The diverse range of the following responses about the private Jefferson parallels those on the public Jefferson, but there seems to be a propensity among this particular slice of respondents to separate the personal and the political and to romanticize a Jefferson-Hemings relationship.
Does that surprise you about first or nearly first contact with the possibility of interracial scandal involving the author of "all men are created equal" and his teenage slave? Is that where you stand too?
In the interest of full disclosure, there are no African Americans in this cluster of voices. Even so, do you feel that the gamut of thoughtful responses is represented? If there were African American voices, would they add a dimension? If so, what would that be? If not, why not?
Again, as with the public Jefferson responses, no need to read all: browse, drift, jump around. But having reflected on the possible existence of two Jeffersons, public and private, saint or sinner, you are ready to begin the Jefferson-Hemings miniseries with episode one, "The Birth of Black Sal."
1) A founding phony
Aside from a brief mention in a history textbook when learning about the mudslinging that occurred during the 1800 presidential election, the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair has not been discussed during my schooling. For any other white man of his time, the relationship would be looked down upon despite it being a relatively common phenomenon. For Thomas Jefferson, an esteemed figure in American history whose eloquent words still carry such meaning some 200 years later, even the thought of such inappropriate relations seems impossible. If the man who wrote that "all men are created equal" can not abide by this rule himself by not only having slaves but by potentially taking advantage of a slave to have an intimate relationship, how can the rest of Americans be considered to live up to this lofty standard? Even if he were able to come up with some sort of justification for his actions, would it even be worth hearing? "All men are created equal" is quite a powerful statement, and it doesn't seem as though he left any room for negotiation. He did not add an asterisk after the statement that directed readers to the bottom of the page where he neatly printed "except for African American slaves." The statement as written is all-inclusive. The revelation that one of the cornerstones of this nation is a fake tarnishes the image of this country and leaves me wondering, is everything this nation stands for a lie?
2) Keeping quiet for the greater good
I don't think we can view Jefferson's situation entirely using our frame of reference of race in today's society. We have to remember it was not like it is today, with racism not nearly as bad as it was back then. But we also have to keep in mind that Jefferson was himself a cosmopolitan. He knew and was very familiar with a lot of cultures. I think that it is certainly possible that he "didn't see color" and in fact felt a genuine love for Sally. However, he could never have been public about this because he knew it would turn people away from his enlightenment teachings. He, therefore, for the greater good, kept his affair strictly a personal matter in order to not deter people away from the equality he sought in society.
3) Playing it safe
Perhaps Jefferson slept with Sally Hemings as a way to fill the personal void after his wife passed. Perhaps he truly did believe the philosophy that "All men are created equal," which in this case would internally legitimize the affair. Or perhaps the children he supposedly fathered were a mistake, and he only had relations with Sally because he possessed the authority to do so. In any case, he was too sharp to allow gossip to dominate his life and political agenda. Jefferson wouldn't risk admitting or denying the accusation. No modern celebrity would for the sake of his or her career. What makes Jefferson, the third president of the United States, any different? Pushing the political pendulum towards or away from the slavery issue would have sacrificed public opinion in either scenario. Jefferson played it safe, and I neither commend nor condemn him for it.
4) A justifiable wrong
Although people may argue that his words in the Declaration of Independence may seem hypocritical based on his personal ownership of slaves, I believe that we shouldn't penalize Jefferson for his actions. Unfortunately, people were much more ignorant during those times, and slaves were treated only as property. People would consider you mad if you preached that slaves were people also. Jefferson most likely thought he was doing nothing wrong having an affair with his slave who was his property. Although it was wrong, it was a justifiable wrong based on ignorance. If Jefferson were born in today's world, he would realize the wrongs in owning slaves.
