Dually given no value but as a possession, Sally Hemings fared far better than many other women of her situation. As a slave to Thomas Jefferson, the famous founding father of the United States of America, she lived at the beautiful Monticello and traveled to France as a companion to his daughter Polly. Here, in Paris, she learned that not everybody denied her status as a human being. The Enlightened French had instituted the Freedom Principle, allowing those of African descent to live as free citizens. Hemings’ brother James, who also traveled with the Jeffersons to Paris, stayed in France for this reason; the same opportunity was extended to her.
These “advantages,” however, do not nullify the evil of the situation Hemings was forced into. In order to return to her native Virginia, she would be resigning herself and her offspring to a life of slavery. Due to laws requiring children of unmarried parents to follow the legal status of their mother, her children would be slaves. Slave owners using their slave women as “concubines” was not a foreign concept to Sally Hemings. Afterall, her biological father was her mother’s white master. And this situation was by no means rare; it was culturally accepted. The results of this reality was legislation that made it possible to keep the children of such relationships in slavery. Once more, white men were allowed to act however they pleased, and those underneath them paid the price.
In the eyes of the law, Hemings’ identity was firstly a slave. Slavery was so important to the economic situation of the colonies and subsequent nation that laws restricting women passing on inheritance were forgone. The color of Hemings skin, the inheritance she could give her children, was what determined their social status. The beauty of Hemings’ specific situation was that she was able to hold a certain amount of leverage over Jefferson. Because they were in France, where Jefferson had a reputation as a progressive, forcing her to return with him or abandoning her completely would have shown him to be the hypocrite he was. When he asked her to return to Virginia with him, she said yes on a conditional basis. The children born of him would be set free at the age of twenty-one.
I believe that in her own eyes, Sally Hemings saw herself as a woman more so than a slave. She cared about her family and cared for Jefferson. It is believed that Jefferson and Hemings did in fact love each other, by some definition of the word. Intimate sources, such as their son, testified that they trusted each other if nothing else. It has been argued that Jefferson could have been sexually satisfied by any number of women or slaves in Virginia — it didn’t have to be Sally. He must have wanted her specifically to be with him at Monticello. Hemings must have had a reason for returning as well — perhaps the sprawling family that were also owned by Jefferson. Maybe she did love him. Whatever the case may be, Hemings became the unofficial mistress of Monticello, not hidden away as was expected. It is difficult to credit Jefferson with a heroic act in raising Hemings to a high position of servitude in his household when the very nature of her slavery is sickening. Any level of affection between the two, I find, is difficult to approach through the revolting veil of the pertinent slavery — physically for African Americans and in every other way for women.
Kerber, Linda, et.al. Women’s America. 8th edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.