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Category Archives: Sally Hemings

I admit one indiscretion. I deny the rest.

The inclosed copy of a letter to mr Lincoln will so fully explain it’s own object, that I need say nothing in that way. I communicate it to particular friends because I wish to stand with them on the ground of truth, neither better nor worse than that makes me. you will percieve that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young & single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege it’s incorrectness; it is the only one, founded in truth among all their allegations against me … [I count] you among those whose esteem I value too much to risk it by silence.
To Robert Smith, July 1, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
What is a leader to do with a mess like this?
In late 1802, political writer James Callender, who had been encouraged by Jefferson just a few years earlier, now turned on his benefactor. Chief among Callender’s charges was that the President kept a slave concubine at Monticello, had initiated the relationship with her 15 years earlier in France, and fathered several children with her. She was not identified specifically at the time, but the woman was Sally Hemings. Callender also wrote of a Jefferson indiscretion with a married neighbor more than 30 years before.

These allegations and others became fodder for opposition politicians and were circulated widely during and after the 1804 elections. Although Jefferson never addressed the accusations publicly, he wanted a few close friends to know the truth. Robert Smith was one of those friends.

Jefferson admitted that as a young single man, he had propositioned a neighbor’s wife and “acknolege[d] it’s incorrectness.” He also wrote that of “all their allegations against me,” it was the only one “founded in truth.” Admitting to this one, he denied the others, including the charges involving Sally Hemings.

The “inclosed copy of a letter to mr Lincoln,” his Attorney General, has not been found. Apparently, it offered a much fuller explanation. All that’s left is this cover note to Smith.

“Having you as a special surprise guest … turned out to be an excellent idea …
a pleasant and refreshingly different aspect …”
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Refreshingly different! That’s Thomas Jefferson!
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I admit it. I was wrong.

The inclosed copy of a letter to mr Lincoln will so fully explain it’s own object, that I need say nothing in that way. I communicate it to particular friends because I wish to stand with them on the ground of truth, neither better nor worse than that makes me. you will percieve that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young & single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege it’s incorrectness; it is the only one, founded in truth among all their allegations against me.
To Robert Smith, July 1, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders do well to come clean.
Jefferson had been reelected to his second term as President. The opposition Federalist Party was beaten back even more in 1804. Federalist fury might have prompted the publishing of an unsigned attack on Jefferson in a Boston newspaper. It accused Jefferson on many fronts, including allegations raised by journalist James Callendar several years before. Those charges claimed the President had a sexual relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings, and children from that union.

Jefferson made no public response to the accusations, as was his custom. He did address them in private correspondence to trusted friends, as was also his custom. In this revelatory letter to his Navy Secretary, Jefferson dismissed all other charges of inappropriate personal behavior by admitting to the one area where he was guilty. In 1768, when he was 25 and single, he made an improper advance to Mrs. John Walker, the wife of a friend and neighbor. She rebuffed him. The matter remained private for nearly 30 years, when the Walkers released a highly exaggerated account.

Jefferson never addressed the Sally Hemings allegations directly. Indirectly, and privately, he denied them on several occasions. This is the best known example. He admitted he was wrong in his behavior toward Mrs. Walker and said that was ” the only one, founded in truth among all their allegations against me.”

The “inclosed copy of a letter to mr lincoln,” which Jefferson referenced, might have brought more clarity. That letter has never been found.

Mr. Jefferson pledges to address any questions your audience might ask.
No holds barred.
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What evil lurks in the hearts of men?*

I must ask the favor of you to call on mr Callender & to inform him that I have recieved his letter; that his fine will be remitted, but that as it requires the presence of the head of the department, it cannot be done till his arrival, which will be in a very few days. the moment he is here & qualified, it shall be dispatched.
To George Jefferson, March 4, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Not all of a leader’s supporters are friends.
Jefferson encouraged political writer James Callender to promote the Republican cause in the 1800 election, for which he was fined and jailed under President Adams’ Sedition Act. Upon release, he agitated for the return of his $200 fine. Jefferson promised the refund once procedural hurdles were satisfied. The delay rankled the irritable Callender, who took it as a personal affront.

Callender began to lobby for the job of postmaster in Richmond, VA, as recompense for what he had suffered at the hands of the Federalists. That lobbying eventually became near extortion, threatening President Jefferson with certain “facts” in his (Callender’s) possession if the job was not given to him. Jefferson did see to an eventual refund of the fine, but he ignored Callender’s threats.

Even more offended, James Callender published allegations of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. Callender’s attacks continued until July of 1803, when he drowned in three feet of water in the James River. The official cause was accidental, a result of intoxication.

According to the Founders Archives web site, this letter is the first one written by Thomas Jefferson on the day of his inauguration as President.

Callender’s allegations would plague Jefferson throughout his life and are given credence by some yet today.

*A famous line from Walter Gibson’s 1930s radio series, “The Shadow.”
 “Some of the comments we received … Very entertaining.
A good way to close out. Fun and Fitting, and Wow! What a Finish!”

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Thomas Jefferson on sisterly advice

Can your sibling tell you anything?
When your sister arrives [in France, from America] she will become a precious charge on your hands. The difference of your age and your common loss of a mother, will put that office on you. Teach her above all things to be good, because without that we can neither be valued by others nor set any value on ourselves. Teach her always to be true; no vice is so mean as the want of truth, and at the same time so useless. Teach her never to be angry; anger only serves to torment ourselves, to divert others, and alienate their esteem. And teach her industry, and application to useful pursuits. I will venture to assure you that if you inculcate this in her mind, you will make her a happy being herself, a most interesting friend to you, and precious to all the world.

