Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), was born on a large Virginia estate run on slave labor. His marriage to the wealthy young widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 more than doubled his property in land and slaves. In his public life, Jefferson made statements denouncing blacks as biologically inferior and claiming that a biracial American society was impossible. Despite these facts, there is much evidence to suggest–if not prove conclusively–that Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that the two had at least one and perhaps as many as six children together.
Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.
Shortly after the DNA test results were released in November 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee consisting of nine members of the foundation staff, including four with Ph.D.s. In January 2000, the committee reported that the weight of all known evidence—from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data—indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children listed in Monticello records—Harriet (born 1795; died in infancy); Beverly (born 1798); an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy); Harriet (born 1801); Madison (born 1805); and Eston (born 1808).
Sally Hemings's children were light-skinned, and three of them (daughter Harriet and sons Beverly and Eston) lived as members of white society as adults.
According to contemporary accounts, some of Sally Hemings's children strongly resembled Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings's children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson's 1826 will. Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family.
Thomas Jefferson did not free Sally Hemings. She was permitted to leave Monticello by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph not long after Jefferson's death in 1826, and went to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.