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I Don't Need a Hero...
I have always admired Thomas Jefferson. At some point, my admiration became admixed with contempt, yet the admiration somehow remained. As a result I have read almost as many biographies of Thomas Jefferson as I have of Winston Churchill, another problematic object of my admiration. I can't say either man is my hero--there is too much in each that I would rather not be, or that I would not take as a model for humane, honorable behavior. I do not think heroes are great things to have anyway, certainly not heroes who were once living men and women. Once a person is a hero, they are denied the privilege, dubious though that might be, of being fully human. They are bound to a perfection they can only fail to fulfill, and so their worshippers must either deal with them dishonestly or ultimately cast them down for being, after all, only human.
I admire Thomas Jefferson. I am interested in his life, his impact on this country and on others, and in his failures. I am currently reading Jon Meacham's work, Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power. And reading Meacham has me thinking about scandal, power, and tyranny. And of course, about Jefferson. So, let's talk about Thomas Jefferson.
Self-Evident Rights and African Slavery
Thomas Jefferson wrote and had edited by committee the Declaration of Independence justifying the separation of the colonies from Great Britain by indicting King George as a tyrant who had acted in specified ways destructive to the "self-evident" rights of men--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a bold document, though not as bold as Jefferson intended it to be. The committee cut it and toned it down. Jefferson's words, in any case, were often far more bold than his actions, a virtue in the eyes of Meacham, who interprets the discrepancy as Jefferson's pragmatism, a colonial 'art of the possible', adjusting his ideals to practicable policies and deeds. And Jefferson was writing, even in his letters, to stir men, replacing his weakness in oratory with sublime prose, and oratory does not aim to establish a fact but to goad others into action.
TJ's prose has a lot of freedom in it, a lot about liberty as a supreme ideal, but in his life he successfully squared this lyricism with a lifestyle and plantation culture that required the enslavement of African men and women, and that of their American-born children. When one of his slaves ran away, he advertised for their return. He kept an average of 200 in his possession at any one time. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were ideals for the world, vague and inactive, but rights for a very few white males, preferably descendants of good English stock, although the French were also welcome.
The dissonance between the hide-bound philosophy of freedom and the living man is not difficult to detect in Jefferson's life and work. It is a dissonance we Americans continue to either avoid or struggle with as we consider who we will really allow access to these fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and under what conditions. Hypocrisy was, and is, not TJ's sole property.
Hemings and Jefferson
TJ the Tyrant
As a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson had a degree of personal power over the men, women, and children he owned that is difficult to fully realize. He was a household tyrant, as were all slaveowners in the United States. A tyrant is defined by the power he possesses, not the manner in which he makes use of it, for all limitations on a tyrant's behavior are self-imposed. When he is just, the tyrant is just because he wishes to be, because it pleases him, and only for so long as he wishes to be and it pleases him. His benevolence is arbitrary; it can always be revoked, and is, therefore, always and at all times temporary.
Among the privileges of a tyrant, as any brief survey of caudillismo in South and Central America, Caribbean dictatorships, and African kleptocracies will readily illustrate today, is that of sexual gratification. The will of the tyrant creates the appearance of consent without requiring its presence. In fact, consent is not at issue in a subordinate's relationship to the tyrant: it is a matter of power. Refusal is always an act of rebellion, dangerous and often fatal for he/she who does the refusing, not because it questions the sexual allure of the tyrant, but because it questions the substance and reality of his power. It is this that makes a scandal of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings. That he had a long-term relationship with his wife's young half-sister, while salacious, is unimportant. That he owned his lover and was thus in a tyrannical position over her, supported in his power by law and custom, is of very great import, and makes the relationship between them one of interest. The issue that immediately comes to mind is the question of consent: Could Sally Hemings have reasonably refused Jefferson?
Sally Hemings and the Laws of France
Yes, she could, and she did. She had the opportunity, only briefly and she did not take full advantage of it, but used it to adjust her conditions as Jefferson's slave, and that of her unborn children, in relation to their master.
What happened, according to Madison Hemings, son of Sally and Jefferson, was this: Sally had traveled to France as a maid to Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Polly. Sally was the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law, fair of skin, young (about 14), and, according to many, beautiful. Jefferson began a relationship with her that resulted in a pregnancy. Preparing to leave for Virginia as the French Revolution began to grow more and more disordered and tumultuous, Jefferson expected Sally to return with him, but she refused. She said she would not go.
They were in France, and being in France gave Sally Hemings something she would have lacked in Virginia: the right of refusal. In France, as she knew and Jefferson knew, she could petition for her freedom and receive it, despite any objections Jefferson might have. The law was on Sally Heming's side, not his. The private, household tyranny of the slaveowner was in France broken.
If Jefferson was to take Sally Hemings back to Virginia, he would have to convince her to go. He would have to negotiate with a teenage girl and convince her that her true interests lay in bondage on the other side of the Atlantic. His prior dealings with slaves did not prepare him for this. He did, however, in the end convince her to go, making concessions regarding her treatment and promising freedom to her children once they reached the age of 21. He kept his promise, wrung out of him by a pregnant girl, not yet 21 herself, who, were he at home, would be wholly his property, to whom he would have had to promise nothing.
The deal concluded between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson in France, called a 'treaty' by their son Madison, was not one held between equals. Fulfillment of its terms once Sally sailed for Virginia was completely at Jefferson's discretion. Only his sense of personal honor, justice, morality, and, perhaps, shame and guilt, gave it any force on this side of the Atlantic. Sally Hemings had, in effect, abandoned the promise of freedom for a lightening of her load and a future which presupposed further children by her master. (In fact, they had four surviving children after their first child died shortly after his birth: Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston).
I find I am not interested in whether Sally Hemings loved Jefferson or not. I suppose their relationship was complex and braided into the central question--the question of power--far too completely for love to redeem Jefferson or ennoble Sally. Without her direct testimony and without his, we are ignorant as to the importance and movement of their relationship over time in the life and thought of both parties. I leave that question to novelists and am done with it.
I am interested in her return to Virginia. Why did she go back? A few tentative answers occur to me, but they are only ideas, not facts, and not to be relied upon.
- They sailed out of a France that had grown increasingly troubled and violent, in which a revolution was unfinished, working its bloody way through the population. It was not the best time for a young, pregnant foreigner without resources or connections to take up residence in the country.
- Virginia was Sally's home. Her family was not broken apart, as many slave families were, but resided as a unit, brought into the household by Thomas Jefferson's departed wife. Their connection to his wife might have given them additional privileges and protections which they were not in a hurry to lose. In comparison to other slaves, they might have even been enviable, or at least secure with one another.
- Sally's family had never been broken apart. The whole of her family was in the power of one man, Jefferson, and she might have had some concern over their future treatment if she abandoned her master/lover and walked away. The intact family also created bonds, obligations, and affections for Sally in Virginia separate from her master's, making walking away that much more difficult. It would not be only Jefferson she was leaving, but her mother and her siblings. If she did remain in France, she would not see them again.
Reasons like these might have contributed to Sally's decision to return to Virginia. She was an intelligent young girl. She used the chance France gave her to shape her own future and that of her children in Virginia, but I suspect that she never intended to remain behind. She, too, had something to go back to, and, unlike Jefferson, she had nowhere else to go. England was not crusading against slavery yet. The great abolitionists were not at work. She had no resources, no men and women hurrying to aid her in an hour of need. She did have the attention of Thomas Jefferson, and she used it well.
Bravo, Sally Hemings. In a small way, in a very unforgiving time and place, you won.