5) He must have cared for her
I do not think that the possibility of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings makes Jefferson any less of a man. In society today, there are examples of highly respected politicians who have had affairs. Everyone has their flaws, no matter how high up they are in society. Jefferson seemed to have high morals, so it is a surprise to many that he may have had an affair with Sally. Prior to this class, I had no idea of this controversy. It comes as a bit of a shock to me but still does not lessen my respect for him. The fact that Jefferson was with Sally for thirty-eight years shows that he must have cared for her. Jefferson was still re-elected for a second term of presidency after the scandal was leaked. This shows that the majority of society did not change their opinion of Jefferson. Jefferson's relationship with Sally shows that he probably did not fully support slavery. Jefferson just conformed to the norm of society, which included slavery. Although Jefferson did not emancipate the slaves, he did teach Lincoln, who eventually freed the slaves.
6) I'm Turkish
I'm Turkish, and I learned about this controversy just a week ago. When I first heard about it, I was surprised that it was taken this seriously in the USA. I don't think that the private life of a leader should be discussed this much and this long if he has done some good things for his country. Even if he has done some things that were against his ideology, it doesn't give enough reason to ruin his leadership career altogether. Ataturk, for instance, the founder of Turkey, used to drink so much that he actually died of cirrhosis. Since Turkey was like an extension of the Ottoman Empire (I don't like this phrasing, though), citizens were strict about drinking. According to the Muslim rules, drinking is strictly forbidden. However, still nobody, even the most religious people, accused Ataturk because of that. It was his private life, and it had nothing to do with his sayings about the country, about his ideology, and about religion. I believe it's usual that the private lives of leaders are discussed for years after them. However, this discussion should take place with the appreciation of what they did for their countries.
7) Whole persona now in question
The actions of the private Jefferson clash pretty hard with that of public Jefferson. Every action one makes is a reflection of character. Public Jefferson seemed to have a strong character. Private Jefferson is questionable. Upon hearing of such a scandal, we must question who our beloved "founding father" really was. Was he the brilliant scholar and core of our nation? Or a creepy old man sleeping with a 14-year-old slave? Jefferson's whole persona is now in question. He almost seems to be living two separate lives: one in which he is a prosperous politician and one of scandal and deception. Surely this private life must be considered when discussing Jefferson's public career because now his whole disposition is in question. It's almost confusing to learn of such actions because now the question arises who was Thomas Jefferson really? Obviously there's a reason why we delve into the personal lives of politicians of past and present. We want to know who's representing us, who's leading us. We want to know these things to determine the character of such a leader because essentially they have the power to make decisions for our nation once in office, and who really wants to be led by someone with questionable morals?
8) Where’s Strom Thurmond?
I find it peculiar that no one has brought up Strom Thurmond in this conversation. Bill Clinton's scandal is far less analogous to TJ's than is Strom Thurmond's. I mean here we find a man who fathered a child out of wedlock with his 15-year-old African-American servant who, if Strom had had his way, would have still been a slave. The item of greatest interest in terms of our conversation about popular perceptions on race is found in the fact that Strom's daughter waited until her father died to reveal her parentage in an attempt to spare the senator any potential shame or public backlash. The notion that this would have been the popular reaction to the news of Thurmond's dalliances even today is nothing short of appalling.
9) Think of Michael Jackson
The fact that Jefferson owned slaves is horrible to think about, but he consorting with one of them really doesn't make a difference in my mind. He had a long-standing relationship with her supposedly, which means he cared for her not raped her. He could have raped her and beat her as other slave masters would have, yet he cared for her. The fact that she was his slave is the part that is heinous in my mind. Slavery isn't acceptable to me, but he loving her doesn't make it worse. His actions in his personal life are separate from his actions in public, in politics. He may be condemned for owning slaves, but his influences on our country as a whole are not changed because of it. He may have been a sinner, but his immortal words are the exact opposite: they are the spirit that has lead our country since the day they were put into writing. Think of Michael Jackson, he was accused of unthinkable acts, but yet his contribution to music remains legendary.
10) Likely more than lust
I, personally, have no problem with the idea of Jefferson and Hemings having a relationship. Though I realize that this was an extremely inappropriate relationship, it does not diminish his legendary status as a Founding Father. All humans make mistakes (and this surely proves that Jefferson is human), and I find it unfortunate that we must label this issue as a mistake or flaw. One could argue that Jefferson was ahead of his time as far as interracial relationships go. Also, keep in mind that his first wife, the love of his life, died only ten years into their marriage. Jefferson never bothered to marry again! It is understandable that he should feel lonely and appreciate the company of another woman, regardless if she is his slave. If their affair lasted over thirty years, it is likely that is was more than lust.
