J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Edmund Bacon Frees an Enslaved Young Woman

So I promised to explain why the question of when Edmund Bacon came to live at Monticello (shown at right), where he eventually was manager for sixteen years, has a bearing on the—let’s face it—far juicier historical question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. Jefferson at Monticello, Hamilton W. Pierson’s book based on conversations with Bacon, quotes the former overseer as saying:

He [Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was . . . . . . ’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning, when I went up to Monticello very early.

When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia, and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since, and don’t know what became of her. From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory. She never did any hard work.
The passage is also quoted here. Though this passage follows one that mentions Sally Hemings by name, the mother and daughter in the anecdote have no names.

Ellen Randolph Coolidge also described Jefferson, her grandfather, freeing one light-skinned female slave in his life. She wrote in an 1858 letter:
It was his principle (I know that of my own knowledge) to allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed, I remember four instances of this, three young men and one girl, who walked away and staid away. Their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves—for they were white enough to pass for white.
Finally, former Monticello captive Madison Hemings told a newspaper editor in 1873 that Jefferson freed his sister Harriet around age twenty-one:
made a solemn pledge [to Sally Hemings] that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. . . . She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston—three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. . . .

Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered. . . .

Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation.
When historians put all these three accounts together, most agree that they offer three different perspectives on the same incident. According to this consensus, at about the time that Harriet Hemings, born in May 1801, turned twenty-one, Jefferson had his manager Bacon help her to leave Monticello for a city to the north. There her pale skin allowed her to live as a white woman and, though she remained in touch with her family and possibly others at Monticello, she disappeared into white American society. I’ll proceed on the assumption that’s correct, while acknowledging that it might not be.

Until 1997, historians took Bacon’s account as direct, authoritative knowledge of who Harriet Hemings’s father was. Then Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy that Bacon couldn’t have known who was spending the night with Sally Hemings when Harriet was conceived because he hadn’t arrived at Monticello yet. Gordon-Reed was working with the date 1806, the earliest that Bacon’s name appears in the records of the slave-labor plantation. It’s my guess that young Bacon arrived in December 1802. But even if we accept the shaky statement in Jefferson at Monticello, Bacon didn’t come on the scene until late December 1800, three or four months after the conception.

Most researchers now accept that Bacon was stretching general knowledge from having lived at Monticello for many years to cover a specific incident that occurred before he arrived. People disagree on how authoritative and reliable his general knowledge and his statement are. Eventually I’ll get back to Bacon’s remarks above, but next I want to discuss something else he mentioned about Monticello.

TOMORROW: Schoolboys getting “intimate with the negro women,” or Willie C. Rives sleeps alone.

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