In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal

William G. Hyland, Jr.

Thomas Dunne Books

In Defense of Thomas Jefferson
1
JAMES CALLENDER: "HUMAN NATURE IN A HIDEOUS FORM"
Refutation can never be made.
--James Callender, 18021
 
 
 
 
 
The rotting corpse bobbed up and down in a muddy, shallow stretch of the James River. Through peeling flesh and hair matted like seaweed, the man's gray face was still recognizable. He was the eighteenth-century version of a tabloid reporter, devoid of honor or decency. Hours earlier, the combustible personality of this man staggered in and out of Richmond's finest taverns, slurring words of rage against President Thomas Jefferson. The next day a coroner heaved the alcohol injected body onto the autopsy table. The cause of death was registered: drowning. Amid rumors of foul play, the formal inquest noted that the deceased had been drunk, his waterlogged body recorded as drowned in three feet of water on a Sunday in July 1803. The coroner then scrawled a name on the death certificate: James Thomson Callender.
Ten days later, the Richmond Examiner newspaper regarded Callender's death as a drunken suicide, and wrote that "this unfortunate man had descended to the lowest depths of misery after having been fleeced by his partner."2 His onetime collaborator recalled years later that Callender had resorted to "unwarrantable indiscretions" begun amid "paroxysms ofinebriety."3 And so the foul life of the most ignoble James Callender came to an end, self-destructing like an overloaded circuit without a breaker.
But this is where the embryo of the "Sally" story begins.
The most direct statement that can be made about the alleged sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is this: It was invented by the fractured psyche of an alcoholic, hack journalist, James Callender.
In 1804, Jefferson's fierce political enemies lacked a substantial issue to use against him as he sought reelection as America's third president. The country was prosperous, peaceful, and the historic Louisiana Purchase had been finalized. So his opponents turned personal. The previous election between incumbent John Adams and Jefferson had also descended into a vicious affair in which Federalists attacked Jefferson's character in a fevered pitch. Jefferson cheated British creditors, they charged, obtained property by fraud, and robbed a widow of £10,000, and if elected: "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced," according to the federalist Connecticut Courant.4
James Callender surged onto the scene and represented, as one historian put it, a "darker and more personal kind of trouble for the president." 5 He distinguished himself by the fierceness and scurrility of his attacks on Jefferson, as well as on John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. In 1802, the sexual accusation against Jefferson first appeared in a slashing, vituperative article written by Callender, an initial supporter of the president who later became a bitter political enemy. Published in the Richmond Recorder on September 1, 1802:
[I]t is, well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters ... . By this wench Sally, our president has had several children.6
Among other things, the scandalmonger referred to Sally as an "African Venus," a "black Venus," "Dusky Sally," "wooly-headed concubine," a member of Jefferson's "Congo harem," and having a "complection between mahogany and dirty greasy yellow."7 The vile accusation released into areceptive political world of Jefferson enemies, who said the president's involvement with "Black Sal" made him unfit for the nation's highest office.
Ultimately, Jefferson won the 1804 election in a landslide, capturing all but two of the then seventeen states and 92 percent of the electoral vote.
As for Callender, his origins and early life remain a "mystery." A political refugee from Scotland, he began his career as a blistering writer in the 1780s. He was one of those men "who never in his life beheld with equanimity a greater than himself."8 Full of pride and jealousy, Callender embarked on writing political pamphlets, leading to The Political Progress of Britain, which criticized powerful British politicians. He libeled Lord Gardenstone, his mentor, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the crown itself. Callender, hearing rumors of his imminent arrest for his seditious writings, fled Britain in 1793. He escaped to the New World, leaving his wife and child behind.
On May 27, 1800, Callender was arrested under the Sedition Act, for attacking President John Adams as a "hoary headed incendiary and a man who had deserted and reversed all principles."9 He was put on trial in Richmond. Having learned of the indictment, and framed by his vehement opposition to the Federalist Sedition laws, Jefferson wrote to future President James Monroe: "I think it essentially just and necessary that Callendar [sic] should be substantially defended."10 Jefferson associated with Callender against his own better judgment, not because he approved of Callender but because he needed Callender to rebut newspaper attacks on his policies. In June 1800, Judge Samuel Chase fined Callender two hundred dollars and sentenced him to nine months in jail.
