“Historians have made a discovery just in time for the July 4th holiday” (2018), writes Natalie Dreier of the National/World News. “They have found the living quarters for Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore six children to one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.”

Where at Monticello is this bedroom? Michael Cottman of NBC News says that Hemings’ bedroom was “adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom.” Reporter Cecile Borkhataria writes that it was “next to Thomas Jefferson’s [bed]room.” Reporter Krissah Thompson says, “The room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept was just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom.”  The implication of easy access in each instance is clear.

With the discovery made, builders and archeologists, led by director of archeology, noted Jeffersonian hater Fraser Neiman, are now reconstructing Hemings’ bedroom in the South Wing of Monticello. Writes Cottman: “Today, Hemings’ room is being restored for eventual public viewing. Monticello’s curators are working diligently to incorporate Hemings’ life as part of Jefferson’s comprehensive story.”

Gary Sandling, vice-president of visitor programs and services at Monticello, adds that the reconstruction is not meant to showcase Jefferson’s avowed relationship with Hemings. “We’re not going to use this room to tell a story about DNA and the paternity of her children—we think the evidence for that is pretty substantial—but to actually think [sic] about her. She was someone who had seen more of the world than the vast majority of a lot of free people, even.” Hmm.

How do we know that the particular room that is being refashioned was Sally Hemings’ room? Thompson writes: “To pinpoint that room, historians relied on a description provided long ago by a Jefferson grandson, who placed it in the home’s south wing. Archaeologists are now peeling back layers in the 14 foot, 8 inch-by-13 foot, 2 inch room to reveal its original brick floor and plaster walls.”

What is the “description provided long ago by a grandson of Jefferson who placed Hemings’ room in the home’s South Wing” that allowed historians to “pinpoint” the room? That grandson was Thomas Jefferson Randolph and the description occurs in a letter (1 June 1868) from early Jefferson biographer, Henry S. Randall, to a later biographer James Parton. Randall tells Parton of a conversation he had with Jefferson’s grandson some 10 years prior to the letter. Says Randall, “Walking about mouldering Monticello one day with Col. T.J. Randolph (Mr. Jefferson’s oldest grandson) he showed me a smoke blackened and sooty room in one of the colonnades and informed me it was Sally Hening’s [sic] room.” That is the complete description that allowed historians to “pinpoint” the room.

“There’s not a lot there,” says Fraser Neiman, director of archeology at Monticello and member of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF). “It’s really great that we’re getting our act together to pull up the floors and see what’s underneath. There aren’t [sic] a whole lot of archaeological discoveries, but we did find part of the original hearth in the Hemings’ room and traces of the original brick floor. Time has not been very kind.” He admits that he is not sure that the room that is being reconstructed is Hemings’.

There is something nefandous. Why is there need of reconstruction the room as if there were no question of it being Sally Hemings’? Why should anyone from with the TJF, upon reading Randall’s letter to Parton, care specifically to make a room for Sally Hemings instead of, say, any other of the more significant slaves, and there were many, at Monticello?

The TJF is heavily invested today in the issue of slavery and a large part of that issue is the notion that Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Giving Hemings her own room, even if it is not adjacent or next to Jefferson’s bedroom, but a large distance from it, will prove, in the minds of visitors over time, that she had an affair with Jefferson. It will also be concrete proof of Jefferson’s hypocrisy—viz., writing illy of some of the attributes of Blacks in his Notes on the State of Virginia and yet taking one as his mistress.

Recall Sandling’s words that Hemings “had seen more of the world than the vast majority of a lot of free people.” Thus, it is important “to think about her life experiences in bondage and to understand the trajectory of her life.” What significant experiences did she have that should make her, among all slaves at Monticello, the focus?

We unfortunately know little of Sally Hemings. Joseph Ellis states, “The historical record [on Sally Hemings] is almost completely blank.” Robert Turner takes it further. “Virtually everything that we believe we know about Sally Hemings … can be recorded on a 3 x 5 index card.” How then can anyone reconstruct her bedroom in such a manner to showcase her “life experiences in bondage” and “understand the trajectory of her life” if we know next to nothing of her?

