What was Thomas Jefferson Like in Person

What was Thomas Jefferson Like in Person

Descriptions of Jefferson’s physical appearance and demeanor

by Thomas Jefferson DNA Team

Contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson described him in many ways and even provided colorful anecdotes that give a deeper sense of Jefferson as kind and engaging with everyone without exception. William Wirt, who decades later became US Attorney General, lived in Virginia and described the impressions of a visitor meeting Jefferson for the first time at Monticello:

 “… [a visitor] was met by the tall, and animated, and stately figure of the patriot himself, his countenance beaming with intelligence and benignity, and his outstretched hand, with its strong and cordial pressure, confirming the courteous welcome of his lips; and then came that charm of manner and conversation that passes all description—so cheerful, so unassuming, so free, and easy, and frank, and kind, and gay, that even the young, and overawed, and embarrassed visitor at once forgot his fears, and felt himself by the side of an old and familiar friend.”[1]

Surprisingly, there are various conflicting accounts of Jefferson’s physical appearance. For example, few seemed to agree on Jefferson’s eye color. These differences arose likely from the imperfect memories of individuals who only had one or two brief encounters with Jefferson. However, for those who lived at Monticello and spent extended time with him over the years, distinct patterns emerge.

Captain Edmund Bacon’s memoirs describe the years he worked directly with Jefferson as Monticello’s overseer, supervising all activities on the plantation. In his memoirs, he described Jefferson’s physical appearance:

Mr. Jefferson was six feet two and a half inches high, well proportioned, and straight as a gun-barrel. He was like a fine horse—he had no surplus flesh, He had an iron constitution, and was very strong. He had a machine for measuring strength. There were very few men that I have seen try it, that were as strong in the arms as his son-in-law, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph; but Mr. Jefferson was stronger than he. He always enjoyed the best of health. I don’t think he was ever really sick, until his last sickness. His skin was very clear and pure—just like he was in principle.[2]

Monticello slave Isaac Granger Jefferson grew up at Monticello, and his father was its first black overseer. Isaac worked in close quarters with Jefferson and also described Jefferson’s efficient build:

“Mr. Jefferson was a tall straight-bodied man as ever you see, right square-shouldered: nary man in this town walked so straight as my Old Master: neat a built man as ever was seen in Vaginny …. a straight-up man: long face, high nose…. Old Master was a straight-up man.[3]

Others described Jefferson’s unique physical stature in various ways. One said he was “a tall large-boned farmer.”[4] Another said “His limbs are uncommonly long; his hands and feet very large, and his wrists of an extraordinary size. His walk is not precise and military, but easy and swinging.”[5] Many noted his red hair which turned sandy in old age, along with a very red and freckled face.[6] Someone who saw him in his later years said, “He was remarkably erect and had every appearance of antiquity about him.”[7]  Monticello slave Israel Jefferson said, “He was hardly ever sick, and till within two weeks of his death he walked erect without a staff or cane. He moved with the seeming alertness and sprightliness of youth.”[8]

Daniel Webster, a Federalist who was in opposition to Jefferson’s politics, met Jefferson when he was eighty-one, just two years before his passing. “His general appearance indicates an extraordinary degree of health, vivacity, and spirit.”[9] When describing Jefferson’s facial characteristics, he noted, “His mouth is well formed and still filled with teeth; it is strongly compressed, bearing an expression of contentment and benevolence.” Edmund Bacon also described how Jefferson always had a peaceful, calming demeanor:

His countenance was always mild and pleasant. You never saw it ruffled. No odds what happened, it always maintained the same expression. When I was sometimes very much fretted and disturbed, his countenance was perfectly unmoved.[10]

He was often described as innately positive: “his manners good-natured, frank and rather friendly.”[11] Isaac pointed out how “Mr. Jefferson bowed to everybody he meet: talked wid his arms folded.” He also described how Jefferson used to “talk to me mighty free” and speak with slaves with dignity. Jefferson “encouraged them mightily. Isaac calls him a mighty good master.”[12]

Bacon noted how Jefferson always seemed to carry an aura of music around him:

I have rode over the plantation, I reckon, a thousand times with Mr. Jefferson, and when he was not talking he was nearly always humming some tune, or singing in a low tone to himself.[13]

Isaac also described how music seemed to emanate from Jefferson wherever he went:

Mr. Jefferson always singing when ridin or walkin: hardly see him anywhar out doors but what he was a-singin: had a fine clear voice, sung minnits (minuets) & sich: fiddled in the parlor. Old master very kind to servants.[14]

William Wirt described how overall engaging and generous Jefferson was in person, elevating the conversation in spirited collaboration:

There was no effort, no ambition in the conversation of the philosopher. It was as simple and unpretending as nature itself. And while in this easy manner he was pouring out instruction, like light from an inexhaustible solar fountain, he seemed continually to be asking, instead of giving information. The visitor felt himself lifted by the contact into a new and nobler region of thought, and became surprised at his own buoyancy and vigor. He could not, indeed, help being astounded, now and then, at those transcendent leaps of the mind, which he saw made without the slightest exertion, and the ease with which this wonderful man played with subjects which he had been in the habit of considering among the argumenta crucis of the intellect. And then there seemed to be no end to his knowledge. He was a thorough master of every subject that was touched. From the details of the humblest mechanic art, up to the highest summit of science, he was perfectly at his ease and everywhere at home. There seemed to be no longer any terra incognita of the human understanding: for, what the visitor had thought so, he now found reduced to a familiar garden walk; and all this carried off so lightly, so playfully, so gracefully, so engagingly, that he won every heart that approached him, as certainly as he astonished every mind.[15]

His granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, observed and described Jefferson’s temperament:

In private society he seldom or never gave offence to anyone. He was uniformly kind, considerate, and thoughtful of the wishes of others, too courteous to give pain even in trifles, too just not to render to each man his due, and too benevolent not to contribute all in his power to the comfort and satisfaction of all who came within his reach. His powers of conversation were considerable. He was frank, open, and not in the smallest degree overbearing. Young and old took pleasure in his society; and with young and old he conversed readily, cheerfully, and with a most sympathetic spirit; entering into their habits of thought, answering their questions, and putting them completely at their ease, except when inveterate prejudice, or preconceived and stubborn opinion, refused to unbend or to believe.  I make no apology for such praise given to so near a relative. Mr. Jefferson has ceased to belong exclusively to his family – he belongs to mankind – and we of his blood should consider ourselves as holding in trust for the use of others that knowledge of his true character which our near approach to him enabled us to become possessed of. His name is often heard, but how few there are who know how much of excellence that name implies.[16]


[1] From eulogy on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams delivered by William Wirt at Washington, D. C, on October 19, 1826, in the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States. “Biography of William Wirt,” in William Wirt, The Letters of the British Spy (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1832), p.76.

