Unconnected Dots: Madison Hemings and the Treaty Legend

Erratic scholarship has now filtered down to a sticky note. Students at William and Mary, Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater, and at the University of Missouri, place the notes on his statue, labeling him “racist” and “rapist.” The latter charge stems from a general sense in the academic community that Jefferson started a sexual relationship in Paris with Sally Hemings, a 15-year-old slave girl.

This rumor has hovered over Jefferson’s legacy since it was first raised in 1802 in the Richmond Register by the muckraker James Callender. It gained little traction through the years, because no direct evidence has ever been produced. In spite of the paucity of evidence, those who believe in this long affair between Jefferson and Hemings argue that sufficient proof could be found in the “memoirs” of Madison Hemings.

What were the Madison Hemings memoirs

Madison Hemings was born in 1805, the third of the four children of Sally Hemings who reached adulthood. In 1873, about 40 years after he left Monticello, he gave an interview printed in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican edition of March 13, 1873, in which he claimed that Jefferson was his father and the father of his three living siblings, and one who had died. The report was written by S.F. Wetmore in the first person, as though Wetmore had transcribed the words of Hemings. Even if one wanted to believe that Wetmore had not intruded his own thoughts into the report, the Paris years and the paternity of his siblings would not be knowledge known to Hemings, but would be hearsay.

Hemings offers nothing in his observations that might support his claims. He does not describe any interaction with Jefferson, or with his siblings, that might suggest a parental relationship. Similarly, he does not provide any details of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings that would be suggestive of a relationship between his mother and Jefferson, or that they were somehow connected as parents of the four children. He does not state any source or basis for these childhood memories.

What was the treaty legend?

The Madison Hemings interview by Wetmore is the source of the “treaty legend.” This account is central to those who believe that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children. According to Madison Hemings, when Jefferson prepared to leave France, he intended to bring Sally Hemings back with him to Virginia, “but she demurred.” To induce her, Jefferson promised her “extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years.”

This “treaty” took place 15 years before Hemings birth, but he does not reveal the source of this information. There is no record that anyone other than Hemings knew of this unusual arrangement with his mother, or that she ever told anyone, including him. Even given the benefit of hindsight, Hemings does not relate any of the “extraordinary privileges” that his mother received. In fact, all accounts indicate she was treated the same as the other house slaves. Madison describes her as “well used,” but there is no indication that her daily condition, material possessions, or duties at Monticello, involved any “extraordinary privileges.” The few references to her over the next thirty years do not suggest she was anything but a maid at Monticello. She was left at Monticello during the eight years Jefferson was president, and although he freed her two younger sons, he did not free her.

What was the basis for the “treaty”?

It was in Paris, according to Madison Hemings, that his mother became pregnant. She wanted to stay in Paris, because she would be “free.” She succumbed to Jefferson’s entreaties merely because he promised to free her future children. There is no other evidence to support this account, revealed almost half a century after Jefferson’s death. According to Madison Hemings, after his mother returned to Monticello, she gave birth to a baby who “lived but a short time.”

On the trip home, Sally was in a cabin convenient to Jefferson’s two daughters. Both daughters later defended their father against the rumors raised by the Callender allegations. It is not possible that this pregnancy could have gone unnoticed. There is no mention of this baby in Jefferson’s Monticello records. Among Jefferson’s family, the slaves of Monticello, and the countless visitors, no one left a comment that Sally Hemings returned to Monticello pregnant.

It also went unrecorded in Paris that Jefferson was in a relationship with Hemings, either by his French acquaintances or by British officials. Jefferson, as the United States minister to France, was well known in French society. He would also have been a subject for observation by intelligence agents of France and England, but no record of suspicion was ever made.

The truth of the treaty legend is critical

Those who argue for Jefferson’s paternity of the Hemings’ children believe that the “treaty” is not legend, in spite of the fact that it is hearsay and unsupported by any other evidence (some cite Israel Jefferson, but he was a young child at the time and who admits that he did not “positively know”). Without the Paris baby, there is no “treaty,” and there is no promise to free the future children of Sally Hemings. This lack of evidence is consistent only with one historical conclusion, that there was no Paris baby and there was no treaty.

Was Tom Woodson the Paris baby?

Those who have eschewed the need for corroboration of the Madison Hemings’ interview simply ignore his claim that the Paris baby died. They rely instead on the Callender claim that Sally Hemings lived at Monticello with Jefferson’s son. Callender’s sources are unknown and this claim is not supported by other evidence. The descendants of a Tom Woodson comprise a large and accomplished family who have long promoted that their origin was from the union of Jefferson and Hemings. There is no proof that a son was born to Sally Hemings about 1790 and was living at Monticello at the time of Callender’s articles in 1802. In 1998, DNA testing established that if Tom Woodson was indeed the son of Sally Hemings, his father would not have been Thomas Jefferson. Of course, Tom Woodson does not appear anywhere in the Monticello records, nor is he mentioned by any contemporaneous witness. Other than Madison Hemings say-so, there was no Paris baby.

What about the Monticello report?

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (previously, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation), which owns Monticello, stated in 1989 that, “The evidence for a liaison remains entirely circumstantial, and receives no support from other contemporary records." After the DNA results were released, an in-house committee gathered those “records” in a spiralbinder. This January 2000 Report concluded that “the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.”

Suppressed at the time by Monticello, but later released was a minority report which concluded that “The DNA studies certainly enhance the possibility but ...do not prove Thomas Jefferson's paternity.“ So, the process followed by the Monticello committee was to weigh the existing circumstantial evidence, which did not prove paternity, with the DNA test, which did not specify Jefferson as the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children, and conclude that these two bodies of “evidence,” each deficient alone, miraculously became proof of paternity when combined.

Is the Madison Hemings interview evidence?

There is no standard for measuring proof that would make any of the claims in the interview with Madison Hemings creditable. His claims that his mother was pregnant by Jefferson when she returned from France, that Jefferson agreed to free her children if she returned, and that he and his siblings were Jefferson’s children is a story related decades after these events. Of the thousands of persons who passed through Monticello during the 35 years that Sally Hemings lived there, which included visitors, Jefferson family, and slaves, no one made thes claims, including Sally Hemings herself.

Is the interview central to the paternity story?

Without Madison Hemings, there is no paternity story. An example may be found in the account for Sally Hemings in the on-line Encyclopedia Virginia. The writer accepts and relates Hemings’ statements as though they were proven facts. If all of these unproven allegations by Hemings were stricken from the article, what would be left would reveal that there is no support for the paternity claim. Jefferson is being judged by sticky note scholarship. 

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