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 07, 2008

T. J. Randolph Talks Freely to His Sister

On 24 Oct 1858, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge (1796-1876, shown courtesy of Monticello) wrote a letter to her husband about Sally Hemings’s children, and other children born at Monticello who clearly had both European and African ancestry. Most of her information came from her older brother, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.

Coolidge wrote, “I have been talking freely with my brother Jefferson on the subject of the ‘yellow children’.” She wanted to summarize that conversation so that her husband could pass on most—but not all—of the information to a “Mr. Bulfinch.” This was probably a relative of Coolidge’s Boston-born husband; his mother was a Bulfinch.

Coolidge wrote about various white men having sex with the women her grandfather held captive: “Irish workmen,” “dissipated young men in the neighborhood.” However, she said Sally Hemings had only one sex partner:

One woman known to Mr. J. Q. Adams and others as “dusky Sally” was pretty notoriously the mistress of a married man, a near relation of Mr. Jefferson’s, and there can be small question that her children were his. They were all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died. The mother, Sally Hemmings, had accompanied Mr. Jefferson’s younger daughter to Paris and was lady’s maid to both sisters. . . .

I have written thus far thinking you might chuse to communicate my letter to Mr. Bulfinch. Now I will tell you in confidence what Jefferson told me under the like condition. Mr. [Vaul W.] Southall and himself young men together, heard Mr. Peter Carr say with a laugh, that “the old gentleman had to bear the blame of his and Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeeds.”

There is a general impression that the four children of Sally Hemmings were all the children of Col. Carr, the most notorious good-natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense. His deeds are as well known as his name.
This echoes what Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled hearing from T. J. Randolph in the same decade—except the details don’t match.

As Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out, Randall heard Randolph tell a dramatic story of the Carr brothers bursting into tears of remorse when he confronted them about the Hemings rumors. Yet Randolph told his sister that Peter Carr spoke about the topic “with a laugh,” and didn’t mention their cousins showing any regret.

In 1868 Randall came away believing that “Sally Henings was the mistress of Peter,” and that Samuel Carr was “particularly open” about having another woman—Betty Hemings—as his mistress. Ten years earlier, Coolidge understood that “the four children of Sally Hemmings were all the children of” Samuel Carr.

The two stories don’t leave room for thinking that there were overlapping rumors. (In other words, something like: “Did you hear Peter’s going out with Sally?” “No! I heard that last week she went out with Samuel.” “Really? I had no idea.”) Rather, in both cases people believed that Randolph had stated that basically everyone at Monticello knew about those relationships: “their connexion with the Carrs was perfectly notorious at Monticello”; “a general [i.e., widely shared] impression”; “most notorious good-natured Turk.” Furthermore, everyone was clear that all of Sally Hemings’s children were the product of a long-term relationship with one man.

One thing was consistent both times people recalled Randolph’s information: He asked them to keep quiet about the name of the man having children with Sally Hemings. They could speak in general terms about white men having sex with their grandfather’s captives, even about “a near relation of Mr. Jefferson’s” coupled with Hemings. But they shouldn’t name either Peter or Samuel Carr. Which, of course, meant that the Randolph family’s Carr cousins would have no chance to respond before the generations who had known Thomas Jefferson personally had died out.

TOMORROW: Assessing Thomas Jefferson Randolph as a witness.

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