[2] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[3] Isaac Granger Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[4] Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America, (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1954).

[5] Daniel Webster, The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, ed. Fletcher Webster (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1857), 364-65.

[6] Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1954).

[7] S.A. Bumstead to “Aunt Lilly,” August 23, 1822, quoted in “A Description of Jefferson,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 24, no. 3 (1916): 310.

[8]Israel Jefferson: Recollections of a Monticello Slave, 1873

[9] Daniel Webster, The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, ed. Fletcher Webster (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1857), 364-65.

[10] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[11] Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1954).

[12] Jefferson, Isaac Granger, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[13] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[14] Jefferson, Isaac Granger, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[15] From eulogy on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams delivered by William Wirt at Washington, D. C, on October 19, 1826, in the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States. “Biography of William Wirt,” in William Wirt, The Letters of the British Spy (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1832), p.76.

[16] Coolidge, Ellen Randolph. Letters. “Jefferson’s Private Character.” North American Review 91 (July 1860): 107-18.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson hanging in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Thomas Jefferson the Sought-After Dinner Host, Generous to a Fault

Thomas Jefferson the Sought-After Dinner Host, Generous to a Fault

Thomas Jefferson the Sought-After Dinner Host, Generous to a Fault

It was said at the time there was no more generous and intriguing dinner host than Thomas Jefferson. John F. Kennedy was once hosting Nobel Laureates from the Western Hemisphere for dinner at the White House. He said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”[1]

However, for Jefferson, it was a luxury to dine alone. People would travel from great lengths to meet with Jefferson, who would never turn anyone away. He would always engage with his dinner guests and entertain, sometimes even performing on his violin. Some around him worried that he was being taken advantage of, as his generosity came at an ever-burdening financial cost.

Jefferson’s home in Virginia became a pilgrimage not only for intrigued countrymen but Presidents as well. The Reverend Peter Fossett recalled growing up as a slave boy at Monticello and rubbing shoulders with famous people such as General Lafayette and other luminaries that sought an audience with Jefferson.

“At Monticello we always had the house full of company. Not only did Jefferson’s own countrymen visit him, but people from all parts of Europe came to see his wonderful home. On the first floor was Mr. Jefferson’s study, called the “green room.” Here such men as Madison, Monroe and others were wont to discuss the problems of the day. I was too young to know much about these great men, but I remember them and being in the same house with them…”[2]


President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France tour Monticello, February 2014 (source link)

Former Monticello slave Isaac Granger Jefferson described how there were times where tables were set for up to thirty-two guests.

“He never would have less than eight covers at dinner—if nobody at table but himself: had from eight to thirty two covers for dinner: plenty of wine, best old Antigua rum & cider: very fond of wine & water. Isaac never heard of his being disguised in drink.”[3]

Isaac also told how Jefferson would at times play for guests on the violin after dinner but “never danced nor played cards.”


Marine Guard at the White House, possibly 1801 (source link)

It wasn’t until Jefferson was elected President that his name and fame became ubiquitous, which only increased the interest to dine with such a great man. Monticello overseer Captain Edmund Bacon noticed how people of all kinds were flocking to dine with him when Jefferson became President, and how he indulged them in conversation sometimes for hours upon end.

“I visited Mr. Jefferson at Washington three times while he was President…. Mr. Jefferson often told me that the office of Vice-President was far preferable to that of President. He was perfectly tired out with company. He had a very long dining-room, and his table was chock-full every one of the sixteen days I was there. There were Congressmen, foreigners, and all sorts of people to dine with him. He dined at four o’clock, and they generally sat and talked until night. It used to worry me to sit so long, and I finally quit when I got through eating, and went off and left them.”[4]

Bacon went along in the morning to witness the process Jefferson’s staff went through each day to acquire the provisions needed to prepare the dinners. Bacon also noted how the Presidential salary was lacking at the time, so Jefferson has to pay out of his own pocket to accommodate all the guests.

“The first thing in the morning there, was to go to market. There was no market then in Washington. Mr. Jefferson’s steward was a Frenchman named Lamar. He was a very smart man, was well educated, and as much of a gentleman in his appearance as any man. His carriage driver was an Irishman named Dougherty. He would get out the wagon early in the morning, and Lamar would go with him to Georgetown to market. I have all my life been in the habit of getting up about four o’clock in the morning, and I went with them very often. Lamar told me that it often took fifty dollars to pay for what marketing they would use in a day. Mr. Jefferson’s salary did not support him while he was President.”

Fifty dollars in the years 1801-1808 was the equivalent of $1,100 today, which was potentially costing Jefferson the equivalent of over $400,000 a year to feed all the guests that came to see him at the White House. For his eight years in office, this would have cost Jefferson the equivalent of over $3 million. This pattern continued after his second term ended and he returned to Monticello. Bacon was heartbroken that Jefferson was too much of a gentleman to turn them away, and felt some people saw it as an opportunity for a free meal.

“After Mr. Jefferson returned from Washington, he was for years crowded with visitors, and they almost ate him out of house and home. They were there all times of the year; but about the middle of June the travel would commence from the lower part of the State to the Springs, and then there was a perfect throng of visitors…. They pretended to come out of respect and regard to him, but I think that the fact that they saved a tavern bill had a good deal to do with it, with a good many of them.”

Similar to Jefferson’s time at the White House, massive amounts of provisions were needed to feed everyone. In addition, they also provided lodging for visitors, which at times were said to have numbered over 50 people staying overnight. Bacon described the struggles to accommodate so much room and board:

“I have killed a fine beef, and it would all be eaten in a day or two. There was no tavern in all that country that had so much company. Mrs. Randolph [Jefferson’s daughter], who always lived with Mr. Jefferson after his return from Washington, and kept house for him, was very often greatly perplexed to entertain them. I have known her many and many a time to have every bed in the house full, and she would send to my wife and borrow all her beds — she had six spare beds — to accommodate her visitors.”


