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Friday, October 16, 2015

Did Thomas Jefferson Rape Sally Hemings?

Thomas Jefferson

Hemings was Jefferson’s slave and as such could not decline his advances. In countless cases, slave owners used this power to force themselves on unwilling, nubile slaves. But is that what happened in this case?

While we lack any definitive evidence on Hemings’s state of mind and so cannot firmly rule either way, many surrounding circumstances strongly suggest not.

For one, Jefferson was tall, handsome, immensely famous as the author of Declaration of Independence, widely admired, powerful as former President, quite rich, very clever, and single.These facts are relevant. For example, should a young man claim to have been raped by a famous fashion model, the fact of her beauty—while hardly dispositive—would induce a reasonable observer to judge the claim to be at least somewhat less likely than otherwise. Then, as now, these are qualities which women prize in potential mates. One doubts that Jefferson’s advances would often have been rebuffed by single woman free to do so. So it seems unlikely that Hemings would have.

The known facts of the affair also support this conclusion. Jefferson apparently was faithful to Hemings over many decades, behavior rarely exhibited by rapists. Hemings when she had the opportunity to escape slavery by leaving Jefferson did not take it. The most plausible explanation for that is that Hemings loved Jefferson more than her freedom; again, a state of mind rarely engendered by rape in its victims. Finally, Jefferson appears to have had enough affection for the products of this affair to emancipate them posthumously.

This is not to say that Jefferson’s character was flawless or even that his conduct of this affair was not blameworthy—why, for example, did he not immediately free Hemings allowing her to make her own choice whether to continue the affair? It is just to say that being a rapist was, most likely, not among these character flaws.