What exactly do we know of Sally Hemings? Let us flesh out Hemings’ three-by-five card.

She became the property of Jefferson in 1774, when his wife’s father, John Wayles, died. Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was the property of Wayles and it was rumored that she had become Wayles’ concubine after the death of his three wives.

Early in life, Sally was likely a nursemaid to Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Mary, and she retained that role when she arrived with Maria in France in 1787. Jefferson, as minister plenipotentiary, had been in France since 1784 and had brought with him his oldest daughter, Martha, and Sally’s brother, James Hemings, who was learning French cuisine. After the death of two-year-old daughter Lucy, who was back in Virginia, Jefferson insisted that his remaining daughter, Mary, be sent to France to be with him and Martha.

Mary arrived in London in 1787. With her was 14-year-old Sally Hemings. That proved a surprise to Abigail Adams, who had expected at Jefferson’s bidding an old nurse to watch over Mary. “The old Nurse whom you had expected to have attended her,” writes Adams to Jefferson “was sick and unable to come.” Adams’ impression of Hemings was not favorable. Hemings needed more care than Mary. Jefferson too was likely not pleased with his sister’s choice of a traveling companion. To Frances Eppes (30 Aug. 1785), Jefferson asked for “a careful negro woman, as Isabel, for instance, if she has had the small pox, would suffice under the patronage of a gentleman.” Jefferson unwittingly got Sally Hemings.

In France, Hemings almost certainly lived with young Mary at Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, a convent where the two would be schooled in a non-religious manner, though some writers, following the lead of Annette Gordon-Reed, insist that she stayed with Jefferson, his secretary William Short, Col. David Humphreys, often visitor Carlos Williamos, and their attending staff at the Hôtel de Langeac. Hemings, it seems, would attend to Mary and perhaps even Martha in France at the convent. We know no specifics however. William Howard Adams, author of a book on Jefferson’s tenure in Paris, states: “The evidence is meager. Apart from nine notations in Jefferson’s Memorandum Book recording purchases of clothing, her servant’s pay, and a fee for smallpox vaccination, Sally Hemings is completely absent from the Paris record.”

After France, Hemings probably had light duties as housemaid at Monticello and, if we follow Jefferson’s accounts in his memoranda books and we have no other data, received no special treatment.

Did Jefferson have a nearly 40-year affair with Sally Hemings?

That seems improbable, but it is not impossible. The DNA evidence is consistent with Jefferson, fathering Eston Hemings. That is all that we have biologically. That makes Jefferson a viable candidate, but it does not rule out some two dozen others in the Jefferson bloodline—his brother Randolph being an especially attractive possibility. There is also the report, “Life among the Lowly,” in the Ohio newspaper Pike County Republican of Sally’s son Madison, published decades after Jefferson’s passing (1873), in which he claims that Jefferson was his father. Yet that report, I have cogently argued, fails on several grounds apropos of sound historical scholarship. All we can say is this: We do not know.

In effect, the TJF is using Jefferson’s Monticello to make a political statement about the evils of slavery. Why is Jefferson the guinea pig for their statement? It is in large part on account of the meticulous records he kept of his slaves in his memoranda books.

Yet the TJF seems to have taken things too far. They are construction their own history—a false narrative—to speak to the evils of slavery.

Is that morally correct, or even morally acceptable?

That seems laudable, until one considers over time the many efforts by persons with political power or leverage to change history “for the better.” We need not list names. The results are almost always facinorous. All persons with power or leverage think their own agenda is the correct agenda. It seldom is. To my thinking, all willing attempts to falsify history for a political aim are facinorous. History begins with truth—facts or claims that have been vetted and abundantly confirmed.

Political power or leverage does not, however, entail moral wisdom. Thus, truth is preferable, even when it is ugly. As Jefferson noted often, history is significant chiefly for its moral lessons, even when the characters involved are morally opprobrious. Truth is also preferable, because we can never be sure that those who wave the Utilitarian flag of moral betterment have greater moral wisdom than we do. Jefferson always advised caution on that issue. He preferred, as he once said, the moral judgment of the plowman to that of the professor. The former lives a clean, hardy life; the latter, is often under the spell of political or financial motivations.

