Thomas Jefferson’s Enslaved Lover and the America of George Floyd

There are many ways to tell the story of Black people in the United States. For example, one can recount that the first human loss of the so-called American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a former Black slave who died in the Boston Massacre of 1770. The British army opened fire on unarmed citizens (including the Black hero, Attucks), an act that was seized upon quickly by the propagandists who sought to hasten America’s break with George III. This shooting would contribute to the political climate, which, snowballing with the incident, led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Another way to tell the story of Black Americans is to take a look at the hypocrisy within the Declaration of Independence itself. On one hand, it’s an extraordinary document, full of political principles that were sufficiently modern for the time that we can’t help but admire and praise; on the other hand, we know quite well how the famous proclamation that “all men are created equal” was limited to white men. Women didn’t count; Black people, even less so. An exception was made for the freed slaves who lived in the North, where some states, such as Massachusetts, would abolish slavery within the 18th century.

The author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an erudite man capable of discussing practically anything, from methods of conducting archaeological excavation to the formula for ensuring that the republic he helped to found wouldn’t befall the same grim fate as many others before it. It’s no wonder that one of his best friends was one of the most important scientists of the early 19th century: Abbott José Correia da Serra, who was also Portugal’s ambassador to the United States. Those who travel nowadays to Monticello, Jefferson’s mansion, will encounter “The Abbé’s Room,” which today attracts many visitors.

In one of my news stories on the United States, while covering the 2004 presidential elections, I believe, I saw on TV a segment of a show where young people were asked about Jefferson. Almost all of them said that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, many knew that he was the third president, that he traveled to the Pacific coast in anticipation of the Manifest Destiny of the new nation, which compelled it to extend from one ocean to the other. But none of these young people mentioned Sally Hemings, the lifetime partner of Jefferson, a Black woman (in Portugal we’d call her a “mulata”) who lived with him in Paris while he was an ambassador there. And, while she was technically a free woman in France, she agreed to return to Virginia on the condition that she would be Jefferson’s slave and lover. Hemings gave Jefferson several children, but it took two centuries of legal struggles and DNA tests for this branch of the family to be recognized as true descendants of the illustrious founding father. Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who left Jefferson a young widower when she died. It was then Martha’s daughter who liberated Aunt Hemings after Jefferson’s death. The children had emancipated themselves, thanks to the will.

Stephen E. Ambrose, a well-known historian, once wrote that Jefferson was “a man of principle (except with regard to slaves, Indians, and women).” It’s a harsh criticism, all the more so because, even in comparison with his contemporaries, Jefferson stood only to lose from the slavery debate. George Washington freed all of his slaves when he died and John Adams, the second president, was a vocal abolitionist. Adams never had a slave and refused to use slave labor.

Jefferson is also known to have believed that slavery was wrong. He was tempted to address the existence of this abominable institution while writing the Declaration of Independence. But, in the name of unity between Northern and Southern colonies (soon to be Northern and Southern states) any resolution regarding the moral dilemma of slavery was tabled for nearly a century.

On a personal level, too, Jefferson elected to delay the liberation of his own slaves. Unlike Adams, from Massachusetts, who was Jefferson’s biggest rival in the elections of 1800 and lived by the book, Jefferson was a Virginian whose well-being depended on the yields of the plantation, which, at the time, depended on slave labor. The long hours of philosophical debate with friends, starting with fellow Virginians and then with Presidents James Madison and James Monroe, and ending with the Portuguese abbot, were only possible because the Black workforce kept Monticello prosperous.

Fast forward two centuries to the surreal year of 2008, which seems like a completely different era in the U.S. compared to the present moment, with extreme racial tension following the death of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer.

Now, in 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. A Black man (or a mulatto, son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white woman from Kansas) in the White House. I must admit that his victory surprised me quite a lot. In 2000 I defended my master’s thesis in American Studies, which compared Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan as opposing models for the African American community. Powell, the leader of the armed forces at the height of the Iraq War against Saddam Hussein, would eventually consider a run for president, but his wife was afraid of this idea and advised him not to challenge American norms. Thus it seems that racial integration, so well-instituted in the military branches or in sports and the arts, did not fare as well in the political field, in the kind of republic that Jefferson helped to found.

And then the Obama phenomenon happened. Obama who joked at a campaign rally about one of his cousins on his mother’s side, Jefferson Davis, the man who helmed the southern, slave-holding Confederacy, who was defeated by Union President Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War of 1861-1865. Obama said that Davis must be spinning in his grave.

And Jefferson: What would he say about the America of today, the America of Obama, the America of Donald Trump and the America of George Floyd? We’ll never know. But we know what Obama said about Jefferson: “[As] somebody who not only was an extraordinary political leader but also one of our great scientific and cultural leaders, Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America.”

No country is easy to understand, nor Is any society. The United States, of the bold Crispus Attucks and Sally Hemings, is certainly among those that are hardest to read in black and white.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply