Jefferson and Hemings: an all-American story

November 13, 1998|By Ira Berlin

NOTHING so reveals the current state of our national angst about the question of race and our national identity than the recent revelations about Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

The recent discovery of the equivalent of Hemings' blue dress overturns almost two centuries of disavowals and disclaimers of the longtime relationship between Jefferson and his wife's half sister.

What is revelatory is not so much the power of the DNA analysis, the unmasking of the author the Declaration of Independence and third president of the fledgling United States, or the discovery that many men in high places have large sexual appetites -- of that we surely needed no lesson -- but the totality of the denial of what, in retrospect, seems like a compelling case.

The universality of those denials -- the shameless conspiracy of historians in maintaining them -- speaks to the importance of race in the foundation of American nationality and the peculiarity of American slavery in setting that foundation.

The peculiar institution

It was not simply the existence of slavery, but the character of its development in mainland North America that forced Jefferson, then his supporters, and finally the entire white establishment to deny even the possibility that Jefferson and Hemings had sexual relations -- perhaps even loved one another -- and the utter refusal to recognize Jefferson and Heming's children as legitimate heirs to their father's greatest gift -- the assurances that "all men are created equal."

From the time slaves arrived on these shores, slaveholders, like other men of power, considered access to slave women as one of the prerogatives that naturally fell to men of their class.

That access -- which was extended to the slaveholder's henchmen, his stewards, overseers and other aspirants -- was sometimes rape, and sometimes seduction -- for many slave women found advantages for themselves and their children by granting their master's wishes.

The stories of these relations are an inescapable part of slavery's sordid history and derive from the enormous asymmetry of power between master and slave, and the ubiquitous violence upon which slavery itself rested.

In their sexual assumptions and behavior, American slave owners were no different than those in other slave societies. However, U.S. slave owners, different from their brethren in other new world slaveholding societies, refused to accept the consequences of their actions.

That difference emerged from the start and can be traced in patterns of settlement. Outside of mainland North America, European men generally pioneered alone, and came home after making their fortune to wife and family.

If, while in the new world, they enjoyed the embrace of slave women and fathered children, they had few compunctions in recognizing them.

Unlike other new world slave societies, the mainland North American colonies were settler societies. European men and women pioneered together, creating families almost from the first. The presence of a white wife and her children made the recognition of the interracial families that white men created almost impossible.

In short, the sexual behavior of slaveholding men in the mainland was no different than that of slaveholders elsewhere. What was different was that the presence of their white family forced them to deny what everyone knew.

The denials shaped race relations and, indeed, the very definition of white and black. Few masters freed their slaves, and free blacks were identified not as a distinct social group, but as an extension of the slave population.

Law and practice drew the line between white and black, not between free and slave. The color line between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons carried little weight, and the "one-drop rule," the belief that any trace of African ancestry made a person "black," became the governing principle of racial practice.

The admixture that had come to characterize American society -- and to which Jefferson and Hemings contributed -- could not be recognized, at least by white people. The fiction of race, in short, became an every day reality.

Jefferson wrestled with his inability to recognize the fundamental truth that his children with Hemings were more a product of European than of African descent. In many ways, his struggle -- manifest in his twisted, fragmentary and contradictory commentary on slavery and race -- was more open than those who followed him, including those scholars who made St. Thomas of Monticello the very personification of American nationality.

A study in contradiction

When confronted by the evidence that the author of American freedom was also the father of American slaves, historians could only stonewall. The possibility that some Jefferson descendants -- like most Americans -- were the products of Europe and Africa, if not genetically, most certainly culturally, threatened the fiction of race upon which American nationality rested.

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