*Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power*

by on November 25, 2012 at 4:08 am in Books, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

I quite liked this book, which is by Jon Meacham.  Here is the bit best suited to MR:

“She [Sally Hemings] was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved,” said Madison Hemings.  “So she refused to return with him.”

It was an extraordinary moment.  Fresh from arranging terms with the bankers of Europe over a debt that was threatening the foundation of the French nation, Thomas Jefferson found himself in negotiations with a pregnant enslaved teenager who, in a reversal of fortune hardly likely to be repeated, had the means at hand to free herself.

…So he began making concessions to convince Sally Hemings to come home to Virginia.  “To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years,” Madison Hemings said.

Sally Hemings agreed…

Their father kept the promise he had made to Sally in Paris. “We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born,” Madison Hemings said.  It was one of the most important pacts of Jefferson’s life.

1 Ray Lopez November 25, 2012 at 5:13 am

There is a body of literature out there whether or not Ms. Hemings offspring were sired by the Sire of UVA. There’s no consensus, and some say one of Jefferson’s relatives supplied the DNA evidence. We’ll never really know. Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/israel/familyjefferson.html

2 prior_approval November 25, 2012 at 11:25 am

Well, the fact that Jefferson kept his commitment, apparently the point ‘the bit best suited to MR,’ would seem to show a further connection which fatherhood would certainly provide – Jefferson lost money on the deal, after all, and not his purported ‘relative’ (a relative that has shifted through the centuries, it must be noted, as the previous one is replaced by another in a seemingly endless atempt by some to deny that Jefferson fathered children with his slave).

This is a long running story, and here is just the introduction –

‘The controversy started as early as the 1790s. Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, told a historian in the 1850s that the late Peter Carr, a nephew of Jefferson’s, had fathered Hemings’ children. Historians generally asserted this denial for nearly 180 years. While some historians of the late twentieth century started reanalyzing the body of evidence, for many consensus was not reached until after a Y-DNA analysis in 1998: results showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son, and no match between the Carr line and the Hemings descendant.

In the 21st century, a consensus has emerged among historians that the entirety of the evidence suggests Jefferson’s paternity for all of Hemings’ children.’


3 So Much For Subtlety November 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm

How did Thomas Jefferson lose money on the deal? He might have lost a slave and her future offspring in Paris. Instead he got a lifetime of domestic work and sexual services. In exchange he gave up any children he had with her – on his death I think off hand. So his heirs lost some money. Not him.

It would be hard to price the value of Hemming as a 16 year old against the life time of work and sex she provided plus her offspring. But Jefferson won.

4 Yi November 25, 2012 at 11:26 pm

That’s false. DNA evidence has, in fact, exonerated Jefferson of paternity in all but one case, her youngest child. Which DNA evidence shows most likely was fathered by a male Jefferson, of which there were a few dozen around her at the time of conception. Thomas Jefferson is a possibility for that child although he would have been quite old.

Meacham’s story is provably false. Her oldest child was not fathered by a male Jefferson. And there are no contemporary accounts of the story he relates. It’s simply family lore embellished over decades and generations.

5 So Much For Subtlety November 26, 2012 at 1:33 am

DNA evidence shows that the father shared the same Y chromosome as Thomas Jefferson. That is not to say that he is the father, but it sure doesn’t rule him out either. Around her? You mean in Paris where she became pregnant for the first time? Do tell.

How is it provably false? Her first child died. The oldest surviving ones passed into White society and it is impossible to test their descendents. If any. Thomas Jefferson was present on the plantation every single time Hemmings got pregnant. Her children have names from his family. I mean the chances are pretty good that he is the father.

6 Brian November 25, 2012 at 7:23 am

Why is the Sally Hemmings affair the part “best suited” to MR readers?
I haven’t read this book yet, so I don’t know what Meacham focuses on, but I’ve read Joseph Ellis and Gary Wills, so I imagine a number of topics that are marginally above a sex scandal and even of interest to MR: his extensive use of presidential power, his relationship with John Adams, his admiration of all things French, his understanding that his Presidential victories came because of the electoral advantage from (partially) counting slaves, etc.

Or does Meacham make his biggest contribution to the Jefforson literature by

these two “negotiations.”?

7 Brian November 25, 2012 at 7:26 am

(Sorry, typing from my phone)…

…comparing and placing side by side these “negotiations”?

8 dearieme November 25, 2012 at 7:30 am

So, by pointing out that he still owned her (and his) children and could dispose of them as he chose, he managed to talk her into giving up her freedom and return with him to the USA. What a fine fellow he was, to be sure. Friend of liberty, no doubt.

