The Strange and
Ironic Fates of
Her half-sister Harriet, though
seven-eighths white, was deemed
a slave at birth. No one could have
predicted their fates.
Martha Jefferson was born in 1772, just as Monticello was rising above her, promising a life surrounded by beauty, luxury, and pampering. For the first ten years of her existence this promise held, but in 1782 Martha’s mother died, leaving a father incapacitated by grief, but still a father in pursuit of his daughter’s future happiness. He set out a stringent regimen of study which included reading, writing, literature, languages, music, art, and dance.
Two years later, Martha and her father traveled to France, joined later by Martha’s younger sister and her enslaved maid, Sally Hemings. In France Martha boarded at a convent school and received a formal education few other American women of the day would acquire in their lifetimes. At her father’s Paris residence, she received another kind of education, conversing with world leaders and learning, among other things, that there are countries where slavery was illegal. “I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed,” she wrote her father from school. She listened eagerly as her father and his secretary, William Short, talked of plans to set up their slaves as free tenant farmers when they returned to Virginia. But the 17-year-old Martha listened eagerly to William Short for another reason—she had fallen in love and her father had taken note; he abruptly took Martha, her sister, and Sally Hemings—who was pregnant with Thomas Jefferson’s child—back to Virginia.
There the realities of the Virginia way of life and her father’s new preoccupations with Monticello, politics, and dare she imagine it—Sally—convinced Martha it was time to claim a life for herself. After three short months at home, with her father’s whole-hearted blessing, Martha married her distant cousin, Thomas Randolph, a man determined to make his way in Virginia “without dependency” on the institution of slavery.
Over the next two dozen years Martha gave birth to 12 children and came to realize that despite her stellar education, her motherless youth had left her unprepared for the roles of wife and mother. She watched her husband acquire and lose three farms and many slaves before he descended into madness. She spent her days longing for the closeness she’d once shared with her father, their private conversations, and his very public dinner table—the only forums in which she’d ever made use of her educational brilliance.
Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, having run Monticello into such debt that it and most of its slaves were sold soon afterward. Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband died in 1828, owning nothing of any value but the books given him by his father-in-law. Martha, now homeless and nearly penniless, spent the rest of her life living with one child or another until she died at her son’s home in 1836, within view of the crumbling Monticello.
Harriet Hemings was born in 1801, just as her father assumed the mantel of president of the United States. She was a third-generation biracial slave, which made her seven-eighths white, but because her mother was Sally Hemings, Harriet was born into slavery. Sally, however, had dared to strike a bargain with Jefferson in Paris: She would give up her French freedom and return with Jefferson to Virginia if he would promise to free their children when they reached the age of 21.
It would appear that Jefferson took this promise to heart and planned for it as best he knew how. Harriet’s brothers were taught a trade and became skilled craftsmen. Harriet was trained in such domestic skills as might prove useful to any wife and mother. She did no regular slave labor except the kind of textile work that might prove useful later in life. When she turned 21, Jefferson gave her money and transportation to join her older brother, who had left for Washington a few months earlier to prepare them a place. Both brother and sister being light-skinned and auburn-haired, they were able to cast off their past and slip into the white world without a trace.
In 1873 Harriet’s younger brother Madison, freed along with his brother Eston in Jefferson’s will, told a newspaper reporter, “Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and as far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood . . . I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive.”
Sally Cabot Gunning lives in Brewster, Massachusetts, with her husband, Tom. A lifelong resident of New England, she is active in the local historical society and creates tours that showcase the 300-year history of her village. She is the author of the “Satucket Novels”: The Widow’s War, Bound, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, and Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard and Monticello, A Daughter and Her Father, published by William Morrow on September 6.