11) Bounded by the “normal”
If Jefferson did sleep with his slave, that does not necessarily mean that he was a "bad" man; it was very common for men to sleep with their slaves in colonial times. Did Jefferson have political responsibilities and a family? Yes, he did. Consider the possibility, however, that perhaps Jefferson was not simply exploiting his slave. Jefferson was not trying to create a morally corrupt country in which exploitation was smiled upon; he, as all human beings do, had personal flaws. How often do we do things that we consciously know are wrong? Maybe he could not see past what was considered "normal" in his society?
12) No impact
I had just spent nine hours seated on board an airplane next to a very vocal German man who, after several servings of the complimentary alcohol, began espousing his beliefs on (amongst many, many other things) the ridiculous tendency of Americans to drag the sexual lives of our politicians out into the open and weigh them as political issues. Of course, he was primarily referring to the public's response to the Clinton scandal (which culminated in him saying loudly enough for us to receive many odd looks: "How can you get impeached for receiving a ****ing blow-job???"), but the essence of his argument holds true for Jefferson as well. I can't understand how our culture has, for centuries now, considered this realm of a person's life to be one which should be made public. Therefore, at this point I have to say that Thomas Jefferson's relations with Sally Hemings in no way shape or form impacts my opinion of him. My perception of this man is one based on extreme admiration for his political not social actions and is therefore immune to any attempt to degrade his character.
A leader is someone whom people idolize because of their actions and intentions. Thomas Jefferson portrayed himself as someone who he was not. On the outside, he was a role model to others for all of his accomplishments and for being one of the Founding Fathers of America. However, as one explores his personal life, there is evidence of him taking advantage of his slave Sally Hemings. So the real question is, can Thomas Jefferson be classified as a leader? It is important to investigate the personal lives of role models of our country because we put all of our trust in these people. If they let us down by posing as someone different, such as Jefferson did, then they are not a righteous leader. He may have been a great politician, but he was not a good person. If it is not socially acceptable to be sleeping with a 15-year-old girl at the age of 45, then why did no one say anything to Jefferson? It is mind-boggling to think that such a renowned man is believed to have fathered six children with his slave. He got away with more than he should have because of his high status and past achievements. His alter ego has been hidden from the public, but now that it has been revealed, people are starting to think differently about the man that founded our country.
14) Things that get you fired
Is it me squinting too hard to see the Jefferson/Hemings and Clinton/Lewinsky scandals as analogous? I see two instances where the gaps of age and power make anything like consent or equality impossible. Reports at the time ran that Lewinsky sought Clinton and "what was the poor guy to do?" The "poor guy" was to turn her down. I do not think it is too much that we ask adults, and presidents, to simply behave like adults. I have been accused of Puritanism for the following opinion, but here goes: Monica Lewinsky was an early 20-something White House intern. Even if we set his marriage aside, in that context he was her elder, her teacher, her employer, and her president. In each of these roles he failed her, and us. Despite his accomplishments, despite anyone's accomplishments, there are certain things that get you fired. Of course his exposure was politically motivated. Of course it was the result of a prosecutor with a serious case of mission creep. Nevertheless, once it was out there, Clinton should have lost the job. Should Jefferson lose the job? Should he fall from his lofty place in our paternal pantheon? Jefferson lived in a world without 24-hour news channels and in what seems to be a different moral universe. He may have seen himself as imperfect but better than just about anyone else. The only way to enslave people, or to oppress people in any way, is to decide that they are not quite as human, and therefore not quite as important as you are. Something in Jefferson told him that it was okay for him to keep his slaves. Perhaps it was a delusion of benevolence. Somehow, he must have convinced himself that his way of slave owning was more enlightened than that of his slave-owning contemporaries and that their bedding underage female slaves was morally reprehensible and entirely unlike his "activity" with Sally Hemings. I'm starting to see that this guy had quite an ego. He must have had a whole different set of rules for himself.
