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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Monday, August 04, 2008

T. J. Randolph Throws the Carrs Under a Bus

I’ve been quoting from the 1868 letter in which Thomas Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled his conversations with the President’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph about the family’s captive maid Sally Hemings. Those conversations probably started in the early 1850s and had to have finished before 1858, when Randall published his book.

The biggest part of the letter involved Randolph pointing to a first cousin, once removed, as the father of Hemings’s children. Writing in 1868, Randall recalled the statements this way:

Mr. Jefferson had two nephews, Peter Carr [1770-1815] and Samuel Carr [1771-1855] whom he brought up in his house. There were the sons of Mr. Jefferson’s sister [Martha] and her husband Dabney Carr that young and brilliant orator, described by [William] Wirt, who shone so conspicuously in the dawn of the Revolution, but died in 17[73]. Pete was peculiarly gifted and amiable. Of Samuel I know less. But he became a man of repute and sat in the State Senate of Virginia.

Col. [Thomas Jefferson] Randolph informed me that Sally Henings was the mistress of Peter, and her sister Betsey the mistress of Samuel—and from these connections sprang the progeny which resembled Mr. Jefferson. Both the Henings girls were light colored and decidedly goodlooking. The Colonel said their connexion with the Carrs was perfectly notorious at Monticello, and scarcely disguised by the latter—never disavowed by them. Samuel’s proceedings were particularly open. . . .

Colonel Randolph said that a visitor at Monticello dropped a newspaper from his pocket or accidentally left it. After he was gone, he (Colonel R.) opened the paper and found some very insulting remarks about Mr. Jefferson’s Mulatto Children. The Col. said he felt provoked. Peter and Sam Carr were lying not far off under a shade tree. He took the paper and put it in Peters hands, pointing out the article. Peter read it, tears coursing down his cheeks, and then handed it to Sam. Sam also shed tears. Peter exclaimed, “arnt you and I a couple of pretty fellows to bring this disgrace on poor old uncle who has always fed us! We ought to be —— by ——!”

I could give fifty more facts were there time, and were there any need of it, to show Mr. Jefferson’s innocence of this and all similar offenses against propriety. . . . Mr. Jefferson was deeply attached to the Carrs—especially to Peter. He was extremely indulgent to them and the idea of watching them for faults or vices probably never occurred to him.
Monticello’s webpage about the Carr family says that Peter and Samuel Carr were born in 1770 and 1771, respectively. By 27 Feb 1793, according to a letter from their cousin Martha, Peter had moved out of his mother’s house and Samuel was looking for an estate as well. According to The Carr Family Records, a spotty genealogy published in 1894, Peter and Samuel Carr lived on adjoining estates called Carr’s Retreat and Dunlora. As near as I can tell through Google Maps, they were about six or seven miles from Monticello.

In April 1799 Jefferson told his sister that both cousins had just had children: “Peter Carr had a son and Sam a daughter.” Peter declined to enter public life, though his family reportedly thought he should. Samuel eventually served brief terms in both houses of the Virginia legislature and was a colonel of the state militia during the War of 1812. According to Andrew Burstein’s Jefferson’s Secret, Samuel also helped T. J. Randolph manage his unreliable father’s finances.

It’s clear from this letter that Randolph wanted Randall to understand that Peter Carr was the father of all of Sally Hemings’s children, and that almost everyone at Monticello knew that: “from these connections sprang the progeny which resembled Mr. Jefferson. . . their connexion with the Carrs was perfectly notorious at Monticello, and scarcely disguised.” Randolph offered no opening for thinking that any other man was having sex with Hemings and could thus have fathered any of her children.

Peter Carr couldn’t have impregnated Sally Hemings in France, however. And according to the gossip-seeking journalist James Callender, she was pregnant when she came back from Paris with Jefferson. (Hemings’s son Madison would also state that his mother had been pregnant at that time.) Thus, Randolph’s statement about Peter Carr couldn’t refute Callender’s first and biggest accusation against the President; it could only address the gossip that spread as the Hemings children grew up at Monticello through 1826. Perhaps Randolph was confident that the slave-labor plantation’s account books contained no record of Hemings giving birth in 1790; after all, he inherited those documents from his grandfather.

TOMORROW: The other thing Thomas Jefferson Randolph wanted.

(The miniature portrait of Jefferson above, from Monticello, is by John Trumbull.)

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