The Tom and Sally Story

by Janis Cortese

Did he or didn't he? It's been a hot topic in the US, like everything else having to do with race, since 1802, when a bitter reporter named Callender first broke the story of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings.

Well, it's been settled within a reasonable doubt that he did. And predictably, there are all sorts of outfreakings going on over it, again like everything else having to do with race. And sex.

I know this topic is a few months' stale, given that the DNA news broke in October (perfectly timed for the impeachment party in Washington). However, it sometimes takes a while to wrap one's brain around a topic like this, particularly when there are so many issues swirling around within its boundaries. It's so obviously a racial issue that that one aspect of it can swamp others, until it takes a few months for your mind to get around considering the sexual aspects of it, and how the racial and sexual aspects mingle.

And be assured -- this is not just about race. It's about sex as well.

The Defenders -- what are they really angry about?

As soon as the news broke, the battle lines hardened. They had, however, been drawn a long, long time ago. The God and Country Foundation, an organization that claims to "defend the founding fathers' reputations", has already risen up to champion Jefferson's sexlessness. Other historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed and Fawn Brodie, had always held the opinion that Jefferson had had an affair with Hemings.

Well, personally, I'm always ready to be a mite suspicious of the motivations of a group that calls itself the "God and Country" foundation in the first place. I can't be the only person who thinks that they spend a lot more time proving that the founding fathers only had missionary sex and never smoked pot than they do "defending reputations." "God and Country" smacks to me of just another bunch of right-wing nutcases, not patriots or historians in the real sense.

And that's hammered home when you really start to think about just what it is that these Jefferson defenders are so disgusted by. Think about it. They haven't ever tried to rationalize the fact that the man held slaves, an admitted hypocrisy. Yet what is it that makes them froth at the mouth?

Not that he held slaves, but that he apparently freely chose sex with a woman who was even a smidge black.

Slavery? Eh. We'll look the other way for that one. But interracial sex? Hey, wait one second!

*sigh* I'm not talking about the hypocrisy of Jefferson himself, who disliked the idea of interracial relationships, and how that stacks up against a man who would freely choose sex with someone 25% black, as Hemings supposedly was. (For the record, she was also very likely the half-sister of his dead wife.) I'm talking about hypocrisy in the here-and-now, hypocrisy in a group of vociferous defenders of a man long dead who apparently find it infinitely more icky-gross to have sex outside of one's "race" than to sell members of that same "race" like furniture. You get the feeling that, had Jefferson had a legitimate, happy, perfectly legal relationship with this woman, they would still have been shrill about it.

They aren't disturbed because Jefferson may well have abused a power relationship with a woman almost 30 years younger than he, who had no legal recourse should she refuse him. They are disturbed because this man, enshrined as the perfect pure flower of the enlightenment, this brilliant redheaded, blue-eyed symbol of all that is white manhood, willingly took a woman even one quarter black into his bedroom, no matter the circumstances.

Annette Gordon-Reed said it best: They aren't appalled that Jefferson may have defiled Hemings. They are appalled that he may have defiled himself by lying willingly with Hemings. He's not being defended against rape. These "Monticello Mafia" are defending him against what seems to them to be a far worse crime: rassenschande.

Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. "Well, you have to understand, everyone did that back then."

Thomas Jefferson slept with one of them. "I'm sorry, he Just Wasn't That Sort of Man."

Suddenly, the "everyone else was doing it" defense vanishes. And most assuredly, everyone else was doing it.

The really funny thing now is watching them all scrambling to cover their butts. Now, suddenly, they're singing a different tune -- one of the sober, long-faced academician begging solemn forgiveness for Thomas Jefferson's human failings. Sorry -- a president who had a dalliance with a young woman that amounted to a few abortive blow jobs and little else might fall into the category of committer of peccadillos worthy of a tongue-clucking and some tolerant forgiveness. A 38-year long affair is not a matter of a momentary human failing. Maybe, just maybe, it was a matter of love.

The Pro-Sallys -- why are they so often women?

Looking at Jefferson's history as a slaveholder often sends people into a mild tailspin. It makes my brain spasm, too -- I'm not writing this as someone who wants to tear down his image from Mount Rushmore. I first fell in love with Monticello (and probably to some extent Jefferson himself) when I visited his grand home at the age of ten, and saw the wonderful gadgets that spoke of a kindred spirit -- someone else who would take apart anything in his house just to find out how it worked.

But I suspect that many African-Americans don't have as much of a hard time imagining how someone like him could hold slaves. They see a lot of people every day who are perfectly nice and intelligent -- except for the one damned kink that reveals them as racists. The joke, the Amos-n-Andy slang used when talking about Martin Luther King, the groundless irritation that surfaces at Kwanzaa, whatever. They are a lot angrier about his having held slaves -- but their brains don't blow a fuse just contemplating the fact. So of course they can see that he held slaves, and that he also had an affair with one. Such stories are part of their history, common coin for them.

Looking at Jefferson from a woman's perspective is also illuminating and explains why the prospect of his sleeping with Hemings makes sense to women more so than to a white male historian, and hence why all of the female Jefferson historians come down on the pro-Sally side.

One of the reasons that some Jefferson defenders give as "evidence" against the possibility of his having had an affair with Hemings is that she simply "wasn't his kind of woman." The other women that Jefferson found undeniably attractive -- his wife and a married woman in France named Maria Cosway -- were all very slight, pretty, stereotypically feminine women, all of the drawing-room decoration, cursey-for-the-nice-man variety, at least according to hearsay. Now, any assumption that Hemings, one quarter black, could not possibly have caught his eye smacks of racism, certainly -- but the fact of the matter remains. This woman could not possibly have been a simple decorative fan-flutterer and lace-hankie-clutcher, the sort of woman who attracts conventional-minded men. And given Jefferson's opinions on the intellect (and enfranchisement) of women, he can firmly be placed in the category of conventional-minded man.

"He could never have found Hemings attractive. She was a slave, a laboring woman," say the male historians.

Poppycock. It wouldn't be the first time that a conventional man married June Cleaver but lusted after Xena, or any unconventional woman. Jefferson would not be the first socially conventional man to want a pretty parlor decoration to introduce to his friends at dinner parties, but perhaps like to slip in something a bit duskier when the shades were pulled.

The male historians might have problems getting their brains around this likelihood -- but to women, it's also common coin.

Again, I'm not saying this as a detractor of the man, although there simply is no way to put this into a good light for him. Sally Hemings was 28 years younger than he. She had no legal right to refuse him if she did not return his affections (although Woodson family oral history has it that their relationship was quite loving and cordial). Nonetheless, there remain real questions about what sort of meaningful consent a woman in her situation could realistically give to a man who had the legal right to kill her on a whim.

I'm not going to start calling him the Great Hypocrite, as some do. (And keep in mind that his opinions on women were just as outrageous as his opinions on Africans, so this is definitely a personal issue for me, as a woman.) But I am going to point out the hypocrisies of the people who are wrangling about his sex life, 173 years after he died. Let's face it, our continued perverse nearly-200-year-old fascination with this says a lot more about us than it does about either of them.

Copyright © 2000 by Janis Cortese

06/03/07 at 9:57