The President’s Mistress

Luke Rexing, Contributor

Recently I was in a lecture for one of my classes that covers two credits that I need to graduate: Race, Power, and Justice in the United States, and Historical Perspectives. The class is called Chasing the American Dream, held in the Armory building on East Bank. Immediately upon starting the class, I knew that there would be a variance between the opinions of the professor and my own. Lo and behold, during the third day of class, I found myself in an uncomfortable position, dwelling on the choice to raise my voice or stay silent in a sea of sheep. 

Today, we watched a documentary on Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States. This documentary focused on a somewhat hidden relationship Jefferson had with a slave of his. 

After Jefferson’s wife passed away at the age of 37, he focused more on his duties as an American Ambassador overseas in France. To accompany him on his travels, he brought his daughter, Martha, as well as his slaves, Sally Hemmings and her older brother, Madison. Paris was a place where there were no slaves, so the two got a glimpse of what it was like to live as a free person. Madison was taught the ways of the chefs in France, and Sally was able to work on her skills as a seamstress. The two were also being paid for their labor as they stayed under the Jefferson roof. 

Over several years of living in France, Jefferson became homesick and wished to return to his homestead in Monticello. Madison, after learning how to bargain in Paris, struck a deal with Jefferson. If he were to teach a new apprentice the new cooking skills he had learned there in France, he would be granted his freedom. 

Sally, watching as her older brother negotiated with the Ambassador, was hesitant to leave behind the luxuries of Paris. However, she figured for her future family (as she was now pregnant) she could strike a deal of her own. She would only agree to go back to Monticello, and work under Jefferson again, if her children would be granted freedom after their 21st birthdays. Jefferson made that promise. 

Eventually, they returned to the abode in Monticello. Many years passed and Sally reared 2 children, fathered by Jefferson. By their 21st birthdays, they were set free. During that time, they spent their days doing the chores around the estate, and living under a stable roof. This was much different than other slaves during the time who were beaten and stripped of their identities and humanity. Sally stayed with Jefferson for 40 years until his passing, when she was set free by the words of his will.

The question posed to us in class today was about how we thought Jefferson justified his relationship with Sally to himself, and to those in the public. He never spoke publicly about the relationship. It makes sense that he would have wanted to keep such a thing from the scrutiny of the public and political eye. The way I see it, he was protecting the ones he loved. I believe he loved Sally, and although there is no documentation about how Sally felt about the relationship, I believe she loved him back. They raised children together, and lived without (documented) conflict under the same roof for roughly their entire lives. 

Jefferson found himself in a paradox, where he did not fully support slavery, as it opposed his idea of a democratic republic. However, he still owned over 100 slaves throughout his political career. His grandchildren who were white were also reportedly spoiled with his attention more than those that he had with Sally. I am not as well read as a historian, but I believe that this was a strategic move, albeit not transcendently virtuous. 

I am not here to defend the idea that slavery was good, as it is obviously racist and oppressive. However, during the discussions during class, it was clear that my professor and my fellow students had nothing but pure hatred for one of our founding fathers. They fully believed, without much persuasion, that the relationship between Jefferson and Ms. Hemmings was patriarchal, non-consensual, violent, and strictly oppressive. 

Yes, the man had power, and had the ability to do nearly whatever he wanted, but nowhere in the documentary did it say anything about Jefferson disrespecting, hurting, or abusing Sally. It was all speculation. If anything, I saw that the man kept his promise to free her brother Madison, and to free Sally’s children. He was a man of his word. I believe that he rarely spoke of his relationship out of the desire to protect it. There were definitely people who tried to tear him down for it, but he kept his mouth shut, and in turn, they lived for four decades together under a sane (and very nice) roof. 

After some discussion, I spoke up to say that I believed Jefferson actually loved Sally, and was doing what he could to protect her from the public eye. He kept his promises although he was in a position of absolute power over her and her family. My professor quickly acknowledged my opinion with weak acceptance, and promptly looked to find another politically correct one.

Overall, I am scared to speak my mind in this class, which is why I turned to writing this article. I am afraid that I would not get a proper discussion started, but rather a heated glare accompanying social rejection, and the refusal to see something from a contrasting point of view. I am afraid that my professor would see me as trying to undermine her content, when in truth I am only looking for truth. Maybe I could be wrong in some areas, but how can I ever know without being able to voice my questions and contradictions? There is a tension I feel in that classroom between those who happily speak their leftist ideological incomprehensible propositions, and those who stay silent in fear of social rejection and GPA reduction. 

“People are getting shunned for their opinion if it doesn’t align the societal norms”

“Freedom of speech and freedom of thought really isn’t a thing anymore” 

Tommy Fritz, student

Freedom of speech and freedom of thought really isn’t a thing anymore

— Tommy Fritz

It seems that our current world, especially in academia, sits in a precarious position, with those who claim to be victims also being the ones to oppress others’ views. I wonder, how can one be the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time?