Monticello Vegetable Garden (source link)

Additional logistical challenges and costs were associated with accommodating the visitors:

“They travelled in their own carriages, and came in gangs — the whole family, with carriage and riding-horses and servants; sometimes three or four such gangs at a time. We had thirty-six stalls for horses, and only used about ten of them for the stock we kept there. Very often all of the rest were full, and I had to send horses off to another place. I have often sent a wagon-load of hay up to the stable, and the next morning there would not be enough left to make a hen’s nest…. I finally told the servant who had charge of the stable, to only give the visitors’ horses half allowance. Somehow or other Mr. Jefferson heard of this; I never could tell how, unless it was through some of the visitors’ servants. He countermanded my orders. One great reason why Mr. Jefferson built his [other] house at Poplar Forest, in Bedford County, was that he might go there in the summer to get rid of entertaining so much company. He knew that it more than used up all his income from the plantation and everything else, but he was so kind and polite that he received all his visitors with a smile, and made them welcome.”

But it wasn’t long before word got out about Jefferson’s Poplar Forest retreat house, and soon the crowds were finding him there. Peter Fossett reminisced how Jefferson was entertaining guests during the period when he was designing and building the University of Virginia:

“His summer residence, Poplar Forest, where he spent three months in each year, was a Mecca for all the great men of the world, and the Indians also. In those days they ran the wisest and best men for office, and not the most unscrupulous, as now. At 10 o’clock every day he went to the University and returned at 2 for dinner. Many times have I ordered his horse, a large chestnut bay, which bore the name of Eagle. As for the social enjoyment of the men of those days the people of this time do not begin to come up to it. Weddings, parties, barbecues and the like, even the slaves participated in.”[5]

Edmund Bacon grew tired of accommodating the endless throngs of visitors and seeing the financial toll it was taking upon Jefferson. He saw Jefferson as the ultimate southern gentleman who could turn no one away, even if it broke him.

“I can assure you I got tired of seeing them come and waiting on them. I knew just about as much about Mr. Jefferson’s business as he did himself, and I knew that he could not stand it long. You know that he failed [financially]. This was after I left him, but I knew that it was bound to come…. I was very sorry to leave Mr. Jefferson; but I was more willing to do it, because I did not wish to see the poor old gentleman suffer, what I knew he must suffer, from the debt that were pressing upon him.”

In 1822 Bacon decided to leave Virginia to live in Kentucky. Jefferson was in the evening of his life, and Bacon described the memorable moment of their last meeting together:

“When we parted, it was a trying time to me. I don’t know whether he shed any tears or not, but I know I shed a good many. He was sitting in his room, on his sofa, where I had seen him so often, and keeping hold of my hand some time, he said, ‘Now let us hear from each other occasionally;’ and as long as he lived I heard from him once or twice a year…. I am now (1862) in my seventy-seventh year. I have seen a great many men in my day, but I have never seen the equal of Mr. Jefferson. He may have had the faults that he has been charged with, but if he had, I could never find it out. I don’t believe that, from his arrival to maturity to the present time, the country has ever had another such man.”


[1] John F. Kennedy, “Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere,” 29 Apr. 1962. Published by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, eds., American Presidency Project.

[2] The Rev. Peter F. Fossett, ONCE THE SLAVE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, New York World, January 30, 1898

[3] Jefferson, Isaac Granger, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[4] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[5] The Rev. Peter F. Fossett, ONCE THE SLAVE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, New York World, January 30, 1898

Thomas Jefferson the Outdoorsman, Horseman and Pet Owner

Thomas Jefferson the Outdoorsman, Horseman and Pet Owner

Many are familiar with the notion of President Thomas Jefferson as a farmer, but few are aware that he was a skilled horseman, hunter, and pet owner of dogs and birds. Overseer Edmund Bacon noted how Jefferson never slept in and made the most of the daylight hours:

“Mr. Jefferson was always an early riser — arose at daybreak, or before. The sun never found him in bed. I used sometimes to think, when I went up there very early in the morning, that I would find him in bed; but there he would be before me, walking on the terrace.” [1]


Horsemen at Monticello (Source link)



It might be surprising to picture Jefferson as an avid horseman who even eluded British Troops by escaping on horseback when they aimed to capture him in Virginia.[2] He rode daily, even when he was President. When he had to take carriage rides he would often take the reins himself, especially when he wanted to get somewhere quickly.

Jefferson had many horses over his lifetime, including a large Chestnut Bay horse which bore the name of Eagle.[3] Bacon noted how Jefferson was extremely comfortable working with horses. “Jefferson broke all his horses to both ride and work,” and he never missed an opportunity to ride. “When he rode on horseback he had a pair of overalls he always put on.” Bacon described Jefferson’s daily schedule:

“Every day, just as regularly as the day came, unless the weather was very bad, he would have his horse brought out and take his ride. The boy who took care of his horse knew what time he started, and would bring him out for him, and hitch him in his place. He generally started about nine o’clock. He was an uncommonly fine rider—sat easily upon his horse, and always had him in the most perfect control.”

This practice continued throughout Jefferson’s life. In 1820, Isaac Briggs noted “His 77th year finds him strong, active, and in full possession of a sound mind. He rides a trotting horse and sits on him as straight as a young man.”[4]

Isaac Granger Jefferson, a former slave who grew up at Monticello, said “Mr. Jefferson never had nothing to do with horse-racing or cock-fighting: bought two race-horses once, but not in their racing day: bought em arter done runnin.” He described how Jefferson had a smaller horse carriage called a phaeton. “Mr. Jefferson used oftentimes to take the reins himself & drive. Whenever he wanted to travel fast he’d drive: would drive powerful hard himself.”[5]


Thomas Jefferson’s Phaeton reproduced by Glinkowski (source link)



Isaac described how Jefferson was a gun owner and hunter, however, he refused to shoot sitting ducks and rather gave them a chance to flee.

“Mr. Jefferson used to hunt squirrels & partridges; kept five or six guns; oftentimes carred Isaac wid him: old master would’nt [sic] shoot partridges settin: said “he would’nt take advantage of em”—would give ’em a chance for thar life: would’nt shoot a hare settin, nuther; skeer him up fust.”