When Jefferson became president, he pardoned Callender, allowing him to claim compensation for his fine. The muckraker began a campaign for money and a presidential appointment to postmaster of Richmond. He complained to James Madison that "Jefferson has not returned one shilling of my fine. I now begin to know what Ingratitude is."11
Jefferson denied Callender his appointment to postmaster concluding that he was "unworthy."12 Callender turned to Monroe, who tried to "tranquilize his mind" but began to suspect that Callender would attack the "Executive." Monroe had a sharper eye to Callender's potential threats than did Jefferson. He expressed concern that Jefferson had given Callender money, and advised the president to "get all the letters however unimportant from him ... Your resolution to terminate all communication with him is wise, yet it will be well to prevent even a serpent doing one an injury."13
Madison also became suspicious of Callender's motives, observing: "It had been my lot to bear the burden of receiving and repelling [Callender's] claims ... . [I]t is impossible to reason concerning a man, whose imagination and passions have been so fermented."14
As Jefferson moved to the political center, Callender remained on the infested, radical fringe. Jefferson refused to become any closer to a man most readers would soon recognize as a "bitter, ranting mercenary."15 He sent the journalist fifty dollars, a paltry sum that incensed Callender as "hush money." Jefferson, in turn, became insulted by Callender's "base ingratitude" and denied any close relationship with him:
I am really mortified at the base ingratitude of Callender. It presents human nature in a hideous form. It gives me concern because I perceive that relief which was afforded him on mere motives of charity, may be viewed under the aspect of employing him as a writer.16
Furious at Jefferson's parsimony, Callender trembled with rage. His political idol, Jefferson, had spurned his efforts to cultivate their friendship. The perceived slight stimulated Callender's imagination for revenge, and it was in this state of mind that Callender retaliated by publishing Jefferson's friendly letters and payments to him. In fact, Jefferson had not only paid for copies of Callender's pamphlets, but had given him money to sustain him--"mere motives of charity" Jefferson had claimed to Monroe.
In August 1802, one of Jefferson's partisans accused Callender of causing his wife's death from a venereal disease. Callender counterattacked with character assassination, and accused Jefferson of keeping a slave "concubine." He denigrated Sally as a "[s]lut common as the pavement," who was "romping with half a dozen black fellows," and having "fifteen, or thirty gallants of all colours."17 He referred to Jefferson as a man who would lecherously summon Sally from "the kitchen or perhaps the pigsty," using animal comparisons of bestiality for Jefferson's mixing of the races.18
Callender excoriated Jefferson in the journal the Richmond Recorder. The tawdry revelations spread rapidly, appearing in the cheering Federalist press--the New York Evening Post, the Washington Federalist, and the Gazette of the United States. Although sexual abuses by masters inflicted on female slaves were common in the old South, the widower Jeffersonhad never before been suspected or accused of such improper behavior. Callender's scandalous revelation dramatically changed that.
Callender himself was not only a "drunken ruffian," but a racist.19 He always referred to Sally by her race ("Dusky Sally," "Black Sal," "mahogany colored charmer") and wrote "if eight thousand white men in Virginia followed Jefferson's example you would have FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND MULATTOES in addition to the present swarm. The country would no longer be habitable."20 Callender also believed that accusing Jefferson of miscegenation would fatally ruin his career. As one authority commented: "Jefferson's offense was held to be mixture of the races, and Callender and his fellow scandalmongers strummed the theme until it was dead tired."21 At one point, Callender boasted that he had done more harm to Jefferson's reputation in five months than all of Jefferson's critics in ten years.
A prophetic statement.
Callender's libel was not limited to Jefferson. He called John Adams a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," and in his "private life, one of the most egregious fools upon the continents." Adams was a "hideous her-maphroditical character who has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." John Adams had no use for Callender. "I believe nothing that Callender said any more than if it had been said by an infernal spirit. I would not convict a dog of killing sheep upon the testimony of two such witnesses," Adams wrote with characteristic candor. He concluded that Callender's charges against Jefferson were "mere clouds of unsubstantiated vapour."22
Abigail Adams also described Callender as "a libeler whom you could not but detest and despise."23 Abigail took personally Callender's characterizations of her husband--"the basest Libel, the lowest and vilest slander which malice could invent," she called it. Abigail, after learning Jefferson had initially supported Callender, would later write that it was as though the serpent Jefferson had "cherished and warmed" had turned and "bit the hand that nourishes him."24
