SALLY HEMINGS by Barbara Chase Riboud


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Did Thomas Jefferson, champion of the rights of man and a slave owner, have a black mistress--one Sally Hemings who bore him several children? And, if so, what moved him to both love and enslave? In this version of Monticello days and nights, Sally is first seen as a freed woman at age 56 in 1832, four years after Jefferson's death. She is being interviewed by Nathan Langdon, a young census taker, who, fascinated by the legendary alliance, will approach John Quincy Adams, Aaron Burr, painter John Trumbull, and others to shed more light on the matter. Along the way, Sally's life with Jefferson at Monticello--plus a brief stay in France--is reconstructed in flashbacks. Unfortunately, in spite of the inclusion of contemporary letters and published works by Jefferson and others, the central figures here are sketched in with blithe abandon, through the smoke of passion. Sally, elegant, intelligent, proud, is shocked again and again by the slights and cruelties of her unnatural servitude--all the time loving, believing. Jefferson, with his private ""passionate, hungry, wounded face,"" blasts in and out, occasionally in piggy Pygmalion transports: ""He had created her in his own image of womanly perfection, this speck of dust, this handful of clay from Monticello."" Jefferson believed that only through slavery could he protect Sally: ""such an unnatural love may have changed the course of history. . . preventing Jefferson from turning the tide against slavery."" Finally, Sally disdains the love which in fact held her captive, comes to feel hatred for her enslaving enemy, and embraces her race. A bosom-heaving fancy, based mostly on hot air, but it has a certain breathy drive.

Pub Date: June 21st, 1979
Publisher: Viking