Thomas Jefferson Children


Michael Benton, Contributor

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thomas jefferson childrenThomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (née Skelton), would lose four of their six children before they reached the age of two and a daughter would die of complications from childbirth when she was only 25 years old. The children of Thomas Jefferson were, in chronological order: Martha, Jane Randolph, an unnamed son, Mary (Maria), Lucy Elizabeth, and a second Lucy Elizabeth. It is not an anomaly to have such terrible fortune with infant mortality as science and medicine were only just beginning to make advances against viruses and diseases that racked the New World. After the birth of their last daughter, the second Lucy Elizabeth, Martha Wayles Jefferson would die from complications in 1782 leaving Thomas Jefferson distraught and overwhelmed as political and personal events culminated together in that year. It was only two years later that Jefferson would leave home to serve as Minister and Commissioner to France, and it was there in Paris that the controversial history of Thomas Jefferson children with slaves.

The first wife of Thomas Jefferson was the daughter of a planter named John Wayles. This man, like Jefferson, owned numerous African American slaves. After the death of his own wife, Wayles sired six children with a mixed-race slave named Betty Hemings. After Wayles died in 1773, all of his 135 slaves and nearly 11,000 acres went to Jefferson through his recent marriage to Martha Wayles. The Hemings children were all three-quarters white but inherited their status in bondage from their mother. The youngest of the six, Sally Hemings was an infant when she came with her family to Monticello. Because of their light complexion and the twisted racial institutions of the day, the Hemings children were raised and trained to be domestic servants and skilled artisans who were never required to work in the fields. When Jefferson sent for his daughter Maria to join him in France after the death of Lucy Elizabeth, Sally Hemings, now in her teenage years, came along. Because slavery had been abolished in France, Jefferson paid Sally a tiny monthly stipend. If she decided, Sally could have petitioned for her freedom under French law and remained there as a free woman; if she returned to Virginia, she would remain a slave for the rest of her life. So why did she return to Virginia with Jefferson in 1789? Her son, in his memoir, would claim that Thomas Jefferson impregnated Sally Hemings for the first time there in Paris and that she only returned to Virginia because he promised to manumit her children when they reached adulthood.

In the time of Thomas Jefferson, slave children born to a mother in bondage and her white master were not at all uncommon. Just as John Wayles had taken Betty Hemings as a concubine after the death of his wife, it is not hard to believe that Jefferson would have done the same. In the case of Thomas Jefferson, black children of his own would create a devastating political scandal; and that is exactly what happened when he ran for president against John Adams in 1796. Despite his victory in the elections of 1800 and 1804, the truth of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings would leave a permanent scar on his legacy.