The Truth About Thomas Jefferson's Affair

Thomas Jefferson has been called many things: a genius, a sage, a prolific inventor, the father of a nation. And like any important historical figure, pinning down the facts of his life and legacy has not been an easy task. One aspect of his life that had historians quibbling for nearly two centuries was the nature of his relationship with a woman named Sally Hemings, a slave he owned. The debate began in 1802, when journalist James Callender accused Jefferson of the lifelong affair in the Richmond, Virginia, Federalist newspaper the Recorder. "It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY," wrote Callender (via Digital History at the University of Houston).

Rather than respond to the allegations publicly, Jefferson remained silent. For the next two centuries, scholars would widely consider Callender's accusations as nothing more than scandalmongering by a spurned political conspirator. Callender had helped Jefferson get into the office of president by publishing an exposé on his Federalist rival Alexander Hamilton, revealing that Hamilton had conducted an affair with a married woman. In addition to Jefferson's financing the project, Callender had expected a bit of quid pro quo once the Founding Father finally took office. But when he didn't get the appointment as postmaster of Richmond, he published the exposé of Jefferson and Hemings, leading historians to believe the whole affair was hearsay.

DNA evidence proved Callender's allegations in the 1990s

In his 1998 book American Sphinx, Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis wrote that "the alleged liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may be described as the longest-running miniseries in American history." The drama finally came to an end in 1998, when a study of DNA evidence published in the scientific journal Nature put the matter to rest once and for all. The evidence was so compelling that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation released a statement expressing its view that "the issue is a settled historical matter." The foundation recognized the "considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond)" that was corroborated by the DNA study and proved Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings' children.

Among the most salient pieces of evidence was a testimony from Madison Hemings, who told an Ohio newspaper in 1873 that his mother had made a deal with Jefferson to grant freedom to their children, and that the deal was no secret in the community at the time. The DNA study corroborated the family history he told, finding that the male-line descendants of another of Hemings' sons, Easton, had Jefferson DNA, not only verifying Madison's story, but refuting the narratives told by Jefferson's "legitimate" grandchildren. Madison Hemings was even registered as Jefferson's son in the 1870 census. And these are just the first few pieces in a long list of evidence confirming that Jefferson did indeed have a lifelong affair with Sally Hemings.

Other Founding Fathers most likely knew of Thomas Jefferson's affair before his presidency

Recent scholarship suggests that Callender's scandalous 1802 exposé of Jefferson's affair with Hemings actually came as no surprise to his contemporaries. While Callender himself wrote that it had "once or twice been hinted at" in newspapers in 1800 and 1801, his article in the Richmond Recorder has been considered the first significant mention of the Jefferson/Hemings relationship. In a 2016 piece published in Smithsonian magazine, however, Trinity College professor Mark Silk claimed to have found references to the affair that predate the 1802 exposé by over eight years.

John Adams wrote to his sons in 1794, said Silk, referring — indirectly — to Hemings and the nature of her relationship to the future third president. Rather than calling her "Dashing Sally," as she was known around Jefferson's plantation Monticello, Adams, one of Jefferson's political rivals, used the name of a nymph from Roman mythology. Rather than write about an affair with Sally Hemings, Adams wrote of "his Conversations with Egeria in the Groves." In another letter, he compared Jefferson to King Numa of Rome, who the poet Ovid wrote was believed to have slept with Egeria before returning to Rome to rule for 43 years. Silk said that there is "good reason to think" that the nymph referred to Hemings and called the letters "tangible evidence" that at least one other leading political family of the day knew of Jefferson's affair with her.