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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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

T. J. Randolph Keeps a Secret

Henry S. Randall’s 1 June 1868 letter to James Parton makes clear that Thomas Jefferson Randolph really, really wanted the biographer to accept that Peter Carr was the father of all of Sally Hemings’s children, and that his grandfather Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the father of any.

It’s also clear from the letter that Randolph really didn’t want Randall to share any of his statements about Peter Carr with the world. Randall explained the circumstances to Parton, who was also planning to write about Jefferson:

Do you ask why I did not state, or at least hint the above facts in my Life of Jefferson? I wanted to do so, but Colonel Randolph, in this solitary case alone prohibited me from using at my discretion the information he had furnished me with. When I rather pressed him on the point he said, pointing to the family graveyard, “You are not bound to prove a negation. If I should allow you to take Peter Carr’s corpse into Court and plead guilty over it to shelter Mr. Jefferson, I should not dare again to walk by his grave; he would rise and spurn me.”

I am exceedingly glad Col. Randolph did overrule me in this particular. I should have made a shameful mistake. If I had unnecessarily defended him (and it was purely unnecessary to offer any defense) at the expense of a dear nephew—and a nobleman—hating a single folly.
Randolph insisted that he wanted to protect the Carr family reputation. Of course, he was even more eager to protect the Jefferson family reputation; that’s why he told all that stuff to Randall in the first place. How did asking the author to keep it secret serve Randolph’s primary purpose? If a serious biographer had published evidence about Peter Carr fathering the Hemings children, complete with an eyewitness account of a tearful confession, that could have laid the fifty-year-old issue to rest.

Unless, that is, the Carrs were to object with public statements of their own. When Randolph spoke to Randall in the 1850s, there were four Carr men still alive who could have offered their own testimony or evidence about Peter and Samuel Carr’s visits to Monticello and the Hemings sisters—or lack thereof:
  • Samuel Carr himself. The former colonel and legislator didn’t die until 1855. Would he have liked knowing that his cousin had told a writer, “Samuel’s proceedings were particularly open”?
  • Peter’s son Dabney (1802-1854), who served as customs collector at the port of Baltimore and U.S. minister to Turkey.
  • Samuel’s son James Lawrence (1813-1874/5), a lawyer in western Virginia.
  • Samuel’s son George Watson (1822-1899), an army colonel.
All these men had enough standing in society to challenge Randolph’s statements—if he’d made them publicly. But he made them only in private conversations with a sympathetic author, and then convinced that author to keep them secret. He thus accomplished what he wanted—to keep the Hemings rumors out of Randall’s book—without risking a bigger blowup.

The recipient of Randall’s 1868 letter, James Parton (shown above, courtesy of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), finished his own book about Jefferson in 1874. At that time Randolph and at least one of the four Carrs listed above was still alive, but a newspaper interview with Madison Hemings had brought the story of his mother back into the public eye. Parton therefore addressed the question. He even acknowledged:
There is even a respectable Madison Henings, now living in Ohio, who supposes that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Mr. Henings has been misinformed.
Because obviously a letter from a sympathetic biographer remembering ten-year-old conversations with a man clearly out to restore his grandfather’s reputation was more reliable than what Hemings had heard from his own mother while growing up at Monticello. Similarly, the way that biographer had spelled Hemings’s last name was obviously more authoritative than how the man spelled it himself.

In his book Parton quoted the parts of Randall’s letter about a fifteen-month separation and Randolph sleeping within earshot of his grandfather’s bedroom. He left out the passages that named Peter Carr and instead wrote: “The father of those children was a near relation of the Jeffersons, who need not be named.” (It’s interesting that Parton mentioned the Carrs’ father Dabney several times, and quoted a couple of letters Jefferson had sent to Peter Carr, including one that advised: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God.” Which takes us back to Freedom from Religion, I suppose.)

As a historical source, there are only two troubling details about Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s statement that Sally Hemings was Peter Carr’s mistress:
  • In 1858 Randolph told his sister a different story.
  • We now know that neither story was accurate.
COMING UP: What Jeff told Ellen.

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