The popular image of the Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson -- what to call it? -- has come from the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris and from a 1979 novel, Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Aside from the ghastly casting of Nick Nolte as Jefferson, the film has quite a number of problems that deserve another post. The film argues that Hemings and Jefferson bonded over their Virginia origins, fell in love, she got pregnant, and her brother James forced Jefferson's hand in offering freedom to their children (and I can't remember if she was included in the deal) and James. The novel, while more successful and convincing in its depiction by allowing readers to see events through Hemings' eyes and hear her thought, also portrays a relationship based in consent and attraction, something akin to a marriage.
I'm too lazy to look up the source right now, so I'll find it later, but at Monticello they found that many people who knew about Hemings, knew about her from these artistic sources and thus believed that this -- what to call it? -- was a love story. That love story lies at one end of the spectrum of popular takes, and one that some of the descendants choose to believe.
At the other end, which any cruise through the internet will show you, lies a version that posits Jefferson as a rapist in the worst sense of the word. He's predatory, grooming his victim, assaulting her serially over decades, and, of course, keeping she and their children in bondage.
Madison Hemings, the most direct source, has a more subtle take, but we shall return to him. Right now, I want to focus on the overall methodological problem of approaching this issue.
One of the most difficult things to manage in writing about Hemings, and indeed all of the women in her family, concerns the -- well, right there, what word to use? What is neutral? What accurately describes the interaction in the absence of the participant's own descriptions? Jefferson, unlike that walking erection William Byrd III, did not even leave his own accounts from which we could extrapolate his -- again, what to call her? Victim, partner, seed-recipient?
This problem has two parts. The first you see above in the lack of first-person testimony. The second lies in our, present-day perceptions of sexual exploitation and eighteenth-century perceptions, complicated by the differences among legal and popular definitions. By our popular definition, if a woman cannot refuse sex without reprisal then the act is rape. Indeed, we teach our incoming freshman about enthusiastic affirmation of consent. The absence of "no" is not enough. They should also offer and receive an enthusiastic "yes."
What people, especially young people today, forget is that even this is new to popular perceptions. So much so that the same young people who sit in these Relationship 101 sessions who enthusiastically agree that, yes, yes, an enthusiastic yes is necessary and anything else is rape, will also drift into "well, what was she wearing" and "well, you can see she was kinda asking for it" when the discussion turns to particular cases. They have picked this up somewhere. Rape culture roots are wide and deep.
Just as looking toward the past with the rosy lenses of nostalgia comes easily to some people, so too does condemning the past for not being as enlightened as we think our time is. In fact, it is much much easier. That's where the difficult work of history comes in. You have to understand your subjects within the context of their own time, which means moving into a foreign territory, releasing what you think you know about almost everything, and then realizing you still haven't released enough. You then have to piece together their time and translate it to your audience in our time; and often you are trying to modulate the subtleties of historical inquiry, the unsubtle politics of today, and the gaps between academic knowledge and public knowledge -- and within every single one of those categories.
Does that mean becoming an apologist for abominable institutions or actions because "that was just their time"? That's the tricky bit for which the short answer is "no." For some things like, for instance, coming across the term "negro" or "colored" used to describe African Americans in the past, the answer can be "yes," because that was the agreed-upon term by the people that it describe at the time, although that is now no longer the case. More tricky will be terms that are now and always were perjorative. Even then, debates exist as to whether white people especially should ever use such words even when quoting historical documents. (For the record, as a white southern woman, my position is that word has no business coming out of my mouth under any circumstances.)
As a historian, your job is to understand and explain, not excuse or condemn. One of my friends in graduate school always said, "let them condemn themselves." They usually do. My husband, the eminent historian, says roughly the same thing, "judge them by the standards of their own times." Quite often, if we are talking about our national history, the things we condemn today evolved from institutions already in place then, and the principles that we use to condemn evolved from principle articulated then. Saying "well, that's just the way things were," should not mean "so that settles it." "That's the way things were," should lead to "and that's a problem because...." or "why were they that way?" The continuation of "that's the way things were" leads you deeper into the time, into the superstructure, the skeleton of the past, of our society -- or whatever society you study.
With Jefferson, letting him condemn himself by the standards of his own time in regard to slavery is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's far too easy. People get caught up in the contradictions of his position on freedom and his ownership on slavery, but I don't think it is a contradiction for him. At least, I think he had the mind to create an argument about race to ensure that it did not become a contradiction in his own head. If you situate him among other writers of his time, he comes out pretty racist, even when the less racist seem pretty racist by our own standards. All to justify his ownership of slaves that support his very expensive tastes and very extensive debts.
There are a lot of different avenues to consider in getting at this question, but one has to do with rape. So, I decided to take the same approach as with race and slavery, and the first thing to find out would be eighteenth-century standards and definitions. Sharon Block wrote an excellent book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, covering 1700 to 1820. Perfect! Indeed, she engages with the problem of 21st century sensibilities trying to understand 18th century crimes without apology or absolution.
But, I've once again taken rather a long time to get to this point. I'll explain what Block says next and how it helps to understand but not excuse Jefferson, and perhaps Wayles and Hemings, toward the Hemings women they -- what to call it?