This was important to her.
August 28, 2017 8:09 PM   Subscribe

It’s true: Sally Hemings was, by law, Thomas Jefferson’s property. But she was also a human being. Contingency, which historians know is always in operation, plays a crucial role in human affairs, and it did so in the way the law of property shaped Hemings’s story. Enigmatic as she may be, Hemings had a vision of her life and self that she imparted to her family. Her vision should always matter when we write about her. Law was pivotal to Hemings’s understanding of her life. She knew its power.
posted by ChuraChura (15 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't realize she was his half-sister-in-law (if I'm understanding the article right), too.

The central problem she points toward here is so difficult -- how to talk about individuals in a way that properly represents the extremity of the dehumanization they lived with, without seeming to endorse or reinforce that dehumanization.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:41 PM on August 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

Just a small nitpick: Sally Hemings was not freed by Jefferson in his will despite his promise to do so. She was informally emancipated by Jefferson's daughter, Martha.

And yes, Sally Hemings was his wife's half-sister.
posted by xyzzy at 8:46 PM on August 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

TJ could get on Jerry Springer if he were alive today.

And yet he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

In conclusion, America is land of contrasts.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:35 AM on August 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

TJ could get on Jerry Springer if he were alive today.
You mean Maury.
posted by dannyboybell at 6:07 AM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sally Hemings was not freed by Jefferson in his will despite his promise to do so.

Reading the Monticello material on the subject, it seems like before his death legally freed slaves were required to leave Virginia within two years (which, what the fuck, legislators, way to make shit even more horrible), so there was concern if she was legally freed at that time she would be forced to move away as well. I'm not sure that's a good solution - he absolutely should have used his immense influence to change that law - but per them, that's the context for that decision.
posted by corb at 8:54 AM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

The fact she was his dead wife's teenage half sister when the relationship began makes it 100 times more creepy on his end. Even if she did make the decision to stay with him and not in Paris and even if there ended up being genuine affection there and she was able to leverage it in a way she was happy with, it's still pretty shocking by modern standards. Ugh.
posted by fshgrl at 10:45 AM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

there are good things and bad things in here. I am behind her completely as regards Sally Hemmings' thoughts and motivations being as important as her legal status and certainly more interesting than Thomas Jefferson's.

but some of the examples and details she goes into surprise and trouble me. For example, that a very low age of consent existed does not mean that women above that age were not thought of as "children," and this is what she seems to be taking as a given in order to make a point about the teenage Hemings' autonomy (which I have less trouble accepting, separate from the particular reasoning.) rather, the very low age of consent means that sleeping with or marrying children was not considered wrong in the same ways, at that time, as it is now. Differing ages of consent for different sexes -- which she even cites! reflect this more clearly than anything. Certainly women who were adult by any measure were treated as children and thought of as children by men in many contexts -- not all, but many.

& then of course, the articles she mentions, which spell out the fact that Sally Hemings was legally incapable of saying no to Jefferson and therefore incapable of saying an uncoerced yes to him. I agree that more historical and biographical context is always better than less, though I do not believe it is possible to overstress the point above.

but what I think might bear some extra stress here is that the same was true of wives: wives also did not have the legal ability to give what modern people understand as consent (or rather, marriage did that once and for all) or to withhold it, in spite of any other privilege or even luxury they might enjoy. this at least is my understanding, but I am not well-read in this period and if those laws had not yet been formalized I would be interested to be corrected. I know that it was true in law not long after, and for a very long time.

If I am correct, it does not minimize the atrocity of slavery to acknowledge this other context; it doesn't imply that that Sally Hemings had equal power or rights with a wife or an unmarried free woman, even in the restricted private sphere of the Hemings' sexual relationships with Thomas Jefferson. at all. but it is highly relevant to any argument about or exploration of the historical context and emotional content of the relationship.

and finally, I know it's true what Gordon-Reed says about the long history of demeaning her by treating it as unthinkable that Jefferson could have loved a slave. but it is distasteful in another way to treat the mutuality of the relationship as important in the opposite way, as though his love or hers for him somehow elevated her, that it makes her humanity somehow more evident if precious old TJ saw her worth and personhood. he had nothing to say about it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:05 AM on August 29, 2017 [11 favorites]

Sally Hemings didn't leave any writings of her own, assuming she was even literate -- all we know about what she thought is filtered through the lenses of her children (really, it seems, one of her sons) and grandchildren. In this article and another one I turned up from 9 years ago, Gordon-Reed seems to believe that things like the length of their "relationship" and the fact that Sally Hemings kept a handful of Jefferson's possessions to pass on to her heirs meant that there was some kind of mutuality there.

