In Search of Sally Hemings: Slavery and Sexual Agency in the History of the United States


Mia Bay


The story of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's enslaved lover and mother of six of his children, has gone from scandal to romance to the subject of historical and scientific investigation. All of these approaches misrepresent the liaison between the Founding Father and his female possession because they ignore the sexual exploitation and family losses inscribed across the Hemings family's history and across the history of American slavery. Even discussions that heroically attempt to locate Hemings' own choices, desires and pleasures are doomed because they require us to separate Sally Hemings the woman from Sally Hemings the enslaved woman. That separation was simply inconceivable during her lifetime. Within the context of slavery, property, and power, Hemings had no rights. She had no right to say "no" when she was 13 or 14 and her sexual relationship with Jefferson began, and had no right to say "no" when her children were sold off with the rest of Jefferson's property after his death. Imagining this relationship as a romance reveals our longing for a sexual ethics that includes mutual choice, respect and consent. Jefferson himself may have provided us with the most straightforward and accurate insight into his relationship with Hemings when he described slavery as "a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions and the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."