Every individual has his or her fair share of secrets, yet when the individual in question is the third president of the United States, those secrets are often hard to keep from the limelight. This was certainly the case with Thomas Jefferson, as the 2000 CBS miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal dramatizes his secret thirty-eight-year relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave on his Monticello estate. The film covers the entirety of Jefferson’s relationship, beginning in Europe while he is still the Minister to France, through his time as Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and finally to his post-presidential years working on his dream project, the University of Virginia. We see exactly how this secret relationship affects his status as not only an American politician but as a family man. When he is forced to sell the majority of his possessions, Jefferson is ultimately faced with another dilemma: his greatest assets lie in his ownership of over 200 slaves. The looming fact that he must sell his slaves to avoid losing Monticello stands in contrast to the fact that he must face Hemings, now a prominent figure among slaves and his lover for almost four decades.
The film does not merely center on Jefferson, however. The story is told mostly from Sally Hemings’ point of view on her long-standing relationship with one of our country’s greatest leaders. She watches as her family is torn apart through slavery and the struggle of dealing with the tension between white skin and slave blood.
The big question this film tries to answer is simply what was the true nature of the Jefferson and Hemings relationship.
by William "Tommy" McNulty