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The story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is in the news again as a new biography on the subject suggests that Hemings was asking for it. This has set Twitter ablaze with anger so I thought I would look into it.
At the age of 14 Sally Hemings began sexual relations with Jefferson. By today’s standards this itself would be outrageous and the Greeks in 700 B.C. would have frowned upon this too but at the time the age of consent had been dropped down to 12 years old.
Sally Hemings was a slave however, she could not have given her consent at any age because she was owned by Jefferson. In fact Hemings was the half sister of Jefferson’s widow. For most slaves of the time sexual abuse was common resisting the masters advances resulted in beatings but at least in Hemings case she could escape the wrath of a jealous wife as Jefferson was a widow.
Hemings and a few other slaves accompanied Jefferson to Paris. Slavery was illegal in France so during this time Hemings was paid $2 a month something, but, much less than the $8-$12 a month made by French servants. Upon the time to return to the US Hemings was pregnant with the first of six children she would bare him. She had learned to speak French while in Paris and was “free” to stay in Paris a free woman but she chose to return on the condition that Jefferson would free her children when they came of age (at 21). A condition he honored along with 2 other slaves he chose to free. Making 8 freed slaves out of the hundreds he owned.
We probably will never know why Hemings returned with Jefferson from Paris. It could have been fear of raising a child in a foreign country, it could have been Stockholm Syndrome. But I think it is dangerous to paint her as seductress when she had little opportunity to give consent. I think historically we are obliged to look at this relationship as non-consensual at best and even rape by today’s standards. We profit more from the past when we look at our leaders with open eyes, see their achievements as well as their crimes. I side with Twitter on this one.