1975 A Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings

Dumas Malone, 1892-1986, was a historian, an editor and professor at the University of Virginia and Columbia University. Considered one of the top Jefferson scholars, he wrote the six volume biography of Jefferson entitled Jefferson and His Time as well as The Story of the Declaration of Independence. Steven H. Hochman assisted Dumas Malone in his research at the University of Virginia, where he received his Ph.D. in History. Hochman is the author of Thomas Jefferson: A Personal Financial Biography (1987).

From "A Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings," by Dumas Malone and Steven H. Hochman,Journal of Southern History, XLI, no. 4 (November 1975): 523-28.

On March 13, 1873, an obscure weekly newspaper in Waverly, Ohio, the Pike County Republican, published an autobiographical narrative of a former slave of Thomas Jefferson's named Madison Hemings. His story supported the allegation first circulated among Jefferson's political enemies and later by many abolitionists that he had kept a mulatto mistress and fathered mulatto children. Hemings claimed that his mother, Sally Hemings, was Jefferson's concubine and that he, Madison Hemings, was Jefferson's son, born in 1805 when that gentleman was President of the United States. How much attention this claim received outside south-central Ohio would be difficult to determine, but word of it reached James Parton, who was publishing a serial biography of Jefferson in the Atlantic Monthly at the time. Taking up the "Dusky Sally" story in his July 1873 installment, Parton stated politely that Hemings was "misinformed." In fact, said he, the father in question "was a near relation of the Jeffersons, who need not be named." A nephew of Thomas Jefferson, one of the Carr brothers, had been named in a letter Parton had received five years earlier from Henry S. Randall, but this was not published until 1951.'

The memoir of Madison Hemings appears to have remained in obscurity even longer. Credit for its rediscovery belongs to lames H. Rodabaugh, formerly head of the Division of History and Science in the Ohio Historical Society. Through him John Dos Passos became acquainted with it by 1955. That author corresponded with several scholars about it, though he himself made no literary use of it for some years. Meanwhile, in 1960, it was summarized in print by Merrill D. Peterson, who denied, however, that it proved Jefferson to have been the father of Madison Hemings. That same year a critical examination of it was made by Douglass G. Adair with whom Dos Passos had corresponded. Along with the memoir Itself, Adair' s study of "The Jefferson Scandals" was communicated to other scholars, but it remained unpublished until 1974, when it appeared in a posthumous volume of essays. Without discrediting the sincerity of Madison Hemings, Adair rejected his claim and accepted Parton's explanation of his paternity. John Dos Passos in his account of Jefferson's Presidency cited this explanation approvingly m 1966, saying the "defamatory stories" circulated by James Thomson Callender "became part of the political mythology of the ]effersonian era. " A few months before Adair's posthumous essay appeared, the article in the Pike County Republican was reprinted by Fawn M. Brodie under the title "Reminiscences of Madison Hemings." She has described this as "the most important single document" relating to the story of Sally Hemings, and except for a few minor inaccuracies she accepts it as factually correct.

Apparently, neither she nor any of the other writers who have cited this document in recent years inquired into the circumstances of its original publication. Any document must be viewed by the historian in its actual setting of time and place, and there is all the more reason for him to do so if it deals with events that occurred long before it was written. This particular memoir refers to supposed happenings in Paris almost a score of years before the narrator himself was born. Our concern here, however, is with the circumstances of its appearance rather than its contents. In its published form it was a report of an interview by the editor of the Pike County Republican, S. F. Wetmore. Judging from its title Life Among the Lowly, Number One," he hoped it would create sympathy for the freedmen just as Uncle Tom's Cahin did for the slaves. That the freedmen needed sympathy and that the Republican party needed support at this particular place at that time becomes abundantly clear on examination of the local situation. Pike County was a Democratic bastion, and anti-Negro sentiment was very strong there, especially in Waverly.

The county seat was so hostile to black settlement that as late as 1888, according to the memoir of a leading citizen, a Negro had never been allowed to live within the town limits. It was said to be the only town in Ohio with a population above 2,000 of which this was true. Yet, as the memoir noted, many of the surrounding hills were ''fairly infested with negroes." When, in 1836, Madison Hemings first settled in the state, he lived in Pebble Township, directly west of Pee Pee Township which included Waverly. A skilled. carpenter, he did extensive construction work in the town even though he was unwelcome as a resident. After about four or five years he moved north to Huntington Township. This was actually in Ross County, although his mailing address remained Pee Pee Township in Pike, apparently the nearest post office.

The editor and publisher of the Pike County Republican, S. F. Wetmore, was a native of Maine, who had lived in at least four other states before working for a Republican paper in Portsmouth, Ohio, at the end of the Civil War. From there he moved to Waverly and, "in hopes to be useful to the Pike County Republicans," revived their local party paper. The opposing editor called him a carpetbagger, not only because he had invaded a Democratic stronghold but also because he was rewarded. with federal patronage by the Republican administration of Grant.

Since Waverly was strongly Democratic, Wetmore cultivated the rural districts of Pike and nearby counties. On his horse, "Old Ten Thousand," he rode through the countryside, visiting people both black and white and recording their circumstances in "Notes by the Way.'' On March 3, 1870, he began a series of biographical sketches of the oldest citizens of the county. He did at least thirty-two of these and made sure he mentioned numerous voters' names. Although the style was not wholly consistent, the interviews were generally presented as first-person narratives. In number one, answers to questions were given in the first person, but Wetmore noted that the daughter of the man interviewed had chanced to be at her father's house, and he had "learned from her facts that might have been overlooked." Clearly, the final article was Wetmore's composition, even though the quotations in it appeared to be direct.

When, in 1873, he decided to begin a series on old colored residents of the area, his system em of interviewing was well established. Before talking with Madison Hemings he could have consulted a life of Jefferson, though he sought to give the opposite impression, and he may probably be assumed to have asked leading questions. His Democratic rival, John A. Jones, editor of teh Waverly Watchman, promptly published a reply to the story.

The contesting editors spoke for their political constituents as well as for themselves in the two documents that are printed below. Let us say in our won behalf that this not on evidence is intended as neither an attack on the sincerity of Madison Hemings, who appears to have been an estimable character, nor as a rounded critique of his story, which we find unacceptable in important respects for reasons not presented here. We would not exaggerate the significance of the fresh light we have shed on the circumstances of its appearance. But quite clearly, the story was solicited and published for a propagandist purpose....

(Mr. Malone is working on the final volume of his biography of Jefferson at the University of Virginia. Mr. Hochman is his assistant. They wish to thank the staff of the Ohio Historical Society at Columbus, where research for this note was done.)