The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson's first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries.
In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disappointed office-seeker who had once been an ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." "Her name is Sally," Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had "several children" by her.
Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and a slave before 1802, Callender's article spread the story widely. It was taken up by Jefferson's Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson's presidency.
Jefferson's policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts.
Jefferson's daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph privately denied the published reports. Two of her children, Ellen Randolph Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, maintained many years later that such a liaison was not possible, on both moral and practical grounds. They also stated that Jefferson's nephews Peter and Samuel Carr were the fathers of the light-skinned Monticello slaves some thought to be Jefferson's children because of their resemblance to him.
The Jefferson-Hemings story was sustained through the 19th century by Northern abolitionists, British critics of American democracy, and others. Its vitality among the American population at large was recorded by European travelers of the time. Through the 20th century, some historians accepted the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings connection and a few gave it credence, but most Jefferson scholars found the case for such a relationship unpersuasive.
Over the years, however, belief in a Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship was perpetuated in private. Two of her children - Madison and Eston - indicated that Jefferson was their father, and this belief has been relayed through generations of their descendants as an important family truth.
That a Jefferson-Hemings relationship could be neither refuted nor substantiated was challenged in 1998 by the results of DNA tests conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists. The study - which tested Y-chromosomal DNA samples from male-line descendants of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's uncle), John Carr (grandfather of Jefferson's Carr nephews), Eston Hemings, and Thomas C. Woodson - indicated a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings descendants. The results of the study established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last known child born to Sally Hemings. There were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, and a few of them are known to have visited Monticello. The study's authors, however, said "the simplest and most probable" conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings.
The DNA study found no link between the descendants of Field Jefferson and Thomas C. Woodson (1790-1879), whose family members have long held that he was the first son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings, Sally's second-youngest son, said in 1873 that his mother had been pregnant with Jefferson's child (who, he said, lived "but a short time") when she returned from France in 1789. But there is no indication in Jefferson's records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, and there are no known documents to support that Thomas Woodson was Hemings' first child.
The DNA testing also found no genetic link between the Hemings and Carr descendants.
Shortly after the DNA test results were released in November 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee consisting of nine members of the foundation staff, including four with Ph.D.s. In January 2000, the committee reported its finding that the weight of all known evidence - from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data - indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was perhaps the father of all six of Sally Hemings' children listed in Monticello records - Harriet (born 1795; died in infancy); Beverly (born 1798); an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy); Harriet (born 1801); Madison (born 1805); and Eston (born 1808).
Since then, a committee commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, after reviewing essentially the same material, reached different conclusions, namely that Sally Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life and that it is very unlikely he fathered any of her children. This committee also suggested in its report, issued in April 2001, that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph (1755-1815) was more likely the father of at least some of Sally Hemings' children.
While Thomas Jefferson's paternity of one or more of Sally Hemings' children cannot be established with absolute certainty, and there are noticeable gaps in the historical record, many elements are widely accepted. Among these are:
- Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave at Monticello; she lived in Paris with Jefferson and two of his daughters from 1787 to 1789; and she had at least six children.
- Sally Hemings' duties included being a nursemaid-companion to Thomas Jefferson's daughter Maria (c. 1784-1787), lady's maid to daughters Martha and Maria (1787-1797), and chambermaid and seamstress (1790s-1827).
- There are no known images of Sally Hemings and only four known descriptions of her appearance or demeanor.
- Sally Hemings left no known written accounts. It is not known if she was literate.
- In the few scattered references to Sally Hemings in Thomas Jefferson's records and correspondence, there is nothing to distinguish her from other members of her family.
- Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello at the likely conception times of Sally Hemings' six known children. There are no records suggesting that she was elsewhere at these times, or records of any births at times that would exclude Jefferson paternity.
- There are no indications in contemporary accounts by people familiar with Monticello that Sally Hemings' children had different fathers.
- Sally Hemings' children were light-skinned, and three of them (daughter Harriet and sons Beverly and Eston) lived as members of white society as adults.
- According to contemporary accounts, some of Sally Hemings' children strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson.
- Thomas Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings' children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson's 1826 will. Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family.
- Thomas Jefferson did not free Sally Hemings. She was permitted to leave Monticello by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph not long after Jefferson's death in 1826, and went to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.
- Several people close to Thomas Jefferson or the Monticello community believed that he was the father of Sally Hemings' children.
- Eston Hemings changed his name to Eston Hemings Jefferson in 1852.
- Madison Hemings stated in 1873 that he and his siblings Beverly, Harriet, and Eston were Thomas Jefferson's children.
- The descendants of Madison Hemings who have lived as African-Americans have passed a family history of descent from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings down through the generations.
- Eston Hemings' descendants, who have lived as whites, have passed down a family history of being related to Thomas Jefferson. In the 1940s, family members changed this history to state that an uncle of Jefferson's, rather than Jefferson himself, was their ancestor.
Among the unresolved matters is the genealogy of Sally Hemings. According to Madison Hemings, Sally's mother, Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807), was the daughter of an African woman and an English sea captain. By Madison's and other accounts, Sally Hemings and some of her siblings were the children of John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. If so, Sally Hemings would have been the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748-1782). Elizabeth Hemings and her children lived at John Wayles' plantation during his lifetime, but there are no documentary records relating to Wayles' possible paternity of any Hemings children.
Also unknown are the precise nature of the relationship that existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; whether a child was born at Monticello shortly after they returned from France in 1789; and whether there is anything to connect Jefferson, Hemings, and Thomas C. Woodson.
Based on the documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the TJF Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic. Ten years later, TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings. To learn more, consult the readings, some with differing points of view, listed here.