The obscenity and vulgarity of these extracts from Callender and others, serve to illustrate the low taste of the journalism of the era. Factual accuracy was of no concern to him. He had a caustic pen that rankled those he pilloried. The menacing Callender had already besmirched the reputations of Alexander Hamilton when he publicized Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds to her blackmailing husband.
Two potential sources for Callender's vulgarity also had a clear motive against Jefferson: David Meade Randolph and his wife Mary (Molly), disaffected, distant cousins who were Callender's informants. Before the appearance of Callender's articles, Randolph had been fired by Jefferson as federal marshal in Richmond, allegedly for rigging the Callender jury. Randolph's dismissal outraged him, and the couple's grandiose lifestyle disintegrated. They became outspoken enemies of Jefferson and fed hearsay and gossip to Callender, as well as others.
Jefferson's friends vehemently denied the disparagement in print, but the president bore this vilification without public comment. Privately, he wrote that a formal refutation was beneath him. "I have determined to contradict none," he wrote to Monroe.25 A statement made to Dr. George Logan indicates Jefferson's mature judgment with regard to such extreme slanders: "As to Federal slanders, I never wished them to be answered, but by the tenor of my life ... . [T]he man who fears no truths has nothing to fear from lies."26 Jefferson explained his position to William A. Burwell:
Many of the [federal] lies would have required only a simple denial, but I saw that even that would have led to the infalliable inference, that whatever I had not denied was to be presumed true. I have, therefore, never done even this, but to such of my friends as happen to converse on these subjects, and I have never believed that my character could hang upon every two-penny lie of our common enemies.27
Jefferson's silence on the subject was in accord with his "rule of life" not to respond to newspaper attacks: "Their approbation has taught a lesson, useful to the world ... . I should have fancied myself guilty had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn to them respect by a notice from myself."28 In a letter to Samuel Smith of Maryland, Jefferson said: "At a very early period of my life, I determined never to put a single sentence into any newspaper. I have religiously adhered to the resolution through my life ... were I to undertake to answer the calumnies of the newspapers, it would be more than all my own time and that of twenty aids could affect. For while I should be answering one, twenty new ones would be invented."29
Privately, however, Jefferson alluded to and, in fact, denied the charges. For example, he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush: "The Morals of Jesus," witha Syllabus, Washington, April 21, 1803: "And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations & calumnies."30
"I know," he explained to a friend in Connecticut, "that I might have filled the courts of the Untied States with actions for these slanders, and have ruined, perhaps, many persons who are not innocent. But this would be no equivalent for the loss of character. I leave them, therefore, to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will come a day when the false witness will meet a judge who has not slept over his slanders."31 Edward Coles, a friend and neighbor of Jefferson's, confirmed to a friend that Jefferson denied the "Black Sal" charges to him and to a Kentuckian stranger. Coles referred to the charges as "vacuous."32
"With the aid of a lying renegade from Republicanism, the Federalists have opened all their sluices of calumny," Jefferson complained.33 Perhaps Jefferson offered the best refutation of this tale of seduction when he said that if a biographer dealing with a person whose character was "well known and established on satisfactory testimony, imputes to it things incompatible with that character, we reject without hesitation, and assent to that only of what we have better evidence."34 More importantly, it simply defies common sense that Jefferson would have been so reckless as to impregnate Sally after the charges surfaced, while he remained president.
"James Callender dreamt up the myth of Sally Hemings," according to historian Willard Sterne Randall. "The only thing that he got right out of that one paragraph ... was Sally Hemings' name."35 Jefferson, two years before his own death, reflected on Callender's bespatterment and seemed to pity him: "He was a poor creature, sensible [oversensitive], hypochondriac, drunken, penniless & unprincipled."36 Dumas Malone, the most respected Jeffersonian scholar, was less forgiving of the malignment: "The evil that he did was not buried with him: some of it has lasted through the generations."37
IN DEFENSE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON. Copyright © 2009 by William G. Hyland Jr. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.