Except he owned her. I mean, how does this not sound like the kind of "Well, why do they stay, if it's so bad?" garbage people get all the time in abusive relationships?
posted by camyram at 5:53 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can dismiss the possibility of mutual love simply because Jefferson owned Sally Hemings—unless, of course, you want to dismiss this possibility in all relationships where there is a tremendous imbalance of power (in legal terms, e.g., regarding property rights and custody of children), which characterized most marriages at that time—and, unfortunately, for many years after.
posted by she's not there at 6:23 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think you can dismiss the possibility of mutual love simply because Jefferson owned Sally Hemings—unless, of course, you want to dismiss this possibility in all relationships where there is a tremendous imbalance of power

you say that like people don't! but there are feminists more hard-line than me who certainly do, and I admire their rigor.

but you don't need to dismiss the potential reality of their love in order to put it in its proper place, which ranks somewhat below what style of stockings TJ liked to wear with his knee breeches, in the grand scheme of things. worth writing about in biographies? Sure, absolutely. the truth is always worth knowing, no knowledge is wasted, no historical minutiae too small to be researched and recorded. and people love love stories, the more dismal the better. but it is less important to me whether or not she loved him than to get a clear articulation of why it's so important that she did or didn't. So what if she did?

because like you say, people love their abusive husbands (and all heterosexual marriages were abusive in structure, regardless of how nice the participants were on an individual basis, for centuries and centuries) and their abusive parents and even their abusive captors and prison guards, too, if those relationships are relatively stable and enduring. you don't even have to call it Stockholm Syndrome; people often grow emotionally attached to those on whom they depend, if they are permitted to by the withholding of too-frequent cruelty and if they do not prevent themselves through constant vigilance.

and so what? This doesn't complicate history, although I get the feeling some historians desperately want it to so that they can feel that they perceive Nuance where the politically correct cannot see for shutting their eyes. but love in such circumstances isn't complex or contradictory. it's simple and it's sad. where it makes individual people somewhat happier in their oppression, it's a small mercy for them. except when it influences a woman to leave Paris when she could have stayed in Paris, then it's no mercy at all.

Painting the emotion itself as agency I find highly dubious because real high-minded romantic love doesn't feel much like a choice when you're in it. and separating out what women do to keep men with power over them happy from what they do because they really want to is difficult enough even for those of us who are contemplating our still-living aged relatives, even those who we know loved their husbands. I have known people my own age who had trouble separating out these converging motivations even as they were having them! and these people are barely oppressed enough to deserve the adjective, relatively speaking. I cannot imagine having the pure confidence to declare that a woman in Hemings's time and situation did or didn't love someone. it's a big leap of faith to be certain that she knew herself, even. though I do think that is likely.

anyway, love is terrific and no substitute for liberty. she and Jefferson both knew that. I don't think there is a widespread urge to deny its existence or its possibility, just a sense of outrage that love, the world's consolation prize, is supposed to make up for anything at all.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:11 PM on August 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

you say that like people don't! but there are feminists more hard-line than me who certainly do, and I admire their rigor.

I understand that people do, though I can't say I admire them for their rigor.

It's one thing to study and understand a culture, quite another to know exactly how individuals living within that culture coped with the constraints life placed upon them—let alone judge them for their choices.

I'm also wondering if these hard-line feminists (female, anyway) have all dismissed the possibility of romantic love with a man in their lifetimes because men and women still aren't playing on a level field.

I cannot imagine having the pure confidence to declare that a woman in Hemings's time and situation did or didn't love someone. it's a big leap of faith to be certain that she knew herself, even. though I do think that is likely.

I totally agree that without more evidence (in her words) we cannot know how Hemings would have described her feelings toward TJ. Re whether or not she knew herself—frankly, I suspect that most people don't really know themselves when it comes to what they want in a romantic relationships. (See questions posted on the green.)
posted by she's not there at 10:17 PM on August 29, 2017

Coincidentally, I wrote down some quotes from reading Annette Gordon-Reed's books a while back so I can easily quote her on what she thought earlier on this subject. From Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy:

“We may know this is true in the theoretical sense, but something should tell us that it cannot have been true in every situation, under every circumstance, that existed from the early 1600s until emancipation. Do we really believe that over the entire course of slavery in the United States, no master and slave woman ever experienced a mutual sexual or emotional attachment to one another? Can we really believe that a slave woman confronted with a master whom she knew, or reasonably believed, would desist if she refused his advances was in the same position as a woman whose master would knock down the door and drag her off to his bedroom? Both women would have existed in a state of relative powerlessness. But we instinctively feel that there is a difference. In the former situation the woman would have had a small but important individualized bit of power even as she existed in a state of general powerlessness. The power was, of course, to say yes or not. In the latter situation her powerlessness would have been total.”

