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.