Commentary Magazine


The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal, by Virginius Dabney

The Hemings Affair

The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal.
by Virginius Dabney.
Dodd, Mead. 154 pp. $8.95.

In 1974 the late Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History revived the unprovable charge that Jefferson kept a slave mistress at Monticello and fathered her five children. Despite the fact that Mrs. Brodie produced no new evidence, her biographical account gained wide popular acceptance. By 1979, when Barbara Chase-Riboud published her novel, Sally Hemings, the sexual liaison between Jefferson and his slave mistress was widely taken as based on historical fact.

In The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal, Virginius Dabney has gathered the evidence surrounding the charge against Jefferson. It originated in a political attack during Jefferson’s Presidency, and was perpetuated first in Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter, a novelization published in 1853 by the former slave, William Wells Brown, and then in belated, possibly doctored interviews given in old age by two former Monticello slaves, one of them a son of Sally Hemings who claimed Jefferson as his father. Counter-evidence comes from Jefferson’s descendants as well as from a former manager of Monticello (from 1804 to 1820), who asserted that the father of Sally Hemings’s children was one of Jefferson’s nephews. Dabney includes in his account the scholarly reviews of Fawn Brodie’s book, most of which, unlike the favorable press notices, pronounced her case unprovable. Finally, he adds his own “rebuttal,” or more accurately dismissal, of Mrs. Brodie’s suppositions.

Despite Dabney’s tendency to substitute a tone of incredulous sarcasm for a careful exposition of the flaws in Mrs. Brodie’s presentation, he is obviously in the right. Henceforth it is hardly conceivable that the slave-mistress charge will be regarded as anything more than a conjecture, albeit a fascinating one. And yet, by approaching the subject as an apologist rather than as a disinterested historian, Dabney has unintentionally raised other questions about Jefferson’s life and the manner in which it has been treated by historians.

In the first place, concerned as he is exclusively with the defense of Jefferson, Dabney ignores the role played by historians in the popular acceptance of Mrs. Brodie’s thesis. Thus, in an article published in 1976 and quoted but not commented on by Dabney, a scholar looking over the reception of Mrs. Brodie’s Jefferson by historians, observed: “What is striking is that professional reviews were so gentle; the book suffers from serious flaws, defects noted by remarkably few reviewers.”

“Gentle” is the right word, for the historians were obviously clear in their own minds about the factitiousness of Mrs. Brodie’s account. But they also knew that Mrs. Brodie had made something of a feminist issue out of her case. She had represented herself as entering the male bastion of Jefferson studies and bringing to it a specifically feminine appreciation of “feeling” and “nuance.”1 To attack a book making such a claim in 1974 was to invite nothing but trouble.

By 1979, when Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novelization appeared, the notion of woman’s intuition that Fawn Brodie had thrown up in her vanguard had become anathema among feminists. But at that point, to attack a novel that was at once a cry of outrage against male oppression and an apotheosis of Sally Hemings as Jefferson’s most intimate companion hardly made for a more attractive prospect. Nevertheless, unpleasant as the task of criticism undeniably was, historians had a responsibility to speak out, which they once again shirked. Unfortunately, Dabney displays no interest in this matter.

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Nor is Dabney interested, any more than were Fawn Brodie or Barbara Chase-Riboud, in the broader implications of Sally Hemings’s presence at Monticello—a matter of far greater import than the titillating question of her relationship to Jefferson. In 1970, in a review of a volume in Dumas Malone’s multi-volume biography of Jefferson (of which the final volume, The Sage of Monticello, has recently appeared), Eric McKitrick pointed out that although Malone was right to dismiss the rumors about Sally Hemings, the issue could hardly be dropped there, for it pointed up the deeply problematic circumstances of Jefferson’s life at Monticello.

Whatever his relationship with Sally Hemings, Jefferson in his day-to-day life was closely involved with her three brothers and sister, whom he acquired together with her when he married. Two of the boys became his personal servants, traveling with him when he went to Philadelphia to write about the meaning of freedom (in the Declaration of Independence), and to Europe where he championed the same cause as a diplomat. Sally Hemings, her brothers, and her sister were by all accounts fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law. Thus Jefferson’s wife, whether she knew it or not, brought with her to Monticello three boys who were her half-brothers and two girls who were her half-sisters. All were her slaves.

Mrs. Jefferson brought other relatives with her to Monticello as well: a half-brother and two half-sisters of Sally Hemings. Where the others were light-skinned, these two girls were black. Thus they were non-blood relatives of Mrs. Jefferson. Eventually both the mulatto and black slaves had children—nieces and nephews of Mrs. Jefferson—who grew up as slaves. They all apparently acted as house servants or skilled workers on the plantation rather than being sent to labor in the fields. Jefferson’s personal servant in his last years was one of his wife’s (black) nephews. Finally there were the nearly white children of Sally Hemings and her sister, probably fathered by Jefferson’s two nephews from nearby plantations.

It seems evident that Jefferson did his best to resolve the moral contradictions in which he was enmeshed. Certainly he pursued the most humane policies that the circumstances permitted. He allowed his nearly white slave relatives to run away, set others free after they had served apprenticeships calculated to prepare them for the world, and set still others free in his will. After all, he could not afford to grant freedom for too many lest he go bankrupt and put the others in danger of being sold into a worse condition of slavery. Yet the more enlightened his policies, the more vivid grew the contradictions.

Thus when Jefferson returned home after nearly five years in Europe, the slaves from his three plantations voluntarily gathered at Monticello to greet him. They rushed forward, unhitched the horses of the carriage bearing him and his two daughters, and dragged it to the entrance. Then, kissing his hands and feet, they bore him in their arms into the house. These acts of self-abasement were being performed by blood cousins of Jefferson’s own daughters.

It is in the light of such contradictions between Jefferson’s ideas and his practical behavior that his putative affair with Sally Hemings must be viewed. Dabney, in allowing the issues to become narrowed to the question of Sally Hemings alone, has in effect adopted the perspective of Fawn Brodie, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and the popular press. The true Jefferson scandals concern the abrogation of scholarly responsibilities: first on the part of those who failed to speak out forthrightly about Mrs. Brodie’s thesis, then by those who, though narrowly correct in their dismissals, have failed to deal with its implications.


Footnotes

1 Quoted by David Donald in his exceptionally uncompromising rejection of Mrs. Brodie's book, COMMENTARY, July 1974.

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