According to the notes I took, Gordon-Reed seemed to think that since there weren't any reports of Sally having kids with anyone else (the rumors of the Carrs notwithstanding), and there weren't any reports of Jefferson chasing any other married ladies for 38 years, that's a long term relationship right there.

In "The Hemingses of Monticello," Gordon-Reed talks about how Sally had the opportunity to leave in France, but chose not to. She assessed Sally and her brother James's chances of leaving and determined that they could have pulled it off if they had wanted to go for it. Sally had the leverage to argue the point with him when he wanted to leave, even though we don't know the details of it. (And he was down with a migraine around this time, something he tended to do when stressed out.) Possibly she was pregnant, but it definitely would have looked bad in public if she'd made a break for it.

“An issue remains: How is it possible to get at the nature of a relationship between a man and a woman like Jefferson and Hemings when neither party specifically writes or speaks to others about that relationship or their feelings?....In the absence of words, actions may be quite telling.”

For example, he didn't write about Sally and burned his letters with his wife, but saved Maria Cosway's because he wasn't quite as in love with her.

“To ensure that everyone gets the vital message that the rape of black women was endemic to slavery, the no-possible-consent rule says that whether Jefferson used force or charm on Hemings is of no great moment. Social history trumps individual biography. But one can safely say that for Hemings, who lived her life as a person, not a statistics, the difference between being forced, physically or psychologically, by a man and being charmed by him would have made all the difference in the world to her inner life, a thing that was and is, indeed, always of great moment.”
“As for Sally Hemings, there is no one response to rape. It takes a huge liberty with her life, however, to assume that she was raped, and that she knew she could escape from her rapist forever, and for a time actually asserted her right to be free of him, but nevertheless decided to return with him to Virginia to live out the rest of her life having more forced sex.”

I pretty much agree with Gordon-Reed: technically it's owning, enslavement, and rape of a 14-year-old and ugh to all of that, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Sally saw it that way. Did she have a chance not to get romantically involved with him? Heck no, she was 14, hot, probably looked like his dead wife and he owned her and they were all alone and these things happen with dirty old men (another point Gordon-Reed makes). On the other hand, she could have left and did not. It's the actions that we know of that indicate things.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:34 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

but it is less important to me whether or not she loved him than to get a clear articulation of why it's so important that she did or didn't. So what if she did?

I think it's pretty fascinating, if she loved him and he had all the power, and still she managed to negotiate a better life for herself and their children, even when he was endangering himself politically to do so. It says a lot about what a brilliant woman she was to accomplish that kind of outcome in that kind of time - and to start that negotiation, one that would help the entire rest of her life, at 16!

And it matters if he loved her, because we examine every tiny influence on the Founders, and examine their wives most of all (the volumes devoted to Abigail Adams and Martha Washington, my god!) yet somehow when it comes to Sally Hemings, it's been "well, she was his slave, so he was just raping her, and we don't have to ponder what her influence was because obviously it was none, move along."

The book I want to read is one that examines his political beliefs and actions before and after Sally Hemings. Like, for example - Jefferson was unique in the way he supported the French Revolution. His relationship with Sally Hemings is believed to have started in 1787. The French Revolution started in 1789, and when she was negotiating to remain in France or not, she was negotiating to remain in post-Revolutionary War France. How did Sally Heming's beliefs and ideas impact Jefferson's ideas about what he witnessed, and about the nobility of the French Revolution? I want scholarship that examines that kind of stuff.
posted by corb at 6:47 AM on August 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

corb, I think you might get that book.

I can't see how any looks at the Hamilton Horde and doesn't realize there are still some REALLY good stories to tell, and thus money to be made, about revolutionary era America that aren't all powdered wigs and arguments about which greek philosopher best captures the ideals of not being beholden to a king.
posted by DigDoug at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes it's impossible to think that people, being people, were not close to and influenced by those they spent time with daily. Slavery, caste systems or servitude notwithstanding a regular person would have to be influenced and attached to another human they spent that much time with. I know a lot of people who were raised by nannies or housekeepers and they were in many ways more closely influenced by them and more attached to them than their parents, at least until they reach teenagerhood at which point society kicks in with "well that person is only...."
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on August 30, 2017

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