What the Granddaughter Heard

Published:October 24, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

As we noted yesterday, we’re beginning to publish some of the primary resources associated with Sally Hemings. And, as it happens, it was on this day in 1858 that Thomas Jefferson‘s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, penned an oft-quoted letter to her husband, Joseph, on the still-swirling controversy regarding the dead president’s sex life. As you might imagine, Mrs. Coolidge was firmly in the Jefferson-didn’t-do-it camp:

Again I ask is it likely that so fond so anxious a father, whose letters to his daughters are replete with tenderness and with good counsels for their conduct, should (when there were so many other objects upon whom to fix his elicit attentions) have selected the female attendant of his own pure children to become his paramour! The thing will not bear telling. There are such things, after all, as moral impossibilities.

One actually wonders if there is. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s really interesting about this letter, and why it is so oft-quoted, is its transmission of a bit of gossip:

Now I will tell you in confidence what Jefferson told me under the like condition. Mr. Southall and himself being young men together, heard Mr. Peter Carr [Jefferson’s nephew] say with a laugh, that “the old gentleman [Jefferson] had to bear the blame of his and [his brother] Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeed.

There is a general impression that the four children of Sally Hemings were all the children of Col. Carr, the most notorious good natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense.

Combine moral impossibilities with third-hand family gossip, and you have a version of the Hemingses’ paternity that lasted for not quite 150 years—until a DNA test found no connection between the Carr brothers and Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston.

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge (Thomas Jefferson Foundation); letter from Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge (October 24, 1858), pages 1–2 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)


4 Comments on “What the Granddaughter Heard”

  1. Philip Terzian

    Yes, but that same DNA examination found a connection only between a Hemings and a member of the Jefferson clan — not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, and in fact, only a 10% likelihood of that. These conjectures usually comport with the thinking of the times, and our era profoundly wishes the story to be true.

  2. Herbert Barger

    I may offer an answer in addition to what Mr. Terzian may reply. I assisted Dr Foster so I have first hand information regarding this controversy. Monticello launched a slavery project at Monticello and deleted the Memorial part of their title (no longer memorializing Thomas Jefferson). Read Jeffersonian Legacies (Pg 280) for a study in what is happening.

    The Getting Word Project (10 very prominent African-American’s) started advising the Thomas Jefferson Foundation using a very defective Dr Foster DNA Study.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

  3. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Mr. Barger, With all respect, I don’t think that’s an answer at all. What does the Foundation’s name have to do with the question of why our society supposedly and profoundly wishes for the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to be true?

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