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 02, 2008

T. J. Randolph and the Missing Fifteen Months

Earlier in the week I offered a link to Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, online courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. That notebook and other careful accounts from Jefferson’s slave-labor plantations were in the custody of the President’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph (1792-1875, shown here courtesy of Monticello) from 1826 until 1848, and then changed hands as the M.H.S.’s finding aid describes.

Randolph cited those documents when he tried to refute the rumors that had circulated since at least 1802 that his grandfather had had children with his enslaved maid Sally Hemings. That attempted refutation comes to us through Henry S. Randall (1811-1876), who wrote a three-volume biography of the President published in 1858. On 1 June 1868, Randall told another biographer several stories he’d heard from Randolph concerning Hemings and her children. The Frontline website offers a transcript of that letter.

The part that relates to Jefferson’s papers says:

Mr. Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Mrs. Gov. [i.e., Martha Jefferson] Randolph, took the Dusky Sally stories much to heart. But she never spoke to her sons but once on the subject. Not long before her death she called two of them—the Colonel [i.e., Thomas Jefferson Randolph] and George Wythe Randolph [1816-1867]—to her. She asked the Colonel if he remembered when “——— Henings (the slave who most resembled Mr. Jefferson) was born.” He said he could answer by referring to the book containing the list of slaves.

He turned to the book and found that the slave was born at the time supposed by Mrs. Randolph. She then directed her sons attention to the fact that Mr. Jefferson and Sally Henings could not have met—were far distant from each other—for fifteen months prior to such birth. She bade her sons remember this fact, and always to defend the character of their grandfather.

It so happened when I was afterwards examining an old account book of the Jeffersons I came pop on the original entry of this slaves birth: and I was then able from well known circumstances to prove the fifteen months separation—but those circumstances have faded from my memory. I have no doubt I could recover them however did Mr. Jefferson’s vindication in the least depend upon them.
Note that the Randolphs, Randall, and by implication Parton were all interested in Jefferson’s “vindication” from the rumors. We know what they wanted to see in the records, and what they wanted other people to believe about those records.

Randall was vague about which enslaved man he was investigating. Many people interpret the phrase “Henings (the slave who most resembled Mr. Jefferson)” to refer to Eston Hemings, who later took the name Eston Jefferson; at the very least, lots of people who knew the man in Ohio said he looked like Thomas Jefferson. That would put the birth that Randolph and Randall looked up in 1808. But it doesn’t really matter which of Sally Hemings’s documented sons they might have been thinking of.

That’s because neither Randolph nor Randall was accurate. Perhaps they were both mistaken about Thomas Jefferson’s whereabouts for the entire fifteen months before Sally Hemings gave birth that time. But we know better—and from the very sources those men were consulting, the President’s own records.

Dumas Malone wrote the most thorough twentieth-century biography of Jefferson, in six volumes. As part of his research, Malone used Jefferson’s papers to figure out where the man was on every day of his later adult life. He strongly denied the possibility of Jefferson-Hemings children in an essay reprinted in his fourth volume (where I first read the story, about twenty years ago). Annette Gordon-Reed’s book on the issue has shown Malone’s statement of the facts and analysis to be incomplete and slanted, but as a researcher he was thorough.

As Winthrop Jordan wrote in White Over Black (1968), “though he was away from Monticello a total of roughly two-thirds of this period [when Sally Hemings is documented as having had children], Jefferson was at home nine months prior to each birth.” (Jordan did his own calculations of Jefferson’s whereabouts when, and Malone’s research later confirmed them.) Jefferson’s records also never show Hemings being away from Monticello after 1789, and he and his overseers kept careful track of their human property. (That was the whole point of slave records, after all.) There’s thus no evidence for the fifteen-month separation that the Randolph family and Randall claimed to have (“pop”) spotted.

Meanwhile, Sally Hemings’s son Madison had no access to any of those Jefferson family documents, nor control over them. He had no way to make up a story that matched the data inside them. He couldn’t add to them, or erase information from them. He couldn’t claim their authority for his statements about his family. Yet Madison Hemings’s account of his and his siblings’ parentage fits the documentary and biological evidence better than T. J. Randolph’s and Henry S. Randall’s.

TOMORROW: Another claim from Thomas Jefferson Randolph.


Anonymous said...

As part of my recent work with that federal grant, we were fortunate enough to have one of the MHS editors of the Adams papers discuss his work and the MHS holdings.

While I expected MHS to have extensive holdings of Adams papers, I was surprised to learn about the Jefferson collection!

Thanks for the helping to bring it to life.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it’s rather ironic that so many of Thomas Jefferson’s papers ended up in Massachusetts, alongside the Adams family papers.

But then the bulk of Samuel Adams’s papers are in the New York Public Library. And the papers of Gen. Thomas Gage and Gen. Henry Clinton are in Michigan rather than the U.K.

These archives’ final resting places largely seem to depend on who had money at crucial times. Families that kept living within their means (e.g., Adams) kept their papers, and chose where to deposit/donate them. Families whose fortunes declined eventually sold their papers to collectors or scholars, who then granted them to their favorite research sites.