Isaac also told of a kind of wildlife refuge Jefferson had established which he personally protected from hunters:

“Mr. Jefferson had a large park at Monticello: built in a sort of a flat on the side of the mountain. When the hunters run the deer down thar, they’d jump into the park & couldn’t git out. When old master heard hunters in the park he used to go down thar wid his gun & order em out. The park was two or three miles round & fenced in with a high fence, twelve rails double-staked & ridered: kept up four or five years arter old master was gone.”


Jefferson’s Love-Hate Relationship with Dogs

When stationed in Paris as Minister to France 1784-1789, Jefferson became intrigued with the writings of Georges-Louis Leclerc, a famous French naturalist that Jefferson admired. The Frenchman wrote of his admiration for the intelligence and character of the Briard Sheepdog, which he said was “instinctively prone to industry.” They were nimble and cheerful herd dogs that were strong and reliable with good dispositions.



This captured Jefferson’s imagination, and traversing the French countryside he sought out and bought a Briard that happened to be pregnant. In fact, the dog —which he named “Buzzy”— gave birth on Jefferson’s return voyage across the Atlantic to America, as mentioned by Isaac when he described Jefferson’s dogs:

“He had dogs named Ceres, Bull, Armandy, & Claremont: most of em French dogs: he brought em over with him from France. Bull & Ceres were bull-dogs: he brought over Buzzy with him too: she pupped at sea: Armandy & Claremont, stump-tails—both black.”

Jefferson enjoyed the dogs and the Briards were put to work at Monticello herding sheep. Jefferson’s French friend Lafayette sent him two more so that he could breed them for friends and neighbors, who became intrigued when they heard of the industrious dogs.

The dogs stayed outside, except for one occasion when Jefferson brought a puppy inside to help his grandson shed his fear of dogs.

However, Jefferson’s love of dogs also had its limits, particularly when other breeds would kill sheep and livestock. There was a minor epidemic of this phenomenon around his county of Albermarle, and he banded together with some others in the region to draft legislation to tax the ownership of dogs in an effort to encourage the reduction of the overall dog population. He even suggested what could be the first dog license:

“…should we not add a provision for making the owner of a dog liable for all the mischief done by him, and requiring that every dog shall wear a collar with the name of the person inscribed who shall be security for his honest demeanor?”


Grizzly Bears on the President’s Lawn

In his last year as President, Jefferson was gifted two young grizzly bears by Captain Zebulon Pike, who purchased the two bear cubs when returning from an expedition in the southern region of the great Continental Divide. Pike sent them to Jefferson along with a letter describing how they were “considered by the natives of that country as the most ferocious animals of the continent.”[6]

Jefferson realized they were too dangerous and troublesome to keep, so he made arrangements to have them donated to a museum in Philadelphia.[7] However, it took two months to make arrangements for their travel. During that time they outgrew their cage and were placed in an enclosure on the lawn of the President’s House. For passers-by, it must have been quite a spectacle.


Jefferson’s Songbird — the White House’s First Pet

When Monticello was being constructed, Jefferson acquired a mockingbird, enamored with its songs and their ability to mimic other birds and sounds. He loved their “melodious powers, uncommon intelligence, and affectionate disposition.”[8]


Mockingbird (Source link)

He went on to acquire several more mockingbirds, and one even became his close friend. He would let it out of its cage to fly free, and it would often land on his writing-table or even his shoulder, singing and observing what Jefferson was doing. He even taught the bird to swoop down from above and take a morsel of food from between his lips. Like a faithful dog, when Jefferson went upstairs to rest, the bird would hop and follow him up the stairs and sit on the couch and sing.

Jefferson loved the bird so much that he even brought it with him to the White House when he served as President. In fact, Jefferson is believed to be “the first president to have a pet [that lived] in the White House…” The bird would even ‘sing’ duets with Jefferson:  when he played violin, the bird would “pour out his song along with the violin.”[9]

Mockingbirds never existed in the wild in Virginia, however not long after Jefferson’s death they began appearing in the wooded areas, and today are still heard singing around Monticello.


[1] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[2] Isaac Granger Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[3] The Rev. Peter F. Fossett, ONCE THE SLAVE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, New York World, January 30, 1898

[4] Isaac Briggs to Hannah Briggs and Children, November 21, 1820, Isaac Briggs Notebook, Accession #38-530, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in Peterson, Visitors, 90.

[5] Isaac Granger Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[6] Pike to Jefferson, October 29, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription link

[7] Jefferson to Ann Cary Randolph, November 1, 1807, in Family Letters, 313. Transcription link 

[8] Margaret Bayard Smith, 1806

[9] Caulkins, Janet V. (1992). Pets of the presidents. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press. pp. 12, 14. ISBN 9781562940607.


“Junk Science”: The problematic Jefferson-Hemings “conception window” statistical analysis

“Junk Science”: The problematic Jefferson-Hemings “conception window” statistical analysis

“Junk Science”: The problematic Jefferson-Hemings “conception window” statistical analysis
by Thomas Jefferson DNA Team

“Junk Science”: The problematic Jefferson-Hemings “conception window” statistical analysis

Without objective scholarship comes the risk of fiction. Hence, history becomes an illusion.

– Cynthia Burton

Only in fiction do we find that the loose ends are neatly tied. Real life is not all that tidy.

– Walter Cronkite

After the infamous Jefferson-Hemings DNA study in November of 1998, Monticello set out to conduct its own study:

On December 21, 1998, Dr. Daniel P. Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, appointed a research committee of Monticello staff members, including four Ph.D.’s and one medical doctor, and charged the committee with evaluating the DNA study of Dr. Eugene Foster and associates, assessing it within the context of all other relevant historical and scientific evidence, and recommending the impact it should have on historical interpretation at Monticello.

Former surgeon and volunteer Monticello guide Dr. Ken Wallenborn was a Monticello Research Committee member who noted what he saw to be a biased exercise in searching for any form of damning evidence to prove Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children:

When the committee was assembling for one of its meetings in February 1999, the head of the Archaeology Department at Monticello [Fraser Neiman] dropped a packet of papers on the table next to me and said (and this is exactly how another member of the committee and I recollect it): “I’ve got him!” He repeated this statement again and then explained his ‘Monte Carlo Simulation.’ This just seemed to be an inappropriately enthusiastic remark for someone who is working at Thomas Jefferson’s home.

