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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

Since Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, it has been accepted by many historians, though never officially proven, that the third president had for a mistress a slave who bore him several children. Barbara Chase-Riboud takes this matter as fact in writing the novel Sally Hemings.

The work is based in great...

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Since Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, it has been accepted by many historians, though never officially proven, that the third president had for a mistress a slave who bore him several children. Barbara Chase-Riboud takes this matter as fact in writing the novel Sally Hemings.

The work is based in great part on facts that are substantiated by documentation and historical records. Essentially, however, the novel itself is fiction; dialogue, characterization, and plot are all creations of the novelist, who takes great license with what is known and established about Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings.

The book is divided into seven chapters according to place and time; however, the arrangement is not chronological. Most of the story is told by the novelist herself, writing in the third-person-omniscient point of view. In a few of the chapters, though, Sally Hemings tells her own story from the first-person point of view.

The book begins in 1830 in Albemarle County, Virginia, after Jefferson’s death. Monticello has been sold, and Sally Hemings is living as a freed slave (and white woman) with her two sons on a small farm near the president’s old plantation. A census taker visits to get the facts of her existence for public record. Infatuated first with Sally’s story and then with Sally herself, young Nathan Langdon becomes intrigued with her beauty (even though Sally is now an old woman and Nathan is much younger) and history, and they become friends. Nathan’s curiosity about slavery, Jefferson’s two families, and race relations provide the author with a way to engage and entice the reader into concern for Sally’s circumstances. Sally’s two sons, Madison and Eston, are naturally suspicious of the white man and his motives, but they are unable to prevent the friendship.

The novel then switches in time and location to Paris, France, in 1787. Here, young Sally and her brother James, functioning as servants, travel with the Jefferson family when Jefferson is serving as ambassador to France. Under French law, the two slaves are free and cannot be held against their will or forced to return to the United States, where they will once again be legal slaves. Jefferson himself seduces the two into returning, more or less by making promises to free them. This promise is not kept to James Hemings for another several years; Sally is freed only at Jefferson’s death many years later. Be that as it may, the chief interest of this chapter is the relation between Jefferson and Sally, for it is in Paris where he first seduces the beautiful fifteen-year-old girl, falls in love with her, and makes her his lifelong mistress.

In the next section of the novel, Chase-Riboud again focuses on the United States. It is now 1833, and Nathan Langdon is trying to find all the information he can about the Jefferson and Hemings families. He interviews the artist John Trumbill, who knows the facts but will not tell them, thinking that the facts would only besmirch the name of the great Jefferson. Like all other major characters in the novel, white or black, and including Sally herself, no one is willing to tell the story directly. All remain silent, not only about Jefferson and Sally, but also about the institution of slavery itself and the way in which Jefferson’s two families (the white one and the black one) lived together, loved one another, and otherwise conducted their affairs and familial relations.

The middle section of the novel records these family histories from 1795 to 1809. The author explores the ways in which two sets of children, one white and one black, could live together given the social hypocrisy and the legal implications of the various blood relationships. Similarly, slave life is depicted, and certain historical characters are introduced by the novelist in order to give differing points of view about what is going on at Monticello. Jefferson is described at length. Always, the most important matter is his love for Sally, which is returned. Sally bears children to Jefferson and suckles the offspring of her white sisters. One by one, her own children leave (some with their father’s knowledge and blessing, some without) for the north and freedom, where they must thereafter live as whites and can have no contact with their parents.

In the last chapter of the novel, Chase-Riboud makes clear that her main purpose is an indictment of slavery and the people who perpetuated the institution, even would-be do-gooders such as Jefferson himself. As Jefferson became older, his finances deteriorated, and he was forced to sell off slaves to keep Monticello his own. With his death, the demise is complete: The plantation is sold, as are most of the remaining slaves, even though many of them are family members and blood relations to Jefferson. The cruelty of the actions here, all going back to Jefferson himself, do not succeed to balance, in Sally’s life, her love for him or his love for her. She remains a victim of the economic system, but most of all a victim of Jefferson himself.

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