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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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Edmund Bacon and the Keys to Monticello

Yesterday I quoted Edmund Bacon, longtime overseer for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, reporting how young William C. Rives complained about how Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the President’s grandson (shown at right), and other schoolmates often became “intimate with the negro women” during weekend visits to Monticello.

That’s evidence of likely sexual behavior between females held captive at Monticello and one of the President’s direct male descendants—not just his nephews, or “Irish workmen,” or “dissipated young men in the neighborhood,” as Randolph’s younger sister Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote in 1858. Then again, Rives’s idea of intimacy might have stopped short of sex. But whatever happened during those visits to Monticello, they did not lead to any of Sally Hemings’s pregnancies.

Jefferson at Monticello quotes Bacon as saying:

When he [Jefferson] was coming home from Washington I generally knew it, and got ready for him, and waited at the house to give him the keys.
Those keys show up in other passages of the book as well. They were the tools and symbols of Bacon’s authority, and of Jefferson’s trust in him. But Bacon had them only when the President was away from home.

In discussing Jeff Randolph’s visits to the mansion and garden with his Charlottesville school friends, Bacon was explicit in stating that they occurred “when I gave them the keys to stay up there alone”—i.e., when Thomas Jefferson was not at home. And we know from documentary evidence that Hemings conceived children only when Jefferson was at home.

(Eston Hemings, born 21 May 1808, might have been conceived when Jefferson was not at home, as well as when he was; the President’s visit covers only part of the conception window nine months before that birth. However, by late 1807 Jeff Randolph had gone off to school in Philadelphia, and Willie Rives to Hampden-Sydney. In addition, the Eston Hemings Y chromosome matches the Thomas Jefferson Y chromosome, which should—we really hope—differ from the Y chromosomes of his daughter’s son and that boy’s friends.)

It’s conceivable that Jeff Randolph brought his school chums up to Monticello and became “intimate with the negro women” at times when his grandfather was at home, as well as times when he wasn’t. But Bacon didn’t describe Willie Rives coming out to sleep at his house on those occasions. And it doesn’t take much knowledge of teenagers to think that they might behave differently in a big empty house than in the same house with the President and homeowner in it.

Having even brought up the possibility of a sexual liaison between Willie Rives’s schoolmates and Sally Hemings, I should note that at the time Bacon was describing, Hemings was in her early thirties. She was the mother of two to five children (depending on how one wants to count). She was apparently secure in her position as a household servant; Bacon recalled recalled her in a group he described this way:
These women remained at Monticello while he [Jefferson] was President. I was instructed to take no control of them. They had very little to do.
If Jeff Randolph and other boys in their early teens were seeking sexual partners at Monticello, Hemings seems less likely to be vulnerable to enticement or intimidation than scores of other females enslaved there.

TOMORROW: One writer puts Edmund Bacon’s anecdote to use.


pilgrimchick said...

I wonder if the somewhat negative connotation there in the description of these activities is due to their nature--being physical at least if not sexual--or due to who was participating in them--the "negro women" and these young, white, upper-class men. Or, both perhaps.

J. L. Bell said...

There was also a shift in public mores between the first decade of the 1800s, when the activities were taking place, and the 1860s, when Bacon and Pierson were talking about them. So that might have affected how people spoke of them publicly.

I just thought about the fact that Willie Rives, though he spent “many a night” in Bacon’s house because of whatever the other boys were doing, still kept coming to Monticello and didn’t beg out of those visits or break off the friendships.

(Rives later returned as a recent college graduate to study law under Jefferson, just retired from the Presidency. Bacon and, he said, some members of the Jefferson family hoped he’d marry one of the Randolph girls, but he didn’t.)