Why then is there so much fuss over telling the Sally Hemings story when we have no sure evidence of an affair with Jefferson, when we know next to nothing about Hemings, and when there is ample evidence that many other slaves were more important to Jefferson: e.g., Joseph Fossett, Burwell Colbert John Hemings, and James Hemings?

The answer seems clear. Sex and debasement fascinate. They fascinate, and they sell. They also act, in the eyes of some woke-revisionist scholars, as a lure to the larger aim of reducing Jefferson to just another owner of slaves—in the words of Gordon-Reed, of “cutting Jefferson down to size”—thereby militating against his character and against his numerous significant achievements toward human betterment and militating for his hypocrisy and racism. With the aim of cutting Jefferson down to size, many little people, the Lilliputian woke-revisionists, feel themselves to be of a size, larger than the Brobdingnagian Jefferson.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    My opinion only: The contemporary Lilliputians don’t feel themselves larger than the giants. They know they are not. But they do know that it is the tiny termites in nature that nibble en masse and will destroy structures only to feed their fat beastly bellies.

  • Gordon says:

    Great article, Professor Holowchak, worthy of printing and keeping in the Jefferson section. I disagree that”We do not know” whether he fathered a Hemings child. We absolutely do know Mr. Jefferson was 64 years old when the only Hemings with Jefferson DNA was born. By then, Tom was wearing down from national service but still engrossed with lifelong financial difficulties, constant development of Monticello – house, crops, farm infrastructure and related business ventures.

    There is evidence approaching admission that Jefferson’s amorous interests were long over by then, never uttering interest in anyone after his wife, Martha, died. He essentially limited himself to warm personal devotion to his daughters and their families. There was a later infatuation with the beautiful English artist, Maria Cosway, while minister to France, a friendship known by Cosway’s husband. There was never belief of consummation of the relationship and they remained correspondents until the end of Jefferson’s life.

    Most notable is Jefferson’s admission to a true transgression after a tabloid editor, during Jefferson’s first term as president, first accused him of fathering slave children. A former ally, editor James Callender, printed the allegation for Jefferson’s failure to secure him a government job. Subsequently, Jefferson confessed to pursuing the wife of his friend, John Walker, thirty years earlier; Jefferson admitted practicing objectionable behavior, entering Mrs. Walker’s dressing chambers without invitation, written propositions, etc.. The Walkers forgave him and they remained friends, Mr. Walker even defending him at the time of the Hemings expose. Neither at that time or any other did Jefferson, or anyone else, mention relations with slave girls.

    I visited Monticello last year. After pro forma mention of the Declaration of Independence it’s about the enslaved population and, yes, featured Sally Hemings’ room. Soon afterward, I began receiving emails asking for contributions. I recently sent them a response asking if they’d yet resumed telling the story of a great, good and decent man, Thomas Jefferson, and not reducing the man and the Founding to continued racial grievance. The solicitations have stopped.

    Great piece and it’s nearby for future reference.

    • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

      Thank you. I have a book that is out on TJ and Maria Cosway. It is the most complete scholarly analysis of their relationship.


      Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway, A Gordian Love Affair
      Complete Correspondence with Critical Commentary

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    First, ALL WOMEN of that era were, quite virtually, slaves other than the VERY few whose money and place in the world permitted them to live independently. So to make so much of Hemming’s “enslavement” is nonsense itself. If she as “an enslaved person,” the new politically correct label for slaves ~ but only black ones (and yes, there were white slaves!) so what? Many white wives were married to men who used them without there being any “love” involved. The only reason this becomes an issue is that Jefferson was [a] white, [b] a Southerner and [c] did not approve of slavery. But even if he did not, Jefferson had enough good sense to ask the question that nobody (even those in the North) could answer, “What shall we do with the Negro?” This question was made much more significant by the revolution in Hispaniola and the creation of Haiti. What happened there was very much a matter that led to the reaction of the South against the violent abolitionists in the North who wished to foster “servile insurrection” rather than simple emancipation. I’m soooo sick of there being some sort of double standard regarding especially Southern whites and the whole situation with slaves. Jefferson was right. England imported black slaves into the West Indies and America. Americans didn’t until much later and then those that did were from the North, not the South. I’m waiting for these “historians” to start seeking how many women other non-Southern historical figures used or does this matter only apply to slaves and American historical heroes?

