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Were They In Love?

Abigail Harris-Shea

[1] With the actuality of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings no longer in doubt, critics like Annette Gordon-Reed are able to take a deep breath and decide what is next. For her, one of the things is to move on to investigating the nature of that relationship. To that end, Gordon-Reed devotes four chapters (14-17) in the center of her The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008) that lead up to the key question of whether Jefferson and Hemings were in love. It's one thing for fictional works like Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel and Tina Andrews's film to show they were in love -- but were they really? These chapters explore four sequentially linked questions bearing on our culture's often all-consuming curiosity about the relationship: how would Hemings have viewed Jefferson? (chapter 14), what was the nature of their sexual relationship? (chapter 15), why would she trust him and return to Virginia? (chapter 16), and, climactically, in chapter 17, my focus here in this essay, was it love?

[2] In modern times the question of love is usually answered by the fact of marriage. Marriage makes a prima facie case for love. That there is marriage usually is enough to prove that there is love. But Jefferson and Hemings could not legally marry. Add to that "our knowledge of what could legally happen between a master and a slave," and there is "understandable uncertainty" about whether or not love existed (360). But, Gordon-Reed offers sensibly, historically marriages were not primarily based in love (356), we cannot even be totally sure of Jefferson's motives in marrying Martha (358), and a relationship based on commitment rather than law might be a surer sign of love than a formal marriage (356-57, 360). This last point is particularly telling. For couples like Jefferson and Hemings, it was the "basic quality of their relationship, what they meant to each other in their daily intimate lives, not how the world outside characterized them" that mattered (360). The fact is, therefore, that just because Jefferson and Hemings were not legally bound to each other by marriage does not mean that love between them didn't exist.

[3] This question of "since there was no marriage, could there be love?" is followed by "since Jefferson could legally rape Hemings, does that mean he did"? Gordon-Reed answers the first in the affirmative, as we just saw, and the second in the negative. Her answer is based on a general sense of human nature and a specific sense of the character of Sally and her family. If Jefferson had raped Hemings, Gordon-Reed again sensibly offers, why would she have gone back to Virginia with him after Paris? Hemings was a free woman in Paris. She could have stayed with her brother and not returned to Virginia. Further, according to Madison Hemings, Sally's son, Sally and Jefferson made a deal that if she returned to Virginia with him, her children would be set free. The question is why would Hemings make a deal with a man who was raping her? And, Gordon-Reed goes on, "An even more staggering notion is that Hemings, who showed such obvious concern for her children's future, would have ‘implicitly relied' on a man who had violated any trust she could have had in him by forcing sex on her" (362). What intelligent person -- which is what Gordon-Reed assumes Hemings to be -- would act this way? In short, such behavior would not make sense. If Jefferson were raping Hemings, she would not rely on or trust him. Yet she made the decision to do so.

[4] Moreover, since the Hemings family was so closely connected to Jefferson, it doesn't make sense that they would not only allow this "raping" to go on but also maintain such a bond with him throughout their attachment. Obviously on some level the Hemings family was in no position to go against Jefferson. They were his slaves. However, there is evidence that Jefferson's slaves considered him a part of their family: "they thought of him as more a version of an in-law than the rapist of their family member" (363). For instance, James Hemings voluntarily returned "to Monticello to work for Jefferson as a paid employee" even after he was set free (364), and it is impossible to imagine a man "so base and craven that he would pay gratuitous social calls on his sister's rapist" (364). If Jefferson were raping his sister, it would seem most likely that he would not want to work for him if he did not have to. Would the Hemingses maintain such a bond with Jefferson if one of their own were being constantly raped? This seems highly, highly doubtful. Because of the incredibly unequal balance of legal power between master and slave, a relationship built on rape is plausible, but a close look at the specific situation of Jefferson and Hemings shows otherwise in this case. And so we are lead to the main question. If it was not rape, was it love?

[5] Gordon-Reed prefaces her analysis by acknowledging that there is no way for anyone to know the quality of their relationship for sure. Only Jefferson and Hemings know the specific nature of the intimate bond they had: "Love has been many things throughout history: the simple comfort of the familiar, having a person to know and being known by that person in return; a connection born of shared experiences, an irrational joy in another's presence; a particular calming influence that one member of the couple may exert on the other, or that they both provide to one another. A combination of all these and myriad other things can go into making one person wish to stay tied to another. Anyone who is not in the couple -- that is, everyone else in the world -- will not understand precisely how or why it works for two people" (365). No one except for those two people will ever know the bond that they share. Similarly, Gordon-Reed also acknowledges that we are in no position to judge their sexual relationship, but that "most intimate of situations, the one least likely to be observed by others -- sexual compatibility -- can also be a form of love" (365).

[6] Having made these qualifications, Gordon-Reed does more than anyone else to put herself in the position of both Hemings and Jefferson and to try to evaluate their bond. And, as a result, she finds riveting evidence that would lead one to believe that their relationship was based on love.

[7] Gordon-Reed makes at least three points to support Jefferson's love for Hemings. First, Jefferson fought incredibly hard to convince Hemings to come back to Virginia with him: "Jefferson wanted Hemings to come back to Virginia with him, so much so that he took to bargaining with her about this. He well knew that in Virginia there were many other women, enslaved and not, who could satisfy any merely carnal impulses as soon as he returned to America" (372). The fact that Jefferson worked so hard to bring Hemings back and even made a deal with her to make her go implies that there was some sort of bond between them. Why would he make incredible sacrifices for someone that he didn't care for? Further, if he was only looking for a sexual relationship, he could get it elsewhere. This would suggest that he did have loving feelings for her.

[8] A second Gordon-Reed point is how beneficial it would have been for Jefferson to leave Hemings in Paris. It would have been great for his image: "He could have left her in Paris with her quite capable older brother, helped the pair financially, and found James Hemings employment, thus ridding himself of a potentially embarrassing problem in a way that actually bolstered, instead of hurt, his image. History, and his philosophe friends of the moment, would have recorded that Jefferson (breathing the rarefied air of Enlightenment France) so identified with the Freedom Principle that he let go of two of his own slaves. He would have been a veritable hero" (372-73). It really would have been to Jefferson's greatest advantage to allow James and Sally to stay in Paris. Also, the cost of financing James and Sally in France would be far less than having to free all of Sally's children. Yet Jefferson insisted upon their return to Virginia.

[9] A third Gordon-Reed point showing Jefferson's love for Hemings was his refusal to remove her from the house once the scandal broke. If the relationship had been strictly sexual, and if he wanted to hide the evidence that there was a relationship, Jefferson could have taken the action of moving her out of Monticello. However, as Gordon-Reed points out, "Hemings was a visible presence in his home when everyone knew that Jefferson had the resources to have her be someplace else" (373). He risked so much for her and was willing to sacrifice a great deal on her account. It is pieces of evidence like this from Jefferson's perspective that lead one to believe that a loving relationship did occur.

[10] There is similar evidence from the Hemings perspective to show that a loving relationship was mutual. For instance, throughout her time at Monticello, Hemings seemed to be completely faithful to Jefferson: "During an almost twenty-year period of childbearing, she conceived no children during Jefferson's sometimes prolonged absences from Monticello as he acted as a public servant, indicating that she had no other sexual partners" (374). The fact that Hemings was monogamous for this extended thirty-eight-year period of time strongly shows that she cared for him.

[11] And to cite another example, before Hemings passed away, she gave family important possessions that Jefferson had given to her: "she gave one of her sons as heirlooms personal items that had belonged to Jefferson, a pair of his eyeglasses, a shoe buckle, and an inkwell that she had kept during the nine years after his death. These artifacts--things she saw him wear and a thing he used to write words that would make him live in history--were seemingly all she had left of him" (374-75). In passing down these possessions to future generations, Hemings reveals that she considered him to be a part of her family. Why would she keep these items and call them family heirlooms if her relationship was not a loving one?

[12] Although Gordon-Reed never explicitly states that the thirty-eight-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was a loving one, she shows evidence in this chapter that there is a strong possibility it was. Although there are many aspects of the relationship that even Gordon-Reed cannot illuminate, there still remains a great deal of evidence suggesting that love existed between them. Now that there is no longer a question of whether or not the relationship actually occurred, we naturally want to know what it was like. And Gordon-Reed is a most thoughtful guide in this most elusive emotional terrain.