Fraser Neiman’s statistical study, or “Monte Carlo Simulation”, analyzing Jefferson’s residence at Monticello when Hemings’ children were conceived, was dubbed by the USA Today as the “most provocative finding” of the Monticello Research Committee’s report. However, the study was published in a non-scientific magazine with no official peer review. When scientists and statisticians analyzed the study they criticized it for its core mistakes and bias. Professor of Law and History David N. Mayer pointed out the fundamental flaws in the way the conception window analysis was applied:

The Monte Carlo approach estimates the probability of a given outcome by comparing it to a very large number of random outcomes generated by a simulation model. Neiman’s study rested on two unsupported postulates: that there could only be a single father for all of Sally Hemings’ children, and that rival candidates to Thomas Jefferson would have to had to arrive and depart on the exact same days he did. Here, the assumption of random behavior makes little sense, because the visits to Monticello of the other candidates for paternity—Jefferson’s friends and relatives (including his brother Randolph, Randolph Jefferson’s [five] sons, and the Carr brothers)—were not random occurrences; they certainly would have been far more likely to occur after Jefferson’s return to Monticello from extended absences in Washington or elsewhere. The final impression one gets of the Niemen study is of a simulation whose parameters were deliberately set to “get” Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’ children. (Scholars Commission p.302)

Dr. M. Andrew Holowchak described Neiman’s process as a fait accompli:

Neiman has gotten the results he had desired to get, simply because he has plugged in exactly the sort of data that would assure him of those results. Change the data and you change the results.

Thirteen eminent scholars reviewed the DNA study and the Monticello Research Committee Report over the course of a year in 2000-2001.The goal was as Thomas Jefferson described, “to follow the truth wherever it may lead”, and in the process demonstrate proper historical and scientific scholarship. The “Scholar’s Commission” examined Neiman’s statistical study and came to a more likely lower probability of Thomas Jefferson paternity:

Even without considering Thomas Jefferson’s advanced age (sixty-four) and health, if the question is changed from trying to place a single suspect at Monticello nine months prior the birth of all of Sally’s children to simply trying to identify the Jefferson men who were likely to have been in the Monticello area when Eston Hemings was conceived, the statistical case for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Eston, based on DNA evidence alone, falls below fifteen percent. (Scholars Commission p.10)

Dr. Wallenborn also described how Neiman was informed of basic editorial mistakes that ultimately went uncorrected:

When his article was listed in Appendix I of the TJMF Research Committee Report and simultaneously published in the William and Mary Quarterly in January 2000, it contained a serious and glaring error that had been pointed out to him. This error was his statement that the “molecular geneticists found the Jefferson Y-haplotype in recognized male-line descendants of Thomas Jefferson”! He should have said descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s uncle. Why the TJMF allowed this significant error to be published in their report and in the W&M Quarterly remains unanswered. Future historical researchers will possibly quote this erroneous statement and think that the DNA sample came directly from Thomas Jefferson’s direct descendants and that this cinches the case in the Sally Hemings paternity story.

Neiman’s statistical analysis makes a number of reaching assumptions in order to build a statistical case, but without those assumptions, the entire statistical model falls apart. For example, Neiman refuses to acknowledge a number of key possibilities: that another Jefferson male could have impregnated Sally, that Sally might not have been monogamous, and that either Sally or Jefferson might not be present at Monticello during her conceptions. An honest statistical model cannot be computed without factoring in such alternative hypotheses. For example:

  • Sally may have conceived elsewhere. There are no comparable records establishing Sally Hemings’ whereabouts during the same period. Monticello’s own tours describe how slaves were sometimes given a “slave pass” which allowed them to travel off the mountain. Slaves such as Sally’s sister Critta were also sent out to work at other farms, and evidence indicates that Sally may have been absent at Monticello at times. There is simply no record of Sally’s comings and goings. (Jefferson Vindicated, p. 106)

  • Sally may not have been monogamous. Unmarried women who have multiple children may have them by multiple fathers. Sally’s own mother and two of her sisters each had multiple children by multiple fathers. For example, Sally’s older half-sister Bett was the mother of eight children by multiple men.[1] Madison Hemings said Sally’s mother Betty Hemings “had seven children by white men and seven by colored men — fourteen in all.”[2] As former slave Henry Bibb wrote in 1849: “It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage….”[3] This was an unfortunate reality at the time, and it is entirely possible if not likely that Sally could have fit the pattern. Historian Eyler Coates: “But the Monticello report states, in effect, that because Sally’s patterns of conception match Jefferson’s presence at Monticello it should be taken as evidence that all her children were by the same father, i.e., Thomas Jefferson. In this way, the committee uses one assumption to support another.”[4]
  • It is impossible to assume all the dates of births were accurate. The dates utilized for the study were from Jefferson’s own hand-written farm book, which he loosely maintained when he was away as President and often made entries months later and sometimes years afterward. For example, when he returned to Monticello after a long absence, he asked others to inform him of their recollection of the dates of any slave births that occurred while he was gone.
  • Another Jefferson male relative could have been the father, particularly of Eston Hemings. Dr. David Murray, Director of the Statistical Assessment Service describes, “[T]he act of appearing at Monticello should not be viewed as itself a causal procreative act. The Report’s mathematical model is likewise incapable of ruling out the prospect that Thomas Jefferson’s visits to Monticello co-occurred with some other event, such as a visit by nearby brother Randolph (or any other of the crowd who traveled with the president), who comes to see his brother just when his brother is there. This is not idle speculation, since a record was found at Monticello showing an invitation to Randolph to visit Thomas Jefferson exactly coincident with [the conception window for Eston Hemings]. But because no one found a record of Randolph’s actual arrival, the Report declines to pursue the Randolph connection…. It is equally possible to declare that [other Jefferson males] were present but unrecorded as it is to claim that no other Jefferson male was ever-present during those time periods.”[5]

In fact, the biggest oversight of the theory and statistical study is the refusal to acknowledge any other Jefferson male as a paternal candidate. Sadly, many historians — and even “Jefferson scholars” — have not taken the time to study the lives of Jefferson’s male relatives, let alone as candidates for paternity.[6]

Dr. Wallenborn said that the committee as a whole seemed to be actively trying to avoid an honest consideration of other candidates as if a pre-determined result was being sought.[7] This mindset drove the statistical study, which historian Eyler Coates described:

It begins to appear obvious that the model was set up to produce the desired results, and was not realistically designed to take into consideration other possible explanations. It was designed to indict Jefferson, and it should come as no surprise that the conclusion confirms such a high probability as was “discovered” by such a ruse.