    • Paul Yarbrough says:

      The concept of “slavery” is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented concepts in historical nomenclature—at least by the modern media/academia/ radio-talk-blowhards. Where and how the slaves came, who was responsible for their destination, and what to do with them at what point was a question that had (should have been) to be answered with careful consideration and thought.
      To the Yankee North and to today’s above-mentioned media-historical ilk there was only one solution because there was simply one problem: slaves were like prisoners who were locked up and forced to work for nothing. The solution: FREE them.
      It is this moronic mentality that drives not just The New York Times, CNN et al but even what people consider “Conservatives,” the like of such being Fox News, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and the many, many, many other (you hear them every day) suspects who have never read any history south of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

  • dogface says:

    Maybe I am naive, but I really don’t need/want to know about people’s personal activities. I am waiting for them to accuse Jefferson of being a homosexual.

    I hope they don’t destroy the house while on their snipe hunt.

  • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

    The issue for me is intellectual integrity when writing history. I know enough about the players to know that they know their story is a yarn. It is for them racial justice. To sacrifice a white Founding Father–to me, THE Founding Father–is to them a small sacrifice. What scares the hell out of me is when others think they are qualified to speak on moral concerns on behalf of the rest of us. I taught Ethics for over 30 years….

    Check out my two books:
    Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 2013
    Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father Sally Hemings’ Black Children? A Scholarly Analysis of the Historical and Genetic Evidence, 2021

    I have a few copies yet of each, if anyone wants an autographed copy: 25, including shipping.

    • Gordon says:

      Sir, I am interested in one or the other books offered here. I checked the link above and the usual other places.

      I have to mention your characterization of Jefferson as “THE Founding Father” convinced me. Very few know of his relentless insistence that individual liberty be promoted and protected throughout founding documents and legislation. Heck, before long they’ll erase him with the Frankford Advise but Mr. Jefferson’s library, mind and pen are responsible for the aspiration and achievement of freedom for hundreds of millions throughout the world. He was a good guy too.

      How to obtain your books? Thanks.

  • Harvey Hanna says:

    “The evidence is meager. Apart from nine notations in Jefferson’s Memorandum Book recording purchases of clothing, her servant’s pay, and a fee for smallpox vaccination, Sally Hemings is completely absent from the Paris record.”

    Hemings received pay for being a servant?
    Well, well.
    How do they explain that?

  • Albert Alioto says:

    I seem to recall that it was Fawn Brodie, in her 1970s biography of Jefferson, who tried to make Sally Hemings into a worthy partner for Jefferson. It has been almost fifty years since I read it, but my recollection is that there was nothing of Abigail Adams’ view of Hemings in Brodie’s description of her. I will defer to those more knowledgeable than I as to how the story got started and took on the life it has in recent decades, but I think my memory oof Brodie’s book is basically solid.

  • Sam McGowan says:

    This has been going on for years and originated with an unscrupulous journalist who worked for Jefferson but got upset when he wouldn’t appoint him to a government job. The irony of the story is that those who make hay over the story imply that Jefferson went to the slave quarters and brought in a young girl for his sexual pleasure. Actually, Sally Hemmings was likely his sister-in-law and as such she would have had a room in the house, although that doesn’t mean Jefferson was slipping into her bedroom at night. Furthermore, Sally wasn’t a black girl, she was 75% white which would have almost made her white under Virginia law. She was a slave because her mother was a slave. Her Jefferson’s father-in-law freed her, Sally would have been free.

    • Keith Redmon says:

      Thank you sir for a fine article. I enjoy your books all of which are in the “Jefferson” section of my library. I once believed that Jefferson did sire those children. But after reading your books, Malone’s biography, and Jefferson’s own writings, I am convinced there was no affair between Sally and Thomas Jefferson.

    • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

      Callendar and Postmaster General or Richmond. Callendar attacked anyone for any personal advantage.

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