9 Millian November 25, 2012 at 7:56 am

But people were so much more free back then! Look at the G/GDP ratios!

10 Slocum November 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

No — she was 16 at the this time and, as yet, had no children back at Monticello to threaten. So she might have stayed in France and lived as a free woman (perhaps even with her brother). I suppose Jefferson might have tried to coercion by threatening to ‘dispose of’ her siblings and other relatives remaining in Virginia — but if that was how it went, then he would have had little reason to agree to the terms that he apparently made (and ultimately kept). None of which, of course, makes Jefferson a ‘fine fellow’ when it comes to slavery and the treatment of his own slaves (particularly those who weren’t named Hemings).

But I take this post to be about Hemings rather than Jefferson — an apparently powerless teenage girl grasping enough of the ‘Art of Power’ to take on a leading thinker and politician of the age. And she had to judge whether he was at least fine enough not to renege on the deal after her leverage was gone. Rather impressive (however much of a bastard you judge Jefferson to have been).

11 prior_approval November 25, 2012 at 10:39 am

‘an apparently powerless teenage girl grasping enough of the ‘Art of Power’ to take on a leading thinker and politician of the age’

Who then remained a slave. Yes, sounds pretty much a perfect illustration – but since I don’t have proof that Marginal Revolution is in favor of enslaving women (though some of the commenters? – truly sad), I won’t judge what point a woman agreeing to remain a slave illuminates.

Maybe that people can only lose their chains when they no longer care about those who put them on?

Maybe if only Hemings had agreed to an unpaid internship while learning job skills for the benefit of her future employers, she would have had the opportunity to choose to become free?

This could go on, but let’s be honest – it seems difficult to imagine any way a tale of woman accepting her enslavement could be an illustration of anything positive about Marginal Revolution.

And on preview – ‘That apparently he made a credible commitment is what is so remarkable to me about the story.’

So, the whole story of a woman voluntarily re-enslaving herself is just a footnote to the fact that her master kept his commitment. Well, how far we have fallen – these days, American companies routinely declare bankruptcy to free themselves of their employment and pension contracts, having apparently less honor than a man who owned humans as property.

12 Slocum November 25, 2012 at 10:53 am

If you consciously trying to illustrate the perfect opposite of Arnold Kling’s principal of “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree”, I’d say you could hardly ‘improve’ on your efforts.

13 prior_approval November 25, 2012 at 11:17 am

What efforts? General Director Cowen finds most striking the fact that a slave owner kept his word.

I find most striking a woman returned to slavery, for whatever reason.

One of those viewpoints apparently perfectly illustrates Marginal Revolution (in the words of the person that posted the topic), the other one doesn’t.

You are welcome to decide where charity is deserved.

14 Cliff November 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Someone must have dropped you on your head as a baby.

What you wrote is NOT “in the words of the person that posted the topic”, and Cowen never said he found it most striking “that a slave owner kept his word.” Do you really expect to be taken seriously when your comments contain multiple, very obvious lies?

15 Ntrust November 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Nevermind Slocum. prior_approval has demonstrated in way too many comments that he’s a tendentious ass, who spams the page with block quotes and whose favorite argumentative strategy is the insinuation. Anything he posts should be read at a heavy discount.

16 Ranjit Suresh November 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Cliff – read below. Tyler has sad that Jefferson following through on his promise is the most striking part of the story. Why would it be striking if he were not a slave owner?

Prior_approval is just making the observation that it’s far more noteworthy that a woman like Hemings returned to a life of slavery.

17 Claudia November 25, 2012 at 3:58 pm

No, Cliff is right. Though as someone who was dropped as a baby (accidentally, of course), I disagree with his delivery. “Made a credible commitment” is NOT the same thing as “kept his word.” Credible is an ex ante expectation, not an ex post realization. Context matters greatly, but it sounds like the amazement here is that this agreement was sufficient and sufficiently believable for Hemings to give up her freedom and leave Paris. Also I thought RJH57 made good comments on this too below.

18 So Much For Subtlety November 25, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Of course Hemmings may just have been a fool. Young girls often are. She may have been in love. The pact may never have existed.

I have to agree with p_a though, the really noteworthy thing is that Jefferson managed to persuade a young girl to go back to America and be a slave. Even if the alternative was being a single teenage mother in Paris. No doubt a Marxist would make a point about the slavery of the working class who do not have freedom to escape the capitalist system so that actual slavery is preferable. But I won’t. I will wonder how about the underlying subtext of the story. Which obviously cannot be treated at face value. So we should not even say that Jefferson kept his word. Merely that is how it worked out.

