Henry S. Randall to James Parton

Dear Sir,

The D[  ] “Dusky Sally story—the story that Mr Jefferson kept one of his slaves (Sally Hemmings) as his mistress & had children by her, was once extensively believed by respectable men, & I believe both John Quincy Adams & our own Bryant sounded their poetical lyres on this very poetical subject!

Walking about mouldering Monticello one day with Col. T. J. Randolph (Mr Jefferson’s oldest grandson) he showed me a smoke blackened & sooty room in one of the collonades, & informed me it was Sally Hemings room. He asked me if I knew how the story of Mr Jeffersons Connexion with her originated. I told him I did not. “There was a better excuse for it, said he, than you might think: she had children which resembled Mr Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in therir veins.” He said in one case the resemblance was so close, that at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have have been mistaken for Mr Jefferson.—He said in one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all. Sally Hemings was a house servant & her children were brought up house servants—so that the likeness between master & slave was blazoned to all the mulitudes who visited this political Mecca.

Mr Jefferson had two nephews, Peter Carr & Samuel Carr whom he brought up in his house. They were the sons of of Mr Jeffersons sister & her husband Dabney Carr that young & brilliant orator, described by Wirt, who shone so conspicuously in the dawn of the Revolution, but who died in 17 . Peter was peculiarly gifted & amiable. Of Samuel I know less. But he became a man of repute & sat in the State Senate of Virginia. Col. Randolph informed me that Sally Hemings was the mistress of Peter, & her Sister Betsey the mistress of Samuel—& from these connections sprung the progeny which resembled Mr Jefferson. Both of the Hemings girls were light colored & decidedly good looking. The Colonel said their connexion with the Carrs was perfectly notorious at Monticello, & scarcely disguised by the latter—never disavowed by them. Samuel’s proceedings were particularly open.

Col Randolph informed me that there was not a shadow of of suspicion that Mr Jefferson ever in this or any other instance ever had commerce with his female slaves. At the periods when these Carr children were born, he, Col. R, had charge of Monticello. He gave all the general directions, gave out their clothes to the slaves &c. &c. He said Sally Hemings was treated, dressed &c exactly like the rest. He said Mr Jefferson never locked the door of his room by day: & that he (Col. R.) slept within sound of his breathing at night. He said he never had seen a motion, or a look, or a circumstance which led him to suspect for an instant that there was a particle more of familiarity between Mr Jefferson & Sally Hemings than between him & the most repulsive servant in the establishment—& that no person ever living at Monticello dreamed of such a thing. With Betsey Hemings whose children also resembled him, his habitual meetings were less frequent, & the chance for suspicion still less; & his connexion with her was never indeed alledged by any of our northern politicians & poets.

Mr Col Randolph said that he had spent a good share of his life closely about Mr Jefferson—at home & on journeys—in all sorts of circumstances & he fully believed him chaste & pure—as “immaculate a man as God ever created.”

Mr Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Mrs. Govr Randolph took the Dusky Sally stories much to heart. But she never spoke to her sons but once on the subject. Not long before her death she called two of them—the Colonel & George Wythe Randolph—to her. She asked the Col. if he rembered when “—— Hemings (the slave who most resembled Mr Jefferson) was born.” He said he could answer by referring to the book containing the list of slaves. He turned to the book & found that the slave was born at the time supposed by Mrs. Randolph. She then directed her sons attention to the fact that Mr Jefferson & Sally Hemings could not have met—were far distant from each other—for fifteen months prior to such birth. She bade her sons to remember this fact, & always to defend the character of their grandfather. It so happends when I was afterwards examining an old account book of Mr Jeffersons I came pop on the original entry of this slaves birth: & I was then able from well known circumstances to prove the fifteen months separation—but those circumstances have faded from my memory. I have no doubt I could recover them however did Mr Jeffersons vindication in the least depend upon them.

Col. Randolph said that a visitor at Monticello dropped a newspaper from his pocket or accidentally left it. After he was gone he (Col. R) openeed the paper & found some very insulting remarks about Mr Jeffersons Mulatto Children. The Col. said he felt provoked. Peter & Sam. Carr were lying not far off under a shade tree.—He took the paper & put it in Peters hands, pointing out the article. Peter read it, tears coursing down his cheeks, & then handed it to Sam. Sam. also shed tears. Peter exclaimed “ar’nt you & I a couple of —— pretty fellows to bring this disgrace on poor old uncle who has always fed us! We ought to be ——, by ——!”

I could give fifty more facts were there time, & were there any need of it, to show Mr Jeffersons innocence of this & all similar offences against propriety.

I asked Col. R why on earth Mr Jefferson did1 put these slaves who looked like him out of the public sight by sending them to his Beford estate or elsewhere.—He said Mr Jefferson never betrayed the least consciousness of the resemblance—and although he (Col. R) & he had no doubt his mother, would have been very glad to have them thus removed, that both & all venerated Mr Jefferson too deeply to broach such a topic to him. What suited him, satisfied them. Mr Jefferson was deeply attached to the Carrs—especially to Peter. He was extremely indulgent to them, & the idea of watching them for faults or vices probably never occurred to him.

Do you ask why I did not hin state, or at least hint, the above facts in my Life of Jefferson? I wanted to do so. But Col. Randolph, in this solitary case alone, prohibited me from using at my discretion the information he furnished me with. When I rather pressed him on the point, he said pointing to the family grave yard, “You are not bound to prove a negative. If I should allow you to take Peter Carr’s corpse into court & plead guilty over it to shelter Mr Jefferson, I should not dare again to walk by his grave: he would rise & spurn me.” I am exceedingly glad Col. Randolph did overrule me in this particular. I should have made a most shameful mistake. If I had unnecessarily defended him (& it was purely unnecessary to offer any defense) at the expense of a dear nephew & a noble man—bating a single folly.—

I write this Currente Calamo, & you will not understand that in telling what Col. R. & others said, I claim to give their precise language. I give it as I now recall it. I believe I hit at least the essential purport & spirit of it in every case.

Do you wonder that the above explanations were not made by Mr Jeffersons friends, when the old Federal party were hurling their missiles at him for keeping a Congo harem! Nobody could have furnished a hint of explanation outside the family. The secrets of an old Virginia manor house were like the secrets of an Old Norman Castle. Dr Dunglison & Professor Tucker had lived years near Mr Jefferson, in the University, & were often at Monticello. They saw what others saw. But Dr. D. told me that neither he nor Professor T. ever heard the subject named in Virginia. An awe & veneration was felt for Mr Jefferson among his neighbors which in their view rendered it shameful to ever talk about his name in such a connexion. Dr D. told me that he never heard of Col. Randolph talking with any one on the subject but me. But he said in his own secret mind he had always believed the matter stood just as Col. R. explained it to me.

You ask if I will not write a cheap Life of Jefferson of 600 pages, to go into families who will not purchase a larger work. I some years ago commenced such a condensed biography. I suspended the work when the storm of civil war burst over the land, & have not again resumed it. I may yet do so hereafter.—I have been strongly urged to the work by a prominent publishing house, & if I find time I may again mount my old hobby.

I must again express my regret that I cannot send you a fine autograph letter of Mr Jefferson on some interesting topic—but I am stripped down to those his family expected me to keep. But I send you some characteristic leaves—one from his draft of his Parliamentary law.

Very truly Yours
Henry S. Randall
RC(MH: James Parton Papers) at foot of text: James Parton Esq.

currente calamo: to write without deliberation or hesitation (OED). Randall’s life of thomas jefferson was first published in three volumes in 1858.

1Thus in manuscript.
Date Range
June 1, 1868