A racist caricature in Drew’s archives of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave, comes off as an early 19th-century stab at swiftboating.
By Renée Olson
What’s known about Thomas Gibbons, father of the man who built Mead Hall, is this: He was a Southern rice plantation owner; a cantankerous, litigious steamboat magnate; a Federalist mayor of Savannah, Ga., and a fortunate man who, despite being rather broad in the beam at some 300 pounds, managed to not get shot in a duel. What’s not clear, though, is how a lewd sketch of Sally Hemings, the slave with whom a widowed Thomas Jefferson is believed to have fathered five children, managed to land in Gibbons’ papers at Drew and stay there, virtually unnoticed, until now.
It was Late in the Night When Masa came too me He give me fine tings + kisses He get for me a Pickinene All most as white as young Masa (or Misis) Little Tom Jeffer— the young Congo Dauphin
While the handwriting appears to rule out Gibbons as the caricature’s creator, it’s “in keeping with his Federalist attitudes,” says Barbara Oberg, professor of history and general editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton (and wife of Perry Leavell, Drew professor of history emeritus). From the stance of patrician Federalists, Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican they dismissed as an atheist, “becomes the symbol of everything threatening to law and order” at a time when the young nation’s federal government was just being shaped, she says.
Although the content doesn’t break new ground, the sketch, creased as though folded to fit in an envelope and perhaps mailed to Gibbons, has value for, well, being a sketch. Representations of Hemings are virtually unknown—Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses: An American Family, knew of just two before seeing Drew’s drawing.
Sundue used the sketch this semester in her “American Revolution” course to launch a discussion about racial attitudes of the time. “You can’t not talk about Sally Hemings as part of this conversation,” says Sundue. “I wanted to show this to my students and have them interpret what they’re seeing here, as well as understand the range—and limits of—19th-century critique of slavery.”
Thomas Gibbons was slinging mud at Jefferson and Hemings around the time he had his own troubles with a servant.
Thomas Gibbons, from whom Thomas Jefferson snatched back a federal judgeship given in a so-called “midnight appointment” by an outgoing John Adams in 1801, preferred to launch his attack on Sally Hemings in prose. This excerpt from a scathing letter he wrote to New Jersey Federalist senator (and in-law) Jonathan Dayton on Dec. 20, 1802, holds nothing back.
Despite its slanderous tone, the letter, archived at the University of Michigan, is considered one of the first primary sources, together with James Callender’s Richmond Recorder article (see main story), to document the existence of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. But interestingly, Gibbons goes a step further and includes a detail not included in the newspaper account: the belief that Hemings was the daughter of Martha Jefferson’s father and his slave, Elizabeth Hemings. “This information was not printed [by] Callender,” says Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of The Hemingses: An American Family.
Gibbons appears to have been “somehow privy to all these other networks,” says History Chair Sharon Sundue. His information is “not just secondhand out of the paper.”
Gossip-gathering wasn’t Gibbons’ only talent. Around the time the Hemings rumors started, Gibbons apparently managed to impregnate one of his own servants. Correspondence about this, though nothing that specifies her race, appears in Drew’s Gibbons Family Papers, says T.J. Stiles, 2010 Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The First Tycoon, who used the collection in his research. Gibbons worked to deny the accusation, writes Stiles, “against the advice of some of New York’s leading attorneys.”—R.O.