15) A man much like myself
Having never been much of a history person, my ideas about Thomas Jefferson were always limited to the very basics: he was a founding father, the author the Declaration of Independence, and eventually went on to become President. I held him in great esteem and assumed him to be a glorious person. Never once did I think about his private life, and never once until now had I heard of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. But I'm okay with this. Even though I debated the truth behind the meaning of the phrase "all men are created equal," I never thought back to the person behind these words. Now, however, I must think of Jefferson as more than a facilitator of our independence and a historical figure. I must think of him a man much like myself. After watching the Burns' introduction and viewing pictures of Monticello, I have mixed feelings about the man. Certainly he led great deeds, and was of enviable intelligence, and his apparent humility makes him all the more likeable, but imagining his lavish house filled with slaves busying themselves about like bees stains his glorious image.
16) My selfish need
I think the assumption that carries the most weight in all of this, for me, is that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was mutual. That there was an actual caring, reciprocal relationship between them. The alternative is to believe that Jefferson took complete advantage of his position as master of the slave Sally Hemings and forced himself on her repeatedly. These two possibilities paint two very different pictures. In one, two people live a hidden private life, enjoying each other as much as any two people could in such a situation. They share a bed, and most likely, many thoughts, ideas, plans, etc. This picture is one of Jefferson perhaps even consulting Hemings on a number of things, much as one would a wife. The other picture is a much more brutal, difficult one. If Jefferson used his position to rape Sally Hemings, starting when she was as young as fourteen or fifteen, and continuing this deceptive exploitation of her throughout the remainder of their lives . . . well, that is a very different Thomas Jefferson than most of us are used to imagining. The evidence, what little of it exists, does very little to push either image of the relationship to the forefront. Jefferson kept the relationship a secret and never freed Sally. This may point to the second, more brutal version. However, it is possible that Jefferson's shame over the simple existence of the relationship, even if it was mutual, was enough to cause these things. Jefferson did free Sally's children where he freed no other slave he owned. Sally also never once claimed that she was raped or gave any indication that the relationship was anything but mutual in the oral histories that survive. Sally's descendants seem to believe that the relationship was mutual. These seem to point to the first, "happy" image. Of course, Jefferson may have freed her children out of shame at what he had done earlier in his life (if the more brutal version is true), and Sally may have not said anything to anyone out of fear of some threat Jefferson made earlier. Neither version of history can be proved either way, from what I've seen. However, I cling to the "happier" version, merely because it fits my selfish need for Jefferson to be a "good" man, if a conflicted one.
17) A bit of a shock
The fact that Jefferson even had slaves makes him somewhat of a hypocrite, especially since he preached and wrote the famous words "all men are created equal." The potential relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is a bit of a shock. Jefferson, at least in my book, had always been revered as a clean-cut man: a mistress does not fit into this description very well. For me, personally, it does matter whether or not Jefferson had a long-standing relationship with a mistress. I do not care who it was with; an affair is still an affair, no matter who it was with.
18) Human too
Before this course, I was unfamiliar with the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. To think that this influential leader in our American history had committed such a scandal is, for lack of a better word, disappointing. Americans across the country look up to the man that preached equality for all men, not knowing that he himself enslaved hundreds of people and even may have had sexual relations with one of them. While I disapprove of Jefferson's contradiction of his own statements in the Declaration of Independence, I am unable to think badly of Jefferson. Although a leader of our nation, Jefferson was human, too. As a southerner, he was pressured indirectly by that society's way of thinking. I have considered the possibility that he was in love with Sally Hemings but to remain inconspicuous upheld slavery at his home. It was unheard of for a white man to be in love with a black woman during the 1800s, never mind that white man also being a national icon.
19) The age of Obama
In that time I understand the concern, but, in our present day, with an incredible black president governing us all, why is this still an issue?
