Madison Hemings and the Treaty Legend


The paternity myth has hovered over Jefferson’s legacy since it was first raised in 1802 in The Recorder, a paper in Richmond, Virginia, 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. 

Madison Hemings was born in 1805, the third of the four children of Sally Hemings who reached adulthood. In 1873, about 45 years after he left Monticello, he gave an interview 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 of 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 love affair, or that they were somehow connected as parents of the four children.

What was the treaty legend?

The Madison Hemings interview is the source of the “treaty legend.” This account is central to the belief 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 16 years before Hemings’ birth, but he does not reveal the source of this information. There is no record that anyone other than Madison raised this unusual arrangement with his mother. 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 30 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 by codicil to his will, 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 Madison Hemings 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. 

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 claim it is proved because Jefferson did free the four children of Sally Hemings. There is some question whether the older two were freed or “ran away,” but that would only be proof if we knew about the treaty before they were freed, not a story made up some 50 years later to fit the known facts. Some cite Israel Jefferson, but he was a young child at the time and admits that he did not “positively know.” 

 Without the Paris baby, there is no basis for a “treaty,” nor any reason to promise to free the future children of Sally Hemings. The 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?

Some who have eschewed the need for proof of the Madison Hemings’ interview 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 descendents of a Tom Woodson are 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 on Woodson descendents established that if Tom Woodson were indeed the son of Sally Hemings, his father could 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. It is the same absence of evidence that surrounds the Paris baby who “died.”