To Martha Jefferson, early-to-mid 1787, 1244

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
When the widowed Jefferson sailed to France in 1784, he took his eldest daughter Martha with him. She was almost 12 and commonly called Patsy. He left two younger daughters, six year-old Maria (called Polly or Mary) and two-year-old Lucy Elizabeth in America, in the care of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Eppes.
Just five months after his arrival, he learned that whooping cough had claimed Lucy and one of her Eppes cousins. He began making plans to bring Maria to Paris, a task that took over two years to accomplish.
Jefferson frequently placed a weighty burden of responsibility on his young daughters. Here, he wrote 14 year-old Patsy that she would be the mother figure for her eight-year-old sister. Both would live together in the convent Patsy attended. He instructed Patsy to teach Polly:
– To be good
– To be true
– Never to be angry
– To be industrious
– To be useful
These are admirable qualities but probably too much for a young teenager to teach a much younger sibling (and near stranger).
An unanticipated event arose from Polly’s journey across the Atlantic, one that would dog Jefferson the rest of his life. He asked his sister-in-law to send an older slave woman to accompany and care for his young daughter on her trip. Why Elizabeth Eppes made the choice she did is unknown. Polly Jefferson’s traveling companion was not a mature woman but a girl in her early-teens, Sally Hemings.

Learn what advice Thomas Jefferson might share with your audience.
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Thomas Jefferson on J.T. Callendar (& Sally Hemings)

How would you respond to blackmail?
Soon after I was elected to the government [as President], Callender came on here wishing to be made postmaster at Richmond. I knew him to be totally unfit for it; and however ready I was to aid him with my own charities (and I then gave him fifty dollars). I did not think the public offices confided to me to give away as charities.
Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1802, 1066

He [J. T. Callender] intimated that he was in possession of things which he could and would make use of in a certain case; that he received the fifty dollars [I gave him], not as a charity but a due, in fact as hush money; that I knew what he expected, viz. a certain office, and more to this effect. Such a misconstruction of my charities puts an end to them forever … He knows nothing of me which I am not willing to declare to the world myself.
Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801, 1067|

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
James Callendar was part of the anti-Federalist press in the latter 1790s. To what degree he was recruited / paid / encouraged by Jefferson or simply found his way into the pro-Republican camp is up for debate. Callendar was particularly nasty in his writing and was jailed under President Adams’ Sedition Act. Jefferson considered the $50 he paid Callendar both as charity and recompense for time spent in jail.
When Jefferson became President, Callendar asked for and then demanded a job but was refused. Callendar threatened Jefferson with the release of certain harmful information. Jefferson broke off further contact with Callendar.
In 1802, Callendar made public accusations that Jefferson had kept his slave, Sally Hemings, as his concubine and fathered children by her.
Edit
I have reversed the order of the two excerpts above because they seem to be clearer when read this way.
The last line of the second excerpt, the one in 1801, can be seen as Jefferson’s denial of any involvement with Sally Hemings.

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Thomas Jefferson on the Sally Hemings allegations

What youthful sexual indiscretions would you admit?
“The inclosed copy of a letter to Mr. Levi Lincoln will so fully explain its own object, that I need say nothing in that way. I communicate it to particular friends because I wish to stand with them on the ground of truth; neither better nor worse than that makes me. You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single, I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknoledge its incorrectness. It is the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me … “

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Smith, July 1, 1805 (“Jefferson the Virginian” by Dumas Malone, Appendix 3, P.  447-451)

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Robert Smith was Jefferson’s Secretary of the Navy. Levi Lincoln was his Attorney General. Jefferson was circulating correspondence among his closest associates regarding  allegations that he had long kept his slave Sally Hemings as a mistress and had fathered children by her.
Publicly, Jefferson never responded to those charges, as he rarely responded openly to personal or political attacks. In his private correspondence, however, he denied the charges, both specifically and in general.
This letter refers to an indiscretion 37 years prior, at age 25 and single, when he propositioned the wife of a neighbor and friend. She rebuffed him, and he acknowledged his actions were improper. He admitted his guilt and described the incident as, “… the only one founded on truth among all their allegations against me …” Others might interpret this differently, but it can be seen as his direct denial of any involvement with Sally Hemings.
The “inclosed copy” Jefferson refers to, perhaps offering more detail, has not been found.

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Thomas Jefferson on fearing others

Is your life, all of it, an open book?
I fear no injury which any man can do to me. I have never done a single act, or have been concerned in any transaction, which I fear to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated. I have never done a single thing with a view to my personal interest, or that of any friend, or with any other view than that of the greatest public good; therefore, no threat or fear on that head will ever be a motive of action with me.
Thomas Jefferson writing in the Anas, 1806, 51

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
John Foley, whose edit I use in this work, suggested this was written in response to a threat by Aaron Burr.
Jefferson had strong political foes and weathered countless attacks, both political and personal over the last 30 years of his life. This thought was expressed more than halfway through his Presidency.  Seven weeks before his death, Jefferson expressed the same thought in a letter to Henry Lee, “There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.”
This statement could be seen as yet another denial of the charge he fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings.
The “Anas” was a collection of Jefferson’s private notes, thoughts and ideas, recorded from 1791 to 1809. While they were private writings, Jefferson gathered them under this title for future reference. Thoughts found in the Anas will often be expressed in his correspondence as well. The Complete Anas of Thomas Jefferson
has been published and is available for purchase.

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