Earlier this week, a room connected to the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson was discovered to have been the living quarters for Sally Hemings. As the news broke of the discovery, many headlines referred to Hemings as Jefferson’s mistress. But she was not a mistress.
Mistress implies consent. Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemings. She was his legal property. Thomas and Martha Jefferson owned Sally from the time she was an infant. She could not leave. She was not free. Both Martha and Thomas Jefferson refused to free Sally Hemings their entire lives. Hemings remained enslaved at Monticello into her 50s.
When a man has sex with a human being he owns, consent is forced, no matter the circumstance. This is doubly true of any enslaved African living at Monticello where whippings and punishments have been well-documented.
Hemings, and others enslaved there, had no sincere choice but to serve those who claimed ownership over them or suffer the consequences. This fundamental principle is the bedrock of slavery. It does not exist without it.
Furthermore, the term mistress would not apply to Sally Hemings even if she was an everyday white woman from another town. Jefferson was a widower at the time he began having sex with Hemings. The word “mistress” is the term commonly used to describe a person in a consensual extra-marital affair. That is not what happened in this situation.
To romanticize Sally Hemings as a mistress to Thomas Jefferson is to romanticize the horrible institution of slavery.
The 600 human beings forced into slavery by Thomas Jefferson were forced to be there from birth until death many never even leaving the confines of the land that entire time.
Over 400 human beings that were immediately forced into slavery were born at Monticello many there long enough to see generations of their families forced into slavery. Jefferson’s nail factory was exclusively staffed by enslaved children. Their living conditions were deplorable. Over the course of Jefferson’s life he sold at least 175 men, women, and children to other owners ripping apart families and loved ones.
Sally Hemings was just 14 years old when Thomas Jefferson began using her for sex. Hemings was just 16 years old when she had her first child by him. This continued, unabated, for decades. It’s not love. It’s not romantic. It’s sexual assault and sexual abuse. The children that were produced from this were also forced into slavery. Again, that’s not love or kindness it’s an unspeakable horror.
I genuinely view men like Thomas Jefferson in the same way I view any other intelligent, gifted leader who also happened to be cruel beyond belief he was a monster. Owning, buying, selling, trading, and raping human beings, no matter what year or era you did such things, is monstrous.
What’s particularly interesting about Jefferson is that he was smart enough and educated enough to know full well that the institution of slavery was wrong.
In his only published book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson openly stated he knew slavery was morally evil and that the nation would eventually have to account to God for what it had done to tens of millions of enslaved Africans.
Allow me to translate that for you. Thomas Jefferson was not some victim of time because he just happened to be born in an era in which people were confused as to whether slavery was evil.
He knew good and well it was as evil then as it would be today, but he deliberately and purposefully maintained the system of slavery not only in his own life, but also for the nation.
As President of the United States, he did absolutely nothing to slow slavery down. As the physical owner of 600 human beings who openly admitted he knew what he was doing was evil, he made a daily decision to be evil.
I accept that Thomas Jefferson played a vital role in the modern founding of what we’ve come to know as the United States of America, but he should not be celebrated in any way. He should not have statues, or be on money, or even have a monument celebrating his positive contributions.
In recent American history, statues and memorials of Penn State’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, were taken down because he knew of sexual abuse happening and did nothing of substance to stop it.
Jefferson is far worse than Joe Paterno. Thomas Jefferson is Jerry Sandusky. And where I come from, men like Sandusky don’t deserve statues or memorials, no matter how important their contributions were.
Every single time Jefferson is honored, it is a choice to actively ignore the evil he did.