Dr. Murray also noticed a pattern of bias that managed even to make its way into the statistical equation:

It is nevertheless instructive to see how the [Monticello] Report handles the absence of evidence in other circumstances. We don’t know where Sally Hemings was at the time of conception. Of this, the Report can only say, “There is no documentary evidence suggesting that Sally Hemings was away from Monticello when Thomas Jefferson was present.” That is, we see a double standard. When there is no documentary evidence that brother Randolph was there during a conception date, the Report concludes that therefore he was not…. By the Report’s insistence, Sally Hemings is there unless proven otherwise, while Randolph is not there unless proven that he is.

Similarly, Dr. Murray noted how the Monticello Report avoided recognizing Tom Woodson as the possible first son of Sally Hemings (Woodson descendants had no DNA match with Jefferson DNA), since it would disprove the Report’s insistence that Sally was monogamous:

The same maneuver is applied to Tom Woodson, who is dismissed as Sally’s child because there is no documentation of his birth to her, even though oral history links him to Sally quite strongly.

Tucked away in one of the footnotes to the statistical analysis is Neiman’s unsupported reasoning as to why there can be no alternative male candidates:

Because the model outcomes are tabulated against Jefferson’s arrival and departure dates, the probabilities that result apply to Jefferson or any other individual with identical arrival and departure dates. The chances that such a Jefferson doppelganger existed are, to say the least, remote.[8]

Yet Neiman never describes how he determines the “remoteness” of such an individual, and never in the study is it considered for computation. Strangely, Neiman’s “remoteness” seems to be a function of the assumption that either Jefferson sired all six children or the doppelganger is some one who likewise fathered all six children. Why should it be assumed that there is one and only one person who must tread in Jefferson’s exact chronology? Dr. Murray addresses the assertion and describes how the study should have been constructed:

That demand seems to follow from nothing more than the previously formed assumption that Sally was not promiscuous. From a probability point of view (and especially given the awkwardness of Tom Woodson’s [non-Jefferson] paternity), there could have been doppelganger sub1, who matches Jefferson’s itinerary during only one stay, and who is responsible for only one child, and then doppelganger sub2, who matches Jefferson’s itinerary on another occasion, and fathers another Hemings child, and so forth. Maybe six doppelgangers, maybe only two or three; who knows? Moreover, maybe it’s someone already at Monticello throughout the period continuously, who therefore doesn’t have to “match” Jefferson’s comings and goings, but is just opportunistically “there” and takes advantage during circumstances that present themselves when Jefferson is coincidentally home. And so forth. I am not arguing that we have evidence of these scenarios. But it would seem that those likelihoods must at least be specific and allowed to function in the model as alternative hypotheses, and not just dismissed. As it stands, the argument sticks with only the most unlikely character, the one perfect Jefferson doppelganger – who presumably also wrote a parallel Declaration of Independence – who is offered as the [only] logical alternative.

Dr. Murray goes on to characterize Neiman’s simplistic yet faulty logic:

Neiman’s argument appears to be something like this: “If Thomas Jefferson fathered children, then Thomas Jefferson must have been present when those children were fathered. Children were fathered at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson was present at Monticello when children were fathered. Therefore, Thomas Jefferson fathered those children.”

Regardless, Neiman asserts with full certainty that the statistical study proves beyond a doubt that Jefferson is the father of all of Sally Hemings’ children. Neiman declares:

…the chance is just 1% that [Jefferson’s] presence was a coincidence…. How likely is it that this could have occurred by chance if Jefferson was not the father?

But Dr. Murray proposes a simple analogy to better illustrate the scenario:

Imagine vases were broken on six different occasions at Monticello. No vases were known to have been broken when Thomas Jefferson was away. Thomas Jefferson was home when all six vases were broken. There is evidence that some Jefferson [male] likely broke one of the vases. There is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson or indeed any Jefferson broke any other vases. Are we willing, therefore, to subscribe to the conclusion that there is a 99% probability that Thomas Jefferson broke all six vases? Mercifully, courts of law are not likely to do so, there being no necessary connection between being present and the act of surreptitiously shattering glass.

When speaking to the press, Neiman asserted not only confidence about his statistical analysis, but also its own historical significance:

“The DNA evidence applies to only one child. This shows he, in all likelihood, fathered all six. Serious doubts about [Thomas Jefferson’s] paternity of all six children cannot reasonably be sustained. This statistical analysis is more powerful… than the genetic finding.”[9]

Rather than publish his statistical analysis in a scientific journal and submit it to peer review, Neiman solicited a cursory review by two demographers he personally knew and published the study in the William and Mary Quarterly, a humanities journal of early American history and culture.

Similar to the way Dr. Foster published his DNA “historical analysis” in a science journal with no peer review, Neiman published his “statistical analysis” in a history journal with no peer review.

Steven Corneliussen, a science writer at the Thomas Jefferson National Laboratory, felt the need to understand the findings since the national lab he worked for carried Jefferson’s name. After he examined both Foster’s DNA study and Neiman’s statistical analysis, he was shocked and labeled them both “science abuse.”

According to Corneliussen, scientific participants in the controversy – who were not scholars qualified to put the results into historical perspective – abused science’s special authority, leading to misreporting that hobbled public understanding. The flawed statistical analysis only made things worse, and Corneliussen described them both as “intellectual disrespect: abuse of the special authority of science.”[10]

Whether or not Hemings and Jefferson had children together, misreported DNA and misused statistics have skewed the paternity debate, discrediting science itself.

Neiman made fundamental errors that statisticians recognized immediately. Neiman had merely established an exact calendar date of 267 days prior to birth for the conception date of each of Sally Hemings’ children. However, Neiman had overlooked the simple reality any parent knows: births rarely ever occur precisely 267 days after conception, the presumed average gestation length.

In reality, conception windows are a bell curve that spreads over the period of as much as five weeks, which should include at least three weeks before and two weeks after the presumed conception date.[11] The US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states that “only 4% of women deliver when predicted and only 70% within 10 days of their estimated due date.”[12] That means that one in 25 women give birth on their due date. Neiman failed to account probabilistically for variability within the four-to-five weeks conception window, which throws off the computations of the entire statistical analysis, particularly when Jefferson was only present at Monticello briefly around the time of conception date. The Scholars Commission noted how Jefferson’s absence from Monticello reduces the statistical likelihood significantly:

It is also inaccurate to say that Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello nine months before each of Sally’s children was born… Using Dr. Nieman’s figures, for example, we find an estimate that Beverly Hemings was conceived on July 8, 1797 (a nine-month gestation would have begun on July 1), and that Thomas Jefferson had not been at Monticello since May 5 and did not return until July 11. While it is certainly possible that Sally did not become pregnant until after the estimated conception date, it seems somewhat more likely statistically that she conceived prior to Jefferson’s return. Roughly ninety percent of mothers give birth within two weeks of their estimated due date, permitting us to identify a four-week conception window during which Beverly was likely conceived. For more than sixty percent of this conception window, Thomas Jefferson was not present at Monticello…. if, based solely on his visitation patterns, the odds are that Jefferson was not the father of Beverly Hemings, it follows ipso facto that there is less than a fifty-fifty chance that he was the father of all of Sally Hemings’ children.[13]

Professor Forrest McDonald, a staunch Hamiltonian and critic of Jefferson, was a member of the Scholars Commission and took issue with Nieman’s calculations. He “observed both that the calculations ignored the fact that 1808 was a leap year; and, far more importantly, ignored the fact that Thomas Jefferson was away from Monticello for as much as nine days overlapping Sally’s probable conception window.”[14]

Corneliussen described how the editors of the humanities journal William and Mary Quarterly overstepped their role by publishing a scientific study outside both their mandate and capacity as historians:

In my view, when the William and Mary Quarterly made itself a venue for science, it became obligated to require science’s common practices [such as technical review]… Among the study’s deficiencies is one problem so fundamental that, just by itself, it cancels any possibility of the study contributing usefully. By failing to apply an obviously necessary biostatistical technique, Neiman failed to account for the distinct statistical chance—in one case, greater than fifty percent chance—that at the time of conception in four of the six cases Neiman designated for study, Jefferson could actually have been absent from Monticello.

Expert genealogist Dr. Edwin M. Knights criticized the Jefferson paternity claims, describing how near certainty is needed to ascribe paternity:

Paternity studies, which include both genetic and non-genetic evidence, calculate a statistical probability of paternity. The non-genetic evidence, known as prior probability, is combined with the results from studying genetic loci from one or more alleged fathers. In most cases, a probability of paternity requires a minimum standard value of 99 percent.[15]

Yet Neiman’s statistical analysis — lacking any thorough technical review for errors — became one of the three main pillars to assert Jefferson’s paternity of all of Sally Hemings’ children, joining Foster’s 1998 DNA study and the overarching historical revisionism.

Dr. Robert F. Turner, chair of the Scholars Commission, summed up the expert assessment of Neiman’s conception window analysis:

Candidly, to borrow a term used by several of my colleagues during our Dulles sessions of the Scholars Commission, Neiman’s “Monte Carlo” study struck me as being “junk science” long before I had become involved in a technical discussion with scientists who confirmed its fatal deficiencies. Another term that was used during the Dulles meetings was “GIGO” —computerese for “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” or “if your input is not reliable, your output from the computer will be no better.” As our report reflects, none of us was impressed by it.[16]



[1]  Cynthia H. Burton, forward by James A. Bear, Jr., Jefferson Vindicated, p. 107, 109

[2] Monticello Report, Appendix E at 21. See also, JEFFERSON AT MONTICELLO 26 n.1.

[3] Lucia Stanton, SLAVERY AT MONTICELLO 21 (1996).

[4] Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, p.97.

[5] David Murray, Ph.D.,  The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, p.120-1.

[6] Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy does not once mention Randolph Jefferson or his sons, as if they didn’t exist, since their candidacy for paternity would put into question her entire thesis. Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and who also wrote the accompanying essay to Foster’s DNA article in Nature, in a phone call with Herb Barger revealed that he was unaware that Jefferson even had a brother.

[7] Ken Wallenborn, The Jefferson-Heming Myth – An American Travesty, p.55-68.

[8] Fraser D Neiman, Coincidence or causal connection? The relationship between Thomas Jefferson’s visits to Monticello and Sally Hemings’s conceptions. William and Mary Quarterly, January 2000

[9] USA Today, Jan. 27, 2000

[10] Corneliussen, Steven. Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Authority of Science.

[11]  Sarah Kliff,  Doctors get due dates wrong 96.6 percent of the time, Vox, Jul 19, 2014

[12] Pregnancy length ‘varies naturally by up to five weeks’, BBC, 7 August 2013

[13] Robert F. Turner, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p.126-7.

[14] Robert F. Turner, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p.130.

[15] Edwin M. Knights, M.D., Genealogy and Genetics: Marital Bliss or Shotgun Wedding? Family Chronicle, March/April 2003

[16] Robert F. Turner, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p.126.

How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

— SALLY WAS NOT THE SLAVE Jefferson requested

by Thomas Jefferson DNA Team

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife Martha died, leaving behind three surviving daughters. His wife’s death devastated Jefferson, who swore on her deathbed that he would never remarry. Around this same time, Jefferson was elected by Congress to travel to serve as a Minister to France, but he declined.

Two years after later, Jefferson was again elected by Congress in 1784 to serve as Minister to France “for the purpose of negotiating treaties of commerce.” This time he obeyed the request and in 1785 moved to Paris, accompanied by his oldest daughter Patsy (Martha), along with James Hemings (Sally’s older brother), who would serve as chef and learn the art of French cooking. Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson did not bring Sally Hemings along with him to Paris, nor did he later request Sally to join them in Paris. Rather, he requested as a last resort an older and more mature slave named Isabel to accompany his youngest daughter Polly (aka Maria/Mary) to Paris.

Not long after arriving in France, Jefferson was informed of the death of his youngest daughter Lucy back in Virginia. This was devastating to Jefferson, since Lucy was the fourth child Jefferson had lost and only three years after the immobilizing loss of his wife. Stricken with grief, he sent a request for his daughter Polly to travel to France to join him and his other daughter Martha, who were then his last two surviving children.