19 Claudia November 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm

My point was that I read Tyler as finding the SAME thing noteworthy that prior_approval did (which made his tirade kinda silly today IMO). Maybe I am reaching but to me credible commitment involves both parties…and maybe Hemings had even more control since she forced the negotiation. I doubt this woman was a fool (at least at this point in the story), but was carefully balancing her interests, those of someone she probably cared about, and those of her children. You can say Jefferson kept his word, but that did not make it a credible commitment ex ante….and that’s not the point of the quoted text.

20 Pensans November 25, 2012 at 8:03 am

Best suited to excite the eunchry and defame the kind of man the chief Eunuch could never be. Plus his PC lords in the MSM love this kind of innuendo.

21 Claudia November 25, 2012 at 8:29 am

funny I thought this was a PSA for the Roissy boys here, but maybe that’s the same group you are talking about?

22 The Other Jim November 25, 2012 at 8:54 am

As soon as I saw Jefferson in the headline, I knew the post was going to be about his slaves.

23 Tyler Cowen November 25, 2012 at 9:44 am

That apparently he made a credible commitment is what is so remarkable to me about the story.

24 Steve C November 25, 2012 at 10:25 am

She had something we don’t, personal knowledge of Jefferson.

Would he keep his word? She had the opportunity to weigh his claim in light of her own experience and collected family lore. If characterizations of colonial society are accurate, the importance of keeping “his word” would have been important to his reputation and self image.

25 So Much For Subtlety November 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm

And yet it seems that betraying his marriage vows (depending on when the relationship started), violating every social norm in his society about illicit sex, breaking the law forbidding such relationships and crossing the color line did not make her change her mind. Even though the public disclosure of any one of these would have damaged his reputation and self image.

He had a rather sordid and secret sex life. I wonder how she weighed that up against his word.

26 Susan November 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Raping one’s slaves was a social norm, as was extramarital sex by powerful men. Public disclosure of extramarital sex didn’t become an issue until women gained enough power to punish men for such behavior.

27 So Much for Subtlety November 26, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Sorry but no. Raping your slave might have been a commonplace but you cannot claim it was a social norm. Partly because it wasn’t all that common. African Americans are largely African-by-DNA. But also because it simply wasn’t. No one boasted in public of raping their slaves. No one even mentioned in public that they did. When it happened, it happened in secret precisely because it was not a social norm. (And of course notice that this is what makes American slavery unique. In other cultures female slaves would have been sexually available to their owners and so the slave population as a whole would not have reproduced)

The same applies to extramarital sex. Common does not mean accepted. And both of these points are easy to show – how many American politicians had an openly acknowledged mistress before 1920? Even Thomas Jefferson, when he was accused on the campaign trail of having children with Sally Hemmings, simply ignored it. If it was a social norm, he would not have.

28 TGGP November 28, 2012 at 8:31 pm

His wife had been dead for some time. And America really adopted white supremacist norms after the Jacksonian era of majoritarian democracy (for white males, of course). Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson regarded one of his slaves as a common law wife and recognized her children as his own (though this was not very popular with his constituents).

Africans are mostly African in DNA, but I think the average fraction of European ancestry is something like 15%. That’s not trivial. It was known that many slaveowners sired children and often separated them from the other slaves. Due to the one-drop rule these mixed race offspring had to become part of the black community, resulting in European ancestry being spread out more widely and thinly. Attention has been given recently to mixed race offspring post-dating the civil rights era, which more often feature a black father and white mother than the reverse, but the overall european ancestry in blacks is still disproportionately paternal in origin. The same is true of hispanics.

29 Todd November 25, 2012 at 10:54 am

Isn’t this exactly the plot of the Merchant-Ivory film, “Jefferson in Paris”? This is not exactly new information, though Meacham may present new evidence for the old claim in the book.

30 Joe Smith November 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Hemings might have been free but destitute if she had stayed in France. Jefferson could offer her a life of relative security. More than one person has sacrificed relative freedom for relative security and it is hardly surprising that a vulnerable teenage girl would have even if she was not sure the commitment was entirely credible.

As for Jefferson’s motivations, it is a simple demonstration of an old truth: “When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” or, to quote a relative of mine who fathered more than ten children: “when your pecker’s up, you think with your balls.”

