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Promise of Freedom for James Hemings

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Old document handwritten with a quill pen

Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

Jefferson took James Hemings with him to France in 1784 so he could learn the art of French cooking. Hemings became his master's chef in 1787, and continued in that capacity in New York, Philadelphia, and Monticello, although not in Washington City. James was one of three slaves Jefferson freed during his lifetime. Sally Hemings was James's sister.

In his will, Jefferson freed five more Hemings family members. However, the executor's sale of his personal estate included "130 Valuable negroes, believed to be the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the State of Virginia."

Adrien Petit was a household overseer Jefferson had hired while in Paris.

Every generation rewrites history in light of its current concerns, and contemporary American historiography is obsessed with the status of women, blacks, Indians, and other groups heretofore treated as marginal, oppressed outsiders. Since Thomas Jefferson is the bellwether for every change, every nuance in American society from his time to ours, his opinions on these subjects have naturally been solicited.

And in fine, Jefferson is not weathering modern historical revisionism very well. He was, in modern terms, a chauvinist. He encouraged his daughters to improve themselves in music and domestic tasks so they could be more pleasing to their husbands. Women were outside political society: "The tender breasts of young ladies were not formed for political convulsions." "Appointing women to office is a proposition for which the public is not prepared—nor am I." In all this, Jefferson was a man of his time, and of his place.

Jefferson believed Native Americans were equal to Europeans—and, in values such as virtue and courage, even better. He advocated intermarriage. His "benevolent" or "paternalistic" policies of assimilation sought to transform Indian people into farmers, artisans, and Christians.

Yet his Declaration described Indians as merciless savages, and his policies amounted to cultural genocide. Quieting title to Indian lands led inexorably to removal and, later, reservations. Jefferson's lofty ideals yielded willingly in this case, to political pressure and public opinion.

Thomas Jefferson personified an early America paradox—he was simultaneously anti-slavery and anti-Negro. His Notes on Virginia condemned slavery as a boisterous passion conducive to aristocracy. Yet he believed blacks inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind; his observations of differences make painful reading today. But the Scottish Enlightenment taught him that true happiness is found in the heart, where all men are indeed created equal, and since slavery is a power relationship, rebellion and murder were justified.

Miscegenation was abhorrent to Jefferson; he could not imagine a biracial society. "When freed," he said of the black slave, "he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture." The implacable conundrum of racial slavery gnawed at Jefferson for his entire life. "Indeed," he lamented, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

Did the man who believed that miscegenation stained the blood of the master sire six children by his slave, Sally Hemings? The story has circulated since 1802, and recent DNA findings have narrowed the odds considerably. Jefferson's odyssey continues.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities