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Films >> Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000) >> Issue Essay >>

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal: The Real Scandal

By Steve McGorry, with comments by Dallas Gage and Brandi Klotz

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

[1] "An American Scandal" is an interesting way to describe the events that occurred in the time of Jefferson and Hemings -- it would seem that what the definition of this particular "scandal" actually is could be a matter of opinion. Was the scandal the fact that Thomas Jefferson is rumored to have fathered children with a black woman? Or, is it the fact that Jefferson had an ongoing relationship with one of his slaves throughout the course of his lifetime -- a relationship that had implications of love between master and slave? The hypocrisy of this time seriously complicates both of these options. (see comment by Dallas Gage)

[2] The first point, that the scandal is Jefferson fathering these children with a black woman, was not entirely uncommon at the time. This was a period in time when white men could keep slaves and use them for what they wished; black slaves were stripped completely of their identities and families. They were considered property and sub-human, and it was not uncommon at the time for a white slave owner to have children with one or more of his slaves. (see comment by Brandi Klotz) The fact that Jefferson had children with one of his slaves might have been overlooked, as it was common for slave owners to take liberties with their property; however, the idea that he may have had feelings for Sally, as the film implies, would have been abominable and against all reason.

[3] Regardless of whether Jefferson legitimately "loved" Sally, there was no way in which he could actively pursue this type of relationship in the society in which he lived. It was "unspeakable," as Martha Jefferson states in Jefferson in Paris of the affair between Jefferson and Hemings. A man simply could not have feelings for a slave -- it was against the very rules of reason and intellect. Jefferson, in his Notes from the State of Virginia, describes blacks as inferior in intellect, reason, and even smelling foul, which is in alignment with the proscribed feelings towards blacks in America. Yet we see Jefferson defend his actions to Sally, saying that he was a man that was ignorant when he wrote these "notes."

[4] No, their ongoing relationship was the real issue, not only for the public, but also between the two of them on an individual basis; this latter topic is what the "American Scandal" film tries to get at. This relationship is complicated by the fact that Jefferson owned Sally completely -- her identity was subsumed by the fact that she was his slave. A relationship is based on an equal partnership of power, and, in this case, there was actual documentation that they could not be equals, for he officially owned her. This was a problem for both Sally and the public -- we see Sally wanting to sit by his side at the dinner table, while we see the public completely condemning this as a possibility.

[5] The question that this film presents to the viewers is this: How can you feel something for a person and continue to act in opposition to the way that you feel? If Jefferson, from the beginning to the end, had no real feelings towards Sally or his children with her, though his actions would still be disgusting to us, it would be easier to accept, for we would believe that he thought he did nothing wrong. But the fact is that we know, at least from the film, that he felt remorse and real feelings for Hemings, yet he proceeded with his course of actions the same as if he had no feelings for her. Therefore, the position he took is less forgivable to us today, for he knew his actions were wrong yet he changed nothing.

[6] At the time, everything he did was completely acceptable. Yet Sally Hemings: An American Scandal implies that he has true feelings for her -- that being said, these children were conceived in a "loving" relationship. And yet, publicly, Jefferson upheld the institution of slavery, even amongst those whom he "loved," thereby denying them identities of their own, for they were still his property. As evidence of his guilt in these actions, we see that Jefferson engineered Monticello to have his slaves out of sight at all times; this, in conjunction with his relationship with Sally, implies that he sees the whole institution and his own actions as wrong. His hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of most slave owners at the time is so prevalent that one cannot help but view it in disgust and complete disrespect for all of human nature. Indeed, slaves were considered subhuman -- yet, the men who owned them were supposed to be upstanding Christian men. Isn't one of the major tenets of Christianity the sexual unity between a man and a woman? Therefore, Jefferson and society were being contradictory with what they were said to have believed. If Jefferson were to outright admit that he had feelings for Hemings, he would uproot the basic foundation of slavery in that these people were not people.

[7] The scandal then is that he had feelings for her, a nonhuman. The scandal now is that he had feelings for her and he did not change his position, or his ideals, even though he was in a position to actually change society. Today, interracial couples are not only common but are generally accepted. Even in the minority situations in which people believe that interracial couples are unacceptable, they are unable to voice these opinions publicly, for to do so would make one a racist. For example: it was unacceptable for someone to admit that they were uncomfortable voting for a black man. This is not to say that our country does not still deal with race issues; however, our country has progressed significantly since the time of Jefferson, considering we now have a black President.


Dallas Gage (Nov. 2009)

There is a third possible explanation McGorry did not explore: Jefferson's relationship was considered a scandal because of who he was -- the President of the United States and the Father of the Declaration of Independence. It was common during those times for slave owners to have relationships and have children with their slaves, but few of those instances were considered scandals -- even Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law did it, none other than the father of Sally Hemings. So, Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings was a "scandal" because he was the President of the United States and gave the impression that he wanted no slavery, which could have been another possible reason to investigate in this paper.

Brandi Klotz (Nov. 2009)

We can see this commonality in Elizabeth's relationship with John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law. John Wayles is conceded to have fathered six children with Elizabeth Hemings, including Sally. If it had not been common, then the Wayles and Hemings relationship would be just as much a scandal as the Jefferson and Hemings one. It was not even the outrage that history makes it out to be. Martha grew up with Elizabeth and cared for her deeply. She brought Elizabeth as well as her children with her to Monticello where she made them favored house servants. Though they were the children of her own father, she still cared for them and provided for them. She could have sold them off, but she kept them with her in order to see that they were really taken care of. On her deathbed, she even saw fit to give Sally a hand-bell with which to remember her by. If this had been something uncommon, then she wouldn't have treated Elizabeth and her children with such favor, she would have looked on them with loathing and disdain; She would have feared them as the product of something heinous. If this relationship wasn't a scandal, then the one between Jefferson and Sally also couldn't be a scandal based on the simple fact that a white master fathered children with a black slave.