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What the Poet Rhymed

November 13th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

In part 9 of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider an anonymous poem that appeared on the same page of the same issue of the same Richmond paper that first aired James Thomson Callender’s famous allegation about Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.)

The poem is written from the perspective of a slave who questions how Jefferson can own men while declaring all men to be created equal.

Our massa Jefferson he say,
Dat all mans free alike are born;
Den tell me, why should Quashee stay,
To tend de cow and hoe de corn?
Huzza for massa Jefferson;

We tend to yell “Presentism!” at modern-day charges of Jefferson’s hypocrisy, but he certainly was branded a hypocrite in his own day, too.

The poem first appeared on July 10, 1802, in the Port Folio, a Federalist literary paper published in Philadelphia. And while this Richmond version is unsigned, the original was attributed to Asmodio. Presumably this is a reference to the biblical king Asmodio, known in the Talmud as “the genius of matrimonial unhappiness” and who fell in love with Sara, killing seven of her husbands in turn. According to the Jefferson biographer Fawn M. Brodie, “The choice of pseudonym is a curiosity, since ‘Sally’ is the nickname for ‘Sara,’ and the intent of the ballad maker was clearly the destruction of Sara’s ‘husband.’ It suggests that the author was a man of considerable erudition.”

IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); “A Philosophic Cock” by James Akin, ca. 1804, a caricature of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; anonymous poem from The Recorder; or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, September 1, 1802, Page 2 (Library of Virginia)

Tags: Documents · Reading the Paper · Thomas Jefferson

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