Jefferson wrote to Francis Eppes, his sister-in-law’s husband, requesting that he locate “some good lady” to accompany Polly, or if not a “careful gentleman” along with a slave woman, specifically suggesting an older nurse named “Isabel”.  Nowhere does he mention Sally Hemings in the letter:

With respect to the person to whose care she should be trusted, I must leave it to yourself and Mrs. Eppes altogether. Some good lady passing from America to France, or even England, would be most eligible; but a careful gentleman who would be so kind as to superintend her would do. In this case some woman who has had the small-pox [inoculation] must attend her. A careful negro woman, as Isabel, for instance, if she has had the smallpox, would suffice under the patronage of a gentleman. —Thomas Jefferson[1]

However, Isabel was either recovering from childbirth or ill (presumed from the smallpox inoculation) and was not well enough to make the journey overseas.[3] Instead, Sally Hemings, Polly’s personal maid and likely her childhood friend, was chosen to accompany her, contrary to Jefferson’s written request. At the time, Polly was 8-years-old, and Sally was approximately 14-years old.

Two of the only existing eye-witness accounts of Sally Hemings’ demeanor came during her voyage to France.

One account was from Captain Andrew Ramsay, the ship captain who was entrusted to bring the girls across the Atlantic Ocean to London on their way to Paris. His impression of Sally was relayed by Abigail Adams, wife of future President John Adams (who was then serving as Minister to England). Captain Ramsay had personally delivered the girls to Abigail Adams for their brief stay in London. Upon their arrival, Mrs. Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson saying that Captain Ramsay had observed Sally and Polly during the voyage and felt that Sally was immature and not a capable caregiver to Polly:

The old Nurse [Isabel] whom you expected to have attended her, was sick and unable to come. She has a Girl [Sally]… with her, the Sister of the Servant [James Hemings] you have with you… The Girl who is with her is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of opinion will be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him. But of this, you will be a judge. She seems fond of the child and appears good naturd [sic]. —Abigail Adams[4]

Ten days later, after having had the chance to observe the two children for herself for an extended period, Abigail Adams wrote again to Jefferson about her concern of Sally’s incapacity as a caretaker for Polly:

The Girl she has with her, wants more care than the child, and is wholly incapable of looking properly after her, without some superior to direct her.  —Abigail Adams[5]

These historical, first-hand characterizations of Sally Hemings as a naïve and immature child differ markedly from the portrayal of her as an attractive, developed woman who traveled with Jefferson to Paris and swept him off his feet, as depicted in Hollywood remakes of the scenario. In these fictionalized accounts, Jefferson allegedly fell in love with Sally Hemings while in Paris and conceived a child with her there, later to be born in America supposedly as a slave named Tom Woodson. However, in 1998 that claim was proven false when DNA results for five different Woodson descendants showed no connection at all with Jefferson-male DNA. Thus some other man was the father of that child.

To make the notion of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings more believable, in the CBS miniseries Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, the actress who played the part of Sally Hemings was 25-years old, an entire decade older than Sally’s age at the time. The feature film Jefferson in Paris employed the same tactic, misrepresenting the true age and appearance of Sally Hemings as she was portrayed by an actress that was 23-years old.

In the New York Times, Historian Phyllis Lee Levin, author of the historical biography Abigail Adams, criticized the modern and historically inaccurate versions of Sally Hemings in Paris:

If you compare [the] version of “Dashing Sally” Hemings, “admired from Monticello to Paris as a great beauty” to the on-the-spot descriptions of her forlorn appearance when she first turned up on Abigail Adams’s London doorstep, you have no choice but to congratulate Jefferson’s so-called slave mistress for effecting one of the most remarkable make-overs of all time…. One wonders, given her startling metamorphosis from bedraggled to “dashing,” if Sally Hemings, for the sake of a movie, hasn’t been turned into a Colonial Cinderella. —Phyllis Lee Levin[6]

The eye witness characterizations by both Captain Ramsay and Abigail Adams are also in sharp contrast to the description made over 80 years later by Sally Hemings son Madison Hemings, who, in his old age, claimed that four years after her arrival in Paris the then seventeen-year-old Sally Hemings would negotiate a treaty with Jefferson — one of the smartest minds in history — to have her children freed when they reached 21 years of age, although for some reason did not negotiate her own freedom. Madison himself was not 21 but 22 when he was freed, and his older brother Beverly didn’t leave Monticello until he was 24.[7] Alternatively, the only record of a “treaty” or an agreement was reached not with Sally Hemings but between Jefferson and Sally’s brother James Hemings, who negotiated his own freedom. Other than Madison Hemings’ claim, there is no record of any “treaty” between Jefferson and Sally Hemings.[8] Jefferson did free James Hemings after their return to Virginia, but James found it difficult living on his own as a free black man, and unfortunately he later committed suicide.[9]

The claim of a treaty with Sally Hemings is based on the theory that she had leverage over Jefferson since she was supposedly pregnant with his baby (presumed to be Tom Woodson) at the time. The Woodson family oral history had always claimed that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson. However, in 1998 that claim was proven false when DNA results for five different Woodson descendants showed no connection at all to any Jefferson male DNA. Thus some other man was the father of that child.

There has never been an account by any of the hundreds if not thousands of people who came in contact with Jefferson that noted any behavior or hint of a relationship between him and Sally Hemings. Many historians and novelists have theorized and fictionalized these notions but there are no first-hand accounts of such behavior. There are many descriptions of Jefferson’s disciplined composure and the way he carried himself around people, but there is practically nothing on Sally Hemings. In fact, the only first-hand observations of Sally Hemings demeanor in the entire historical record come from Captain Ramsay and Abigail Adams upon her arrival in London. Beyond these two descriptions, everything else is speculation.


[1] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes [30 August 1785]
[3] The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p 148.  Cynthia H. Burton, Jefferson Vindicated, p.105, letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson.
[4] Abigail Adams letters to Thomas Jefferson, June 26 & 27, 1787
[5] Abigail Adams letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 6, 1787
[6] Letter to the New York Times, April 18, 1995. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/25/opinion/l-jefferson-s-love-life-doesn-t-equal-history-a-colonial-cinderella-054795.html
[7] The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p 116-117
[8] Thomas Jefferson, Agreement with James Hemings, 15 September 1793
[9] Maria Godoy, Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery, NPR, October 17, 2015.

Image: Notre Dame bridge in Paris 1751. Nicolas Raguenet, La joute des mariniers, entre le pont Notre-Dame et le pont au Change, 1751. Oil on canvas, 47 x 83.5 cm. Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Photo: Claudio Gallego.