20) Almost inevitable
I couldn't stop thinking about the clip from the Burns' film -- the one describing Jefferson's attachment to his wife. Absolutely stunning to me. It made me think that Jefferson's future relationship with Sally was not only NOT surprising but almost inevitable. This segment reveals Jefferson as an incredibly sensitive man capable of great attachment and affection -- enjoying and even needing this to be part of his life. I now know that Jefferson was part of a really loving, even romantic relationship. The "romantic" part is common early in relationships but not usually typical of marriages (which evolve into other kinds of attachments). I would think that he would miss this loving, romantic relationship greatly, and the loss of it almost insures his needing to find it again. (It is a demonstrated fact that widowers from happy marriages remarry much more often and more quickly than those who were not happily married. This would also include Jefferson.) And Sally supposedly bore a striking resemblance to his deceased wife. In a way, his union with Sally provided everything he was looking for and needed, and because there was no actual marriage involved, he did not break his deathbed promise to his wife that he would never remarry.
21) He didn't "stand like a rock"
I think that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is pertinent because it is so closely related to the political issues Jefferson addressed. Jefferson is most famous for the line "all men are created equal," and he is quoted as saying "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." Following the logic of this quote, Jefferson's belief that "all men are created equal" would seem to be one of his strongest principles. If this is so, the question then becomes why didn't he "stand like a rock" and free his slaves? Jefferson was and is obviously a deeply reputed and respectable figure, one who is a popular and strong representation of American patriotism and freedom. It is only natural for the American people to question his relationship with Sally Hemings because it is a key component to the confusion surrounding the discrepancy between Jefferson's written principles and his actions. If his motivations are unclear for his refusal to free his slaves, the foundations of his political arguments are shaken. Also, the fact that Madison Hemings relates the story that Jefferson convinced Sally Hemings to return to America with him by promising to free their children throws Jefferson's motivation into further question. If this story is true, Sally Hemings obviously wanted her freedom, and Jefferson succeeded in coercing her to return to slavery with the promise of freeing her children. This doesn't cast Jefferson in a positive political light.
22) It's difficult not to be conflicted
It's difficult not to be conflicted about how to perceive Jefferson in light of his probable relationship with Hemings. His life seems inconsistent: he claims all men are created equal, yet has over 150 slaves and sustains a 38-year long relationship with a slave. Jefferson's alleged private liaisons should have no bearing on his professional duties--look at Clinton. The uproar about everything with Monica Lewinsky seemed, at least to me, completely irrelevant in judging him as a president. He was doing his job, and if he wanted to be a scumbag on the side, if it didn't have any real negative impact on his political responsibility, why should we care? However, I don't necessarily think there would be nearly as much of an upset about a Jefferson-Hemings relationship if Jefferson didn't preach equality among men, even working to "limit the stranglehold of slavery on the new country." Because we don't know the emotional nature of the relationship--whether she was into it, whether there was love, whether there was force, the power struggle, etc.--I do not particularly think we have a right to judge Jefferson's general character based on the mere theory that he probably had sex with her. If we knew for a fact that he loved her and that she loved him back, what would we think of it?
23) Changing the meaning of private
While maybe Jefferson did not have hordes of paparazzo following him around, he was a public figure none-the-less, and like public figures today, he strove to keep his private life private. The issues of political figures in the spotlight are not new. Sure, maybe they are responsible for holding themselves to a higher moral standard, but does that mean they have to sacrifice their private lives as a result? The 21st century has changed the meaning of private. Portals like Facebook break down the walls of privacy -- people update their Facebook statuses to reflect every major decision and event in their lives, tweet about any interesting story or video they stumble upon, and can even use programs like Foursquare to track their every moves. I'm sorry, but I don't want to know you just decided to major in religion after reading an article on the New York Times while in your bathroom. There is a point to this rant, I think. The point is privacy today does not exist like it did for Jefferson. Obama has a Twitter, for example, and maybe if Jefferson did we would all know about his relationship with Sally Hemings. I imagine one of his tweets would have read something like this: "Sally and I took a nice stroll around Monticello today, the trees are rather lovely this time of the year, too bad I have to go back and work on that pesky declaration." In any case, Jefferson's decisions in his private life do not take away from his accomplishments as a political figure.
