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Our presidents' slaves did not choose to be their mistresses

rival week


George Washington University


Our presidents' slaves did not choose to be their mistresses

An affair without consent isn't an affair

Emily Milakovic


Rumors that Thomas Jefferson had children with one of his slaves started circulating by his first term in office, yet many historians continued to debate this theory through the 20th century, until a 1998 DNA test proved a link between Sally Hemings' children and the Jefferson family.

Jefferson's only child by his wife who survived to adulthood maintained that her father never had the alleged relationship, as did two of her children, who insisted the light-skinned slaves at Monticello's that were thought be to Jefferson's were actually fathered by two of Jefferson's nephews. The DNA test ruled out the nephews as fathers.

Despite the fact that we have come around to admitting that one of the progressive fathers of our country fathered children with a slave, more than 200 years later, we still struggle to talk about it properly. Too many publications continue to refer to women like Sally Hemings as "mistresses" or refer to their relationships with the men who owned them as "affairs." Though Monticello includes information about Hemings on their website, no mention is made that she had no choice in her relationship with Jefferson.

Some try to argue that Hemings and Jefferson may have truly been in love and that she wanted to be with him. But she could not consent. What she thought of Jefferson didn't matter; she was his property and "no" wouldn't have been an option.

Maybe Hemings did have some kind of feelings for Jefferson; she had six children by him, four who lived to adulthood. Regardless of if he treated her better than other slaves or not, it's not unlikely that she felt something towards him simply as the result of him being the father of her children.

However, it's impossible to know what she felt; as a slave, her feelings were hardly documented, and only a handful of physical descriptions of her even exist. But no matter how she felt or came to feel, the fact remains that what happened to her was rape. Jefferson's contemporaries wouldn't have seen it that way.

Many of us today also don't want to see it that way; it is easier not to confront that part of Jefferson's life than to grapple with the sins committed by our early presidents. But when we talk about Sally Hemings and the women like her, we cannot call them "mistress," as if they were some scheming homewreckers. Their stories were dictated by the men who owned them.

Though Jefferson eventually freed his children with Hemings, we must acknowledge that for a time, he owned his own children, but this was nothing new. Sally Hemings' family tree already had two generations of slave children with white fathers.

Her grandmother Susanna was a slave who had a child by English sailor John Hemings; John attempted to purchase Susanna and their daughter, Betty, from the man who owned them, but he refused. Betty eventually became the slave of a man named John Wayles, who had multiple children by her, including Sally.

Wayles was also the father of Jefferson's wife, Martha, through his first wife; as such, Jefferson's wife and Sally were half-sisters. Jefferson and Martha inherited Wayles' slaves, including Hemings after his death. Despite Jefferson's daughter's instance that no relationship occurred between him and Hemings, she was in fact both a cousin and half-sister to Sally Hemings' children.
Sally Hemings' family tree

The point, however, is not the complicated family tree. The point is showing how common this was. We consider Hemings scandalous because she had a president's illegitimate children, but she was far from being the only slave who had children by someone with power over her.

It's unknown if George Washington had any children (it is possible that he was sterile), but Martha Washington's orphaned grandson from her first marriage, who George Washington later adopted, had children with at least two of the first president's slaves.

Even though their descendants are alive today, these stories are often written out of history. Washington's adopted son married, and they had only one child live to adulthood; Despite the fact that his slave-born children also lived to adulthood, Wikipedia calls her his "only surviving child" (that daughter, by the way, married Robert E. Lee, meaning that all of Lee's descendants have black relatives).

ZSun-nee Miller-Matema, a descendant of Caroline Branham, one of Washington's slaves who had a child by his adopted son, at Mount Vernon. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)

It's difficult to critique our founding fathers, as if any good in America will be invalidated by examining the contradictions between their personal lives and their messages of liberty and justice. But women like Sally Hemings deserve to have their stories painted in truth.