Paper Cuts

A racist caricature in Drew’s archives of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave, comes off as an early 19th-century stab at swiftboating.

Archived by Rebecca Rego Barry G’01, the drawing measures 9.5 by 14.5 inches.

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.

Done in ink and watercolor on now-yellowed linen paper, the sketch shows a bare-breasted Hemings, holding the hand of a son named “Tom.” Accompanying the undated drawing, titled “Mrs. Sally Jefferson,” is a scrap of doggerel written in Hemings’ voice:

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.

“All the language this piece uses is standard Federalist press discourse,” says History Chair Sharon Sundue. “It’s racist to its core, describing Sally Hemings as a seductress, and is entirely an attack on the character of the white man who would lower himself.” Still, the initial bomb for Jefferson came not from a Federalist, but from a former Jefferson ally named James T. Callender, who outed the relationship in the Richmond Recorder on Sept. 1, 1802, a little over a year into Jefferson’s first term. The Scots-born Virginia journalist had turned on Jefferson when refused a political appointment.

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.

In this case, the spiteful doodler clearly wasn’t striving for verisimilitude. “Whoever drew this never saw Hemings, or else he wouldn’t have drawn her as a dark-skinned woman with tightly curled hair,” says Gordon-Reed. “We know what she looked like—she was light-skinned with straight hair—and what her kids looked like, some of whom lived as white people.” Nor did Hemings have a son named Tom, explains Gordon Reed. “The point for a Federalist was to make things as shocking as possible. The president with a dark-skinned mistress and a dark-skinned child were particular affronts—playing into all facets of sexual and racial hysteria,” she says.

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.”

Poisoned Pen

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.

“That Jefferson lives in open defiance of all decent [rule], with a Mulatto Slave his property named Sally, is as correct as truth itself, and that his children, to wit, Tom, Beverly & Harriot are flat nosed, thick lipped and Tawney I can have no doubt tho I never saw any one of them, And what adds to the monstrous disgrace of this amorous encounter is first that she is half sister to his first wife, and secondly that she is the most abandoned prostitute of her color—pampered into a lascivious course of life, with the benefits of a French Education, she is more lecherous than the other beasts of the Monticellian Mountains.”

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.

2 Responses to “Paper Cuts”

  1. While Annette Gordon-Reed indicates here that Sally DID NOT have a child named Tom she exploited this in naming 7 of Sally’s children by Jefferson in her latest book, The Hemings of Monticello. She is not to be believed in anything concerning the DNA findings.

  2. Mark Sullivan says:

    I am a retired superior court judge currently doing research for a book involving New Jersey courts cases on slavery. There are 2 cases involving a “Thomas Gibbons”, one from 1821 and one from 1826, both involving Gibbons’ assisting slaves to escape from New Jersey to New York in his steamboats. While his name and status as a steamboat owner are consistent with those cases, the character seems very different. Where is a good source for further information? Thank you.
    Mark Sullivan

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