24) He was elected president, period
I don't believe that Jefferson needs to be held to any standard regarding his private life because it should be just that: private. He was elected to serve as President of the United States. That's his job. The fact that he possibly had a relationship with a slave holds no bearing whatsoever on his professional duties. If we were to scrutinize every element of everyone's life, it is highly possible that no one would be "cut out" to serve their positions; are we all without fault? Do we not ever have lapses of judgment or hold a controversial opinion? The fact is that a job is simply a job. Perhaps we feel we are entitled to assume that because Jefferson was the President of the country, we deserve to know everything about his life. But who is to qualify that just because he holds an important position, he should not be afforded privacy?
25) He's her owner
If Jefferson had an affair with a white woman at least over the age of eighteen, I still would feel iffy about him and probably not like him as a person. As a President and Founding Father, I could potentially look past his murky relations and still see his contributions to our country. If a relationship happened between Hemings and Jefferson, however, I can't forgive him for that. I think it is absolutely impossible to say Hemings could have agreed to that relationship. First of all, she's fourteen. In our present-day society, Jefferson would already be labeled as a rapist, as girls under eighteen are not able to consent. In that dynamic, Jefferson will always have the power over Hemings. He's her owner,. Even if they had an affair for 38 years, I don't understand how it could be a positive or loving relationship. Gallagher already listed some comments Jefferson made about black people. How could that same man respect a young black woman as a partner? Hemings was his property, and I don't believe that Jefferson could view his property as a lover.
26) Still an intelligent man and great leader
People in the public eye are held to different standards than we "commoners"; sometimes those standards are higher, and sometimes they are lower. Those in the political world usually must adhere to higher standards than those of, say, a celebrity or a socialite--who, for example, can have multiple affairs--like in the cases of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods--and still continue to have successful careers and rake in the big bucks. On the other hand, if a political figure even has one affair and it becomes public, they usually are forced to resign. I'm not sure if it's fair that they are held to such a high standard, but, then again, I can see why it's a big deal because they are supposed to be our leaders and do what's right. Scandals like these do destroy the people's view of that politician's integrity. On the other hand, what a political figure does in his or her private life doesn't affect how they can lead or make decisions for the good of the people. Even though, Clinton, for example, had an affair and was in my opinion harshly forced to undergo impeachment, he was still a great leader and has quite a strong list of accomplishments to his name. I don't think it's fair to judge Jefferson negatively based on what he chose to do privately because all in all he was still an intelligent man and great leader.
27) Valuable but not critical
I find the debate as to whether Jefferson did or didn't have a long-standing relationship with Sally Hemings to be somewhat valuable in how we perceive him, but not of critical importance. I feel as though this is largely dependent on the nature of the relationship the two carried on -- information, unfortunately, that we will never have reliable access to. In a way, it's almost difficult to tell which would be worse -- if they had a loving, equal relationship, or if Jefferson treated her like a concubine. If they were, in fact, in a loving relationship, I feel as though it effects my esteem for Jefferson in that it further still complicates his relationship with equality and slavery. If he was in love with Sally and able to recognize her as his equal, then I have even more trouble coming to terms with his acceptance and hearty participation in slave-holding. In this scenario, I regard him more as a "contemptible hypocrite" rather than there being "some way of understanding this which preserves the integrity of Jefferson." Conversely, however, holding her as a concubine is equally deplorable -- and almost seemingly possible. The fact that he freed all her children but kept her as his slave until he died seems . . . suspicious. If she was engaging in these acts with him of her own free will, one might think that Jefferson would readily free her and that they would continue their relationship as two free individuals. Instead, this seems more like the commonplace exploitation and rape of female slaves by male slave-holders. If that is, indeed, the case (which is certainly up for debate), I think it would be important to know and assuredly lessen my esteem for Jefferson dramatically.
28) Personal life no reality show
The most important lesson to take away from the situation is the fact that regardless of what did or did not happen, Jefferson continued to live his life in a way that made people unsure of what happened. He did not make his public life a spectacle, and so he deserves the continued respect and legacy that many still honor him with today. Jefferson never made a reality show of his personal life to boost his political career. His business was his business and because of the fact that it did not tangibly affect his political career, it should be judged that way. It is still important to care about this scandal, though, because if we choose to believe that it did happen, we can view Jefferson as a model for detachment and dedication in a political atmosphere despite personal faults or issues (though his dedication to a relationship arguably needs some work . . .).
