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The perfect landed southern gentleman, Jefferson’s earliest memory was, he said, of being carried on a pillow by a slave; and in so many ways he was carried by slaves ever afterwards, even if he chose to call them servants or labourers or colleagues.  They cut his wood, cooked his meals, scrubbed his floors, opened and closed his doors, and waited on his every whim.  His life was built on slaves and debt: things Adams abhorred.

His is a vast family, intimately connected with every branch of the oligarchy in the south.  His descendents-and those of his sisters-would be connected with many of his successors in office right down to Obama today.

Seeing as how Jefferson is back again in Boyle’s new book, and since this is a blog where family and family connections feature so strongly, I cannot simply miss out the elephant in Jefferson’s room.  That subject is the story of Sally Hemmings.  Sally Hemmings was the young slave girl whom Jefferson took as a mistress and by whom he had a number of children.  This story has intrigued and infuriated American commentators for years, – and not, perhaps, for the most obvious reasons.

Civil rights activists have frequently been attracted to the story because they see it as a sign of the prevailing abuse of all slaves in the Old South.  The slave question was one which divided America and Americans at this time as well as today.  Adams was famously anti-slavery.

Now, it was not unusual for white planters to have “relationships” with their black slaves; whether these were coerced or not is not a matter for this posting.  Certainly we can speculate as to the level of consent given.

What gives additional zest and piquancy to this story is that Sally Hemmings – the slave in question- was not just any young girl whose charms had caught Jefferson’s eye.

Sally was his sister-in-law.

Sally was born to a slave of John Wayles, who was the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha.

Sally’s mother was herself mixed race, and probably only half black at most.  Sally was therefore three quarters white and said to be very light skinned; so light that her children by Jefferson were able to pass as “fully white”.  She was described by Isaac Jefferson (no relation) as “mighty near white…very handsome, long straight hair” and Jefferson’s grandson Henry Randolph Jefferson remembered her as “light coloured and decidedly good looking”

It is almost beyond comprehension that apart from having family by one’s wife’s half sister, one could then keep her and the children –one’s own children- as slaves!  The whole ménage a trios lived under the same roof.  ‘Cepting Sally lived in the slave block.  Sally remained a slave to the end.

And people think Fritzl was strange.

The American establishment have never been happy with this story and many commentators state with magisterial authority – and more than a touch of the Mable Lucy Atwells- that no Southern Gentleman would sleep with his slaves, and so, as Jefferson was the epitome of the Southern Gentleman, it is vanishingly unlikely he did.  As Gore Vidal waspishly notes, on such weak syllogisms is false character constructed.

There is one politician who has made the claim that he was a descendent of the union.  Frederick Madison Roberts 1879-1952 was the first African-American to be admitted to the state legislature in California.  He was a great grandson of President Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.

Now in case you should think this is just me raking about in a grubby little corner of a history long forgotten, miscegenation has a long and ignoble history at the heart of the lie that is the melting pot.

Simply put inter-racial sex was plain illegal in the United States from the mid seventeenth century right through to 1967.  If you married a person with a tinted skin be that American Indian, Eurasian, Hispanic or African, you could lose your citizenship, which is exactly what happened to the white American wife of the Bengali revolutionary Tarak Nath Dis.  Mary Dis was stripped of her citizenship simply for marrying an “alien ineligible for citizenship”.  An alien with a brown skin.

It wasn’t until 1967 when a leading case Loving v Virginia 388 US1 -1967 meant that the last seventeen – yes I wrote 17 – states who still enforced laws prohibiting marriage between whites and “persons of color” were forced kicking and struggling into the real world.

Gray               No Laws
Green             Repealed before 1887
Yellow           Repealed 1948 through to 1967
Red                 Repealed 12 June 1967

So then it’s all fine now, all kissed and made up?  Well, no, not really, as attitudes down south take their time a-dying.  In 2009 Keith Bardell a Justice of the Peace in Louisiana refused to officiate in the civil wedding of a mixed race couple.

It’s not gone yet.

Copyright David Macadam 2010

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