Listening to Sally Hemmings

I like Thomas Jefferson’s stance on church state separation. And I loathe and detest everything else about the man. When I read about Jefferson, the saying about a broken clock being right twice a day comes to mind.

I bring this up because of the news that Sally Hemmings’ room in Jefferson’s Monticello home has been found. Hemmings was enslaved by Jefferson. He began raping her when she was fourteen and fathered six children with her. And I bring this up because someone posted on a Democratic forum I follow that attempts to talk about Jefferson’s rape and enslavement of Hemmings are right wing attempts to discredit Jefferson so the Constitution can be re-written.

Oh boy.

First, considering that right wing Christian activist historical bullshit spewer David Barton refuses to admit that Jefferson father children with Hemmings, I have a hard time believing that conservative Christians are using this to re-write the Constitution. Even if some are, though, it is wrong to make excuses for what Jefferson did. Not only did he enslave people, not only did he rape Sally Hemmings, he also actively protected slavery and made it a legal institution in the US and fought to preserve it. There is no excuse for this. What Jefferson did was monstrous and wrong.

I see several arguments put forth in defense of Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers with regards to slavery that I want to spend some time on. One, and I remember hearing this in elementary school, was that the Founding Fathers did not know that slavery was wrong. This is simply bullshit. American Creation discusses in detail how the Founding Fathers were aware that the legacy of slavery would tarnish their reputations, however, because they could not maintain their extravagant lifestyle without free labor, they preserved legal slavery in the US. George Washington freed his slaves after he died. Jefferson did not even though he struggled with the morality of slavery and brainstormed ways to abolish it while preserving his riches. Since he couldn’t figure out how to do it, slavery continued. So basically, Thomas Jefferson was very aware that slavery was wrong, and did it anyway because he couldn’t afford his comfortable lifestyle without the backbreaking work of his slaves. There is simply no way around this distasteful fact.

The other argument I see is that we are judging Jefferson by modern standards. And in some ways this is true. Yet Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings would have been seen as scandalous during it’s day. Jefferson was not open about his relationship with Hemmings. For one thing, in a lot of places in the US it was illegal to have sexual relationships between a white man and a black woman. For another thing, Jefferson and Hemmings were not married, which among some conservatives is still the gold standard for whether or not sexual activity is condoned (rather than consent). And finally, that plantation owners slept with their slaves was one of those things that people did not approve of, even though people knew it happened.

Basically, in 1776, people would have seen Jefferson’s relationship with Hemmings as wrong, though, they may or may not have seen it as based on exploitation and rape as we do today.

The final argument I see is that everyone is human and has done wrong and that we shouldn’t judge. I really can’t abide with this argument. While everyone has committed wrongs, there is most definitely a hierarchy to those wrongs based on the harm that has resulted, and most of our wrongs do not compare to the harm caused by rape, enslavement, and forming a government that makes slavery legal. Honestly, I’m having a hard time equating that I drive five miles above the speed limit and got mad the other week and yelled at someone with rape, enslavement and making slavery legal. And it’s pretty much because there is no comparison. Jefferson being human is not an excuse. We need to hold humanity to a higher standard than that.

Basically, the more I study the history of the US the more I realize that you can’t understand modern politics without understanding the history of systemic and legal racism in the United States. And this includes understanding the scar that legalized slavery has left on our nation, a wound that is still healing. To heal this wound, we have to start listening to the voices of people who have been denied one. We have to the stories of women like Sally Hemmings.

Sally Hemmings was born into slavery. It was illegal for her to learn to read and write. Sally never had a chance to tell her story. Meanwhile the man who enslaved and raped her had access to an education, paper, quills, and one very large platform. We have heard Thomas Jefferson’s story. We know very little of Sally Hemmings.

Discussing Hemmings is not a means to discredit Jefferson. It is an attempt to reach back through history and give a voice to a woman who has been denied the right to tell her story. Let us take some time to listen to Sally Hemmings.


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