29) Sowing seeds
I find I cannot rush to condemn Jefferson for his alleged hypocrisy (at keeping slaves while proposing equal rights for all men). Like all of us, he had to be a victim of life circumstances. Who among us has the liberty to always act on our ideals? Do we have that much free will? As hard as we might try, we are all constrained by other forces (social, cultural, economic, etc.) that slow any progress toward reform. Many changes take generations, and perhaps Jefferson saw this. I like to think instead that knowing he could probably not effect any immediate changes, Jefferson did what he could -- something better. In writing the Declaration of Independence he constructed a document that reached into the future and gave the country a structure to build upon and goals to strive for. He sowed seeds he might not see bear fruit in his own lifetime but would ensure that we honored and worked toward the ideal of all men being created equally and being assured of equal rights.
30) It's the “mixing”
Present-day Americans are not repulsed by Jefferson's inconsistencies but by his rumored interracial relations. I feel that his "mixing" is what shocks the public now, not his contradiction between public and private life. Though we claim that we have made strides towards a post-racial world, we quite frankly have not. Therefore, the revelation that a wealthy, white politician responsible for founding our free nation actually slept with a black slave is outrageous and in some minds appalling. So, instead of learning a lesson of racial equality from our president's interracial relationship, we take away a scandalous image of him and Hemings.
I think it's very hard to look at this situation as an unbiased observer. The way I look at it, Jefferson was fully instrumental in bringing about America's Independence. While slavery is truly a crime against humanity and an abomination, it is unrealistic to think that any politician could fight two such conflicting wars at the same time, simultaneously tackling the issues of achieving independence and enacting emancipation. In order to succeed against the British, America had to remain a united, cohesive force. If the issue of slavery was pushed too hard, the U.S. never could have come together and defeated the British. This is proven by the fact that Jefferson attempted to put a clause about emancipation into the Declaration of Independence initially, but the southerners refused to comply unless the clause was removed. Perhaps this is why Jefferson decided not to free his slaves. This then begs the question, what is the significance of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings? Was it consensual and reciprocal? Based on the facts we have. I am stuck at a standstill when it comes to this issue. There is enough information to speculate in either direction, and I can't decide what I believe the implications are for this relationship.
32) Incredibly conflicted
It's easy for us to just assume the relationship was reciprocal and loving because we have a potentially skewed perception of Jefferson. We see him as someone of the highest ethical standard and strong moral compass, so how could he have engaged in a sexual relationship with a slave if she didn't want it too? I feel incredibly conflicted about whether I think it was a loving relationship. I've probably typed and deleted at least five statements going one way or the other, but the second I get a little further in my justification for either, I realize there is a complementary justification for the other side. I am hesitant to make any further judgment than the fact that there was a sexual Jefferson-Hemings relationship before learning a little more about it.
33) Makes you wonder
As for why we are so quick to assume their relationship is a loving one, I think it is because people are keen on romanticizing the situation at large. Because Jefferson was unmarried and therefore not cheating on a First Lady, it is easier to skew their relationship as some sort of Romeo-Juliet-esque "forbidden love" rather than a seedy and contemptible affair. Similarly, I think many people are inclined to uphold Jefferson in a continued positive light; they are hesitant to have this founding father be fallen. So much of the American identity is based on this perception of our founding fathers being courageous, brave, and moral men that people are resistant to accept anything to the contrary. Furthermore, the length of their relationship suggests that perhaps it was something more than just sexual. The lack of evidence of any attempts by Sally to run away or of Jefferson fathering more children from younger slave women as the years wore on suggests that there was something "special" about their relationship. Conversely, however, his failure to ever free Sally in spite of freeing all her children sort of makes you wonder . . .
34) A voiceless slave
I think it is important to remember that Sally was his slave and therefore she essentially had no voice. If she had made their affair public he could have sold her away from her children or, worse, killed her. Sally was his property, and he could do what he wanted with her.
