By Robin Vander Wall . . . July 4th. A sex offender died today.
Well, not precisely. But, on this day 192 years ago, a sex offender passed away.
This was no common sex offender. In fact, he was more remarkable than most men who’ve ever lived. Governor of Virginia. Minister to France. First Secretary of State. Second Vice President. Third President of the United States. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the person responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a sex offender. Or at least he would be.
Here are the relevant facts: Two years after the death of his wife, Martha, from complications with the birth of their sixth child—an event that profoundly affected the remainder of Jefferson’s life—Congress sent Jefferson to Paris to replace Benjamin Franklin as minister to France.
Jefferson took his oldest daughter Patsy with him. It was 1784, eight years after the fledgling nation declared independence from Great Britain and five years before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Late in 1787, Jefferson received word about the passing of his youngest daughter, Lucy, and immediately sent for his other daughter, Mary, who had remained at Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia. Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves, was sent along with Mary to accompany her. Mary was 9. Sally was 14.
In the parlance of the time, Sally Hemings was a mulatto. Her mother was a slave. Her father, John Wayles, was a white owner of slaves. Sally became the property of Thomas Jefferson when Mr. Wayles died and his daughter, Martha, Jefferson’s wife, inherited the property.
Let me unpack that for you. Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson were half sisters because they shared the same father.
By all accounts, Sally was a light-skinned woman whose features were exceptional. And in Martha’s passing, it is likely that Jefferson grew closer to Sally as a means to fill the void created by the tragic and untimely death of his young wife. We now know that Sally’s living quarters were adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom.