferson, symbolized by the marble statue in the Jefferson Memorial, was an aloof statesman-philosopher -- author of the American creed and the preeminent icon of the universal values of freedom and democracy. Promoters of this popular image downplayed Jefferson as a slaveholder and outright rejected the allegation that he fathered slave children. The leading Jefferson scholar and a professor at Jefferson's University of Virginia, Dumas Malone, who wrote a highly acclaimed six volume study of Jefferson and His Time (1948-1981), found it inconceivable that the "Sage of Monticello" could have had a mistress, slave or free. According to Malone, such behavior would have been "distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson's moral standards and habitual conduct."[3] Such leading Jeffersonian scholars as Merrill Peterson, a professor at the University of Virginia, and Julian Boyd, editor of a comprehensive edition of Jefferson's papers, concurred in this opinion. Nevertheless, the old allegation about Jefferson and Hemings dramatically resurfaced in 1974 in Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Brodie, a history professor (not a Jeffersonian specialist) at the University of California, Los Angeles, professed to be an admirer of Jefferson who was seeking to add insight and dimension to his private life. Although roundly condemned by what has been called the Jeffersonian "Old Guard" or the "Jefferson Mafia," her book, which reflected an emerging historical interest in interdisciplinary approaches, as well as in race and gender studies, was a commercial success.[4] It inspired another well-received work, Barbara Chase-Riboud's romantic novel, Sally Hemings (1979). The popularity of the works by Brodie and Chase-Riboud sparked a gradual transformation in the popular image of Jefferson.

Two events at the end of the twentieth century accelerated this transformation. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, a thorough compilation of the evidence supporting the Jefferson-Hemings affair and a scathing indictment of the allegedly narrow-minded, hero-worshiping "Old Guard." Finally, in 1998 the Jefferson-Hemings relationship seemed to receive scientific validation. A scientific journal, Nature, published the results of a DNA study by Eugene Foster, a retired British pathologist, of the male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (one of Sally Hemings's sons) and of the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's uncle -- Thomas Jefferson had no male-line descendants).[5] Foster concluded that a member of the Jefferson family fathered at least one of Sally Hemings's sons, Eston. Some participants in the ensuing "Great Jefferson-Hemings Debate" viewed this study as the ultimate proof of Jefferson's fatherhood, while others were just as quick to point out that the study possibly implicated some twenty-four other members of the Jefferson family. Neither side has had a monopoly on disinterested scholarship.[6]

It remained for Hollywood to seize upon the works of Brodie, Chase-Riboud, Gordon-Reed, and Foster and not only to confirm the Jefferson-Hemings affair in the public's mind, but also to move beyond the historical and scientific evidence and actually depict the nature and intimacy of the relationship. Jefferson in Paris is grounded in the Brodie/Chase-Riboud version of the affair, but it bears remarkable similarities to the post-DNA/ Gordon-Reed portrayal, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.

Jefferson in Paris, which premiered in 1995, depicts the five years (1784-1789) of Jefferson's diplomatic mission to France. Less than two years after being traumatized by the death of his wife, Jefferson became entranced by the culture and politics of pre-revolutionary France. But, film makers Ismail Merchant-James Ivory-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, known for lavish costume dramas like The Remains of the Day (1993) and Howards End (1992), are not as interested in Jefferson's public duties much as they are in Jefferson's private involvement with three intriguing women: Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), a married Italian-English artist; Martha or Patsy Jefferson (Gwyneth Paltrow), Jefferson's eldest daughter; and Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), Jefferson's teenage slave. The sine qua non of the movie, which opens with actor James Earl Jones's rendition of Madison Hemings's 1873 memoirs, is to reveal the origin of the Jefferson-Hemings affair and expose the American dilemma of slavery and freedom -- the original advertisement carelessly had the image of Sally Hemings superimposed over a copy of the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the movie never develops the intricacies of this relationship. We see Jefferson lured into an affair by Sally Hemings, at the same time that he was obviously enthralled by the flirtatious Maria Conway. We are never given insights into Jefferson's feelings or thoughts about these encounters, nor are we made aware of Jefferson's relationship with his daughter and the causes for her petulant reactions to these affairs. The "heated triangle of passion and desire," promised in the video version, never materializes. As played by Nick Nolte, Jefferson always seems stiff and reticent. Thandie Newton's Hemings projects a stereotyped image of an immature slave girl. With no apparent basis for an attraction, the fortyish Jefferson and the teenage Hemings form an intense romantic bond. The influence of Brodie is evident throughout this visually pleasing movie, which effectively uses the scenery in and around Paris. Jhabvala's script strives for historical accuracy, even using as dialogue some excerpts from Jefferson's letters (most noticeably Jefferson's famous "Head and Heart" letter to Maria Cosway). Yet, at the end of the movie we still do not understand what it is about Jefferson's character that accounts for his behavior or why Sally Hemings initiates and nurtures the affair. James Ivory, the director, seemed delighted that four years after the movie's release, his basic story, owing to the subsequent DNA study, had "found widespread public and scholarly acceptance."[7]

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, a CBS miniseries during a 'sweeps" period in 2000, is a more ambitious treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings affair. Scriptwriter Tina Andrews, influenced by Brodie's work and emboldened by the DNA study, set out to chronicle a thirty-eight year romance between Jefferson (Sam Neill), who is a guilt-stricken, but passionate slave owner, and Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo), who is a feisty, but devoted slave mistress. In Paris, Jefferson becomes Hemings's personal mentor and she is a remarkably apt student. Hemings emerges as an accomplished, proud woman who courageously aids runaway slaves, surreptitiously teaches slaves to read, and continually chides Jefferson for his slave owning. By stressing the apparent fact that Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's beloved late wife, Andrews and director, Charles Haid present a much better grounding for the romance than was true in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala production. Andrews and Haid depict Jefferson's turning to someone with his wife's features, while seeking solace for her untimely death, as a natural response. It is mutual affection, not the slaveholder's power status, that draws Jefferson and Hemings together in Paris and sustains their relationship until Jefferson's death in 1826. On one occasion, a jealous Hemings even goes to Washington, D.C., and, in the Executive Mansion, diverts Jefferson's attention away from pressing matters of state. The film also highlights the whiteness of Hemings (she was apparently three-fourths white) and of other slaves at Monticello, a crucial but often-neglected aspect of slavery -- some of the slaves are even played by white actors. Throughout the movie, Jefferson, the slaveholding apostle of freedom, is a tortured man. In one of the most dramatic scenes, an elderly, contrite Jefferson confesses, to a gathering of slaves, his indefensible hypocrisy.[8]

The dearth of evidence complicates the evaluation of this film. In reality, we know virtually nothing about the appearance or personality of Sally Hemings or about her relationship with Jefferson -- Anderson and Haid conveniently have Patsy Jefferson destroy all evidence. Hemings left no written records and Jefferson, in his voluminous writings, ignores the allegation, except for two brief, indirect statements which seem to dismiss it as a political canard.[9] To accept the film's version of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, we must acknowledge that for almost forty years Jefferson, a man obsessed with his reputation, would have children with a "forbidden" mistress, in a very public environment, and that his extended white family and a multitude of visitors either failed to notice or conspired to conceal the arrangement. This intense, protracted romance remained undocumented, even though Jefferson's political enemies, beginning with an 1802 story by a notorious propagandist, James T. Callender, circulated rumors about the affair and about slave children at Monticello who resembled their owner. Was the compulsion by Jefferson's white contemporaries to conceal interracial sex so overwhelming that no one, even enemies, had the curiosity to seek out Hemings and her children? Further, to give credibility to this cinematic portrayal, we would need to acknowledge that Jefferson, who had a strong family orientation and profound moral values, would neglect and confine to slavery his own children and fail to free, even in his will, the woman who had been his soulmate for almost half of his life. Had this happened, which is unproven but conceivable, it would constitute much more than a mere character flaw. These are some of the complications and contradictions that emerge when evidence is sparse and circumstantial, and suppositions are based on suppositions. Nevertheless, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal seemed to strike a chord with a public that was also captivated, at the time of its first airing, with a modern "American Scandal" involving William Jefferson Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Together, these movies, along with an array of popular commentaries, have been instrumental in the emergence of a "new" Thomas Jefferson. In the public arena, he has lost the exceptionalism claimed for him by Malone and other Jeffersonian specialists. White, male Jeffersonian historians have had difficulty in responding to the proponents of this new image. Many of the revisionists have been women and/or African Americans, who have an expertise, not on Jefferson, but on broader issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Even Malone, the godfather of the "Old Guard," apparently knew that aggressively attacking the early creators of a "new" Jefferson would risk being targeted as a bigoted reactionary, insensitive to the oral traditions of African Americans and the new feminist perspectives. One can easily imagine the anguish of Malone, who had spent over four decades in pursuit of the "real" Jefferson, as novelists, television and movie producers/directors, scriptwriters, dramatists, journalists, and non-Jeffersonian scholars challenged his conclusions. He must have been even more disconcerted by the realization that their views of Jefferson, not his, had captured the public's imagination. Another "Old Guard" Jeffersonian, Julian Boyd, poignantly lamented that "the resultant Jefferson -- unless I have wasted thirty of the best years of my life in studying all of his recorded actions -- is only an imaginative creature and, in my view, a rather repulsive one."[10]

While the historical and scientific evidence does not conclusively prove that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemings, fewer and fewer historians seem willing to mount a refutation. Historians have frequently accepted the validity of interpretations of the past that have rested on less evidence. The most prominent members of the naysaying "Old Guard," which once blocked a dramatization of the Chase-Riboud novel, have either retired or died and several recent books on Jefferson reflect a burgeoning revisionist spirit.[11] Even the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (recently renamed the Thomas Jefferson Foundation), which for many years virtually omitted references to and concealed evidence of slavery at Monticello, has acknowledged the "high probability" that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings and that he also "most likely" fathered Hemings's five other children.[12]

The usable Thomas Jefferson for Americans in the early twenty-first century seems destined to be the one depicted in Jefferson in Paris and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, not the one in the meticulously researched six volume biography by Dumas Malone. Indeed, for failing to address Jefferson's humanity, historians have lost credibility. In visualizing and popularizing a great American love story, these two films, while not disputing Jefferson's greatness, toppled the "Sage of Monticello" from his mountaintop retreat and imbued his inner life with common human emotions and ordinary human frailties. Hollywood filled a vacuum and the public applauded. At this point, a new generation of Jeffersonian historians, for the sake of their craft, must arise and seek atonement and redemption.

Endnotes

[1] Jefferson in Paris, Produced by Ismail Merchant. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. 139 minutes. Buena Vista Pictures, 1995; Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. Co-Produced by Tina Andrews and Wendy Kram. Directed by Charles Haid. Screenplay by Tina Andrews. 173 minutes. Dog Run Productions, Inc., 2000.

[2] For a brief, judicious historical overview of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy see: "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account," Monticello: the Home of Thomas Jefferson, n.d., http://www.monticello.org/plantation/hemings-jefferson_contro.html.

[3] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: Jefferson the President, First Term, 1801-1805 (Boston, 1970), IV, 214. See also "The Miscegenation Legend," ibid., Appendix II, 494-498.

[4] The most comprehensive refutations of Brodie's book were John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York and London, 1977) and Virginius Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (New York, 1981).

[5] E. A. Foster, et al., "Scientific Correspondence: Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child," Nature, CCCLXXXVI (November 5, 1998), 27-28. For an excellent analysis of the DNA evidence see: Frontline: Jefferson's Blood. Produced and Directed by Thomas Lennon. Written by Shelby Steele and Thomas Lennon. 90 minutes. PBS Video, 2000.

[6] Support for the conclusiveness of the DNA evidence can be found in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, 2000); Peter S. Onuf and Jan E. Lewis, eds., Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture (Charlottesville and London, 1999); "Forum: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings Redux," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., LVII (January, 2000), 121-210. The most complete denials that the DNA study proves the allegation are Eyler Roberts Coates, Sr.,The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty (Charlottesville, 2001) and "The Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission Report on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter, April 12, 2001," The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, http:www.tjheritage.org.

[7] James Ivory, "Commentary From the Director," n.d., Merchant Ivory Productions, http:www.merchantivory.com/jefferson.html.

[8] On the making of the movie see Tina Andrews, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal: The Struggle to Tell the Controversial True Story (Malibu, 2001) and "Connecting the Dots of History: The Research and Points of View Behind SALLY HEMINGS: AN AMERICAN SCANDAL," Excerpts from the Press Kit, n.d., http://www.ibiblio.org/samneill/films/shhistory.txt.

[9] Jefferson to Robert Smith, July 1, 1805 and Jefferson to George Logan, June 20, 1816, quoted in Malone, Jefferson, IV, 214-215, 222.

[10] Quoted in Scot A. French and Edward L. Ayers, "The Strange Career of Thomas Jefferson: Race and Slavery in American Memory, 1943-1993," in Peter S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville, 1993), 433. This essay broadly treats the "Old Guard's" reaction to the popularization of the Jefferson-Hemings story.

[11] Recent works that present revisionist views of Jefferson include Paul Finkleman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (Armonk, New York, 2001); Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (Chicago, 1996); Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, 1999); and Pauline Maier, American Scripture: The Making the Declaration of Independence (New York, 1997).

[12] "Report of the Monticello Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, January 2000," Monticello, http://www.monticello.org/plantation/hemings_report.html.