35) Torn and surprised
Why is it so hard for us to wrap our minds around the fact that Thomas Jefferson could have true feelings for a person that he owned and who was part of a different and much less respected race at that time? I am still so torn about all of this and am really surprised that I had never learned anything about this until now . . .
36) A weird analogy
Whether or not Jefferson had an affair with Hemings, he still contributed a lot to our country. My opinion of him as a President or a writer does not change, and I think his talent is indisputable. As a person, however, I have a huge problem with him if the affair occurred. If a robber creates a cure for cancer, I would not doubt his/her talent or contribution to society and the world. I would still consider him/her a bad person who deserves punishment for crimes. It's kind of a weird analogy, but I feel the same way about Jefferson. He obviously made contributions, and I won't argue that the Declaration of Independence is a great piece of work. I will say that I can respect his work, but not the man himself. I think it is absolutely impossible for him to be in a loving relationship with someone he owns. As for the duration of their relationship . . . I have a friend whose father is abusive, and yet he has been married to his wife for about 30 years. If the relationship happened, if it truly lasted for that long, it still doesn't make it a "loving" relationship in my book. It makes it a relationship based on a power dynamic that Sally Hemings could never win.
37) Not so quickly
I'm wondering why we all seem so quick to assume that just because Sally was a slave that there couldn't have been a love relationship between the two of them -- that that would be a Hollywood-type fabrication or just historical sentimentality. Is it a feminist orientation that dictates to us that Sally must feel resentful of her situation? It shouldn't. After all, history and literature are filled with accounts of women falling in love with their "captors" and vice versa.
38) Seeker of comfort and convenience
As I look at the depiction of Monticello online, I see at once Jefferson's innovative mind and his interest in his own comforts and conveniences. He clearly worked hard at everything he did, but he also devoted considerable effort to saving effort. I wonder if his relationship with Sally Hemings is a symptom of that part of his personality. For all his achievements, it seems he did seek comfort and convenience.
39) Less respect
My respect for Jefferson as a man has lessened upon learning this information about his possible relationship with Hemings because this wasn't a mistake that happened during a time of passion and romance. If he did in fact father all of her children, it was an ongoing choice he made despite having a family of his own, because she was a slave and vulnerable to his exploitation. I have to challenge those who say that Hemings was OK with all this because of the multiple children he possibly fathered and her ongoing relationship with him. She was his slave. And so were her friends and family. She didn't have a choice. It is possible that she wanted nothing to do with this relationship, but because she was in the Jefferson home, she really had no choice. I would argue the contrary, that at 15 she was not OK with this relationship at all and was probably good friends with Jefferson's daughter. Just because I have lost some respect for Jefferson in the way he chose to live his life does not mean I don't believe in the changes and foundations he created for this country. He is undeniably one of the most influential men in history, and his personal life should not take away from that. Relationships are very personal issues, and because we have no idea what the real relationship between Hemings and Jefferson was, we cannot evaluate his success as a political figure based on his actions as a man.
40) No bearing
I think the one expert on the second Burns' excerpt said it best when he remarked, in a matter-of-fact tone, that "it doesn't really matter . . . whether [Jefferson] slept with Sally Hemings or not." I feel rather similar simply because it had no bearing on Jefferson's ability to serve as president or to write the Declaration of Independence. More importantly, Jefferson's sex life should have absolutely nothing to do with how we, as a country in the twenty-first century, should view the words, which he wrote and the forefathers signed in 1776. What I also feel separates Jefferson was that, unlike President Clinton, his wife had passed away. There is a huge difference, as it relates to character, between a widower in an affair and a currently married man doing the same.
41) Moral gymnastics
I have developed an idea of Jefferson as a brilliant, versatile man who was also subject to his appetites. Did he place his comfort and economic well-being above the freedom of his slaves? It seems certain. Did he rationalize that his slaves stood a better chance at a "good" life under his ownership than as free blacks in early America? Was he right? Unfortunately for our wish to believe the best of this American icon, the face of the five-cent piece, there can be no equality in a relationship between owner and owned. Whatever his relationship with Hemings may have looked like or felt like to him, or her, she had no power, no choice, and nowhere else to go. It's going to take some real moral gymnastics to become okay with this.