31 Bristol November 25, 2012 at 5:31 pm

“a relative of mine who fathered more than ten children”

How despiriting. And here I was, thinking we had invented contraception.

32 Joe Smith November 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm

“I was, thinking we had invented contraception.”

Not to worry. I think the children were all born in the 1920s and 1930s – although it is possible that one or two were born in the late 1910s or early 1940s.

33 Ryan Cousineau November 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

As some people are reputed to have a taste for motor oil, perhaps his relative had a taste for children*.

*In homage to Arnold Kling, you may take this phrase in the most horrifying way you choose to.

34 Ryan Cousineau November 25, 2012 at 9:15 pm

(I noticed that the “motor oil” reference does not appear to be easily googleable, so here’s a video of the joke being told, in which Tim Harford attributes it to Deirdre McCloskey.)

35 Andrew' November 25, 2012 at 10:57 am

Author is on Face the Nation right now.

Beside him Evan Thomas says the president’s job is lonely because deciding whether to bomb Iran is his decision alone.

36 Gareth November 25, 2012 at 11:45 am

I enjoyed Conor Cruise O’Brien’s bio of Jefferson, which I believe went to the heart of his contradictions. Not one of my heroes (Jefferson, that is – the Cruiser is another matter).

37 RJH57 November 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm

The issue is what constitutes “credible”. This is not an absolute concept but is only meaningful relative to her realistic choices. Jefferson made an offer that was credible enough relative to the certainty of being left as a single teenage mother in Europe. Possibly she choose the future welfare of her children over her own. Not a free choice by any standards. More like a Sophie’s Choice.

How much libertarian theory fails to take real choices not theoretical ones into consideration?

38 Joe Smith November 25, 2012 at 4:03 pm

“Possibly she choose the future welfare of her children over her own.”

Women make that choice everyday in America. It has dominated the life of a good friend of mine for the last ten years.

39 Ranjit Suresh November 25, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Apparently men make that choice more often considering that women initiate the majority of divorces.

40 Joe Smith November 25, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Your conclusion does not follow from your premise.

41 Yi November 25, 2012 at 11:13 pm

DNA evidence has conclusively shown that all but one of Hemmings children were not fathered by Thomas Jefferson — or any other male Jefferson.

DNA evidence shows that one, and only one, of her children was likely fathered by a male Jefferson. There were several male Jeffersons who it might have been. It is plausibly Thomas Jefferson, but the evidence is not conclusive.

Any source that claims more than one of her children was fathered by Thomas Jefferson is demonstrably false. This has been known for many years now. Any author that willfully ignores the DNA evidence is willfully spreading falsehoods.

42 Ricardo November 26, 2012 at 12:12 am

Citation needed. Sally Hemings had six children. Two of them died before reaching adulthood so there are no heirs to test. Of the remaining four, one was a woman who obviously does not have a Y chromosome and two others did not produce direct male descendants who can be tested today. What “conclusive” DNA evidence is there that all five children except for Eston Hemings were not fathered by Jefferson?

43 prior_approval November 26, 2012 at 1:55 am

Actually, there are a few citations concerning Y chromosome testing – but as you have pointed out, the comment is cleverly designed to ensure that Thomas Jefferson remain a figure which a certain group can still respect for his purity of essence. It is quite common in certain circles in central Virginia, a state where such massive resistance has a long tradition.

44 anonymous... December 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm

This comment comes too late to be read by anyone, but…

Sally Hemings’ choice is far less remarkable than it appears. The phenomenal popularity of the Shades of Grey books (with an almost exclusively female readership) has crystallized the notion that many, many women are enthralled by the fantasy of a negotiated submission to an extremely wealthy and powerful man who credibly signals infatuation with her.

Really, it’s just a kinked-up version of the eternal Cinderella fantasy, wherein a seemingly ordinary woman is plucked from her humble life and elevated on a pedestal through selection by some prince, who could have had any women he chose but for some reason picked her and her alone. See also the 1993 film Indecent Proposal, or 2001’s obscure The Center of the World, which are squarely about a female fantasy rather than a male fantasy.

Sally Hemings’ choice would be replicated by very many women today. This sort of thing really turns their crank. What’s missing in action nowadays, however, is any sort of gallantry or infatuation among alpha males, who enjoy variety and a vast array of easy opportunities, and often prefer to pay escorts not to sleep with them but to go away in the morning. We are also light-years away from antiquated notions of a gentleman’s “word of honor”, or the idea that one could feel bound by a mere verbal promise.

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