Printable Version

Richmond Recorder on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Digital History ID 1378

Author:   James Callender
Date:1802

Annotation: A critic called James Thomson Callender “the most outrageous and wretched scandalmonger of a scurrilous age.” During the 1790s, Callender, a pioneering muckraking journalist, published vicious attacks on George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading political figures. Today, Callender is best known as the journalist who first published the story that Thomas Jefferson had a decades-long affair with one of his slaves. Born in Scotland in 1758, Callender became an early proponent of Scottish independence from Britain. Indicted for sedition in 1793, he fled to Philadelphia, where he made a living as a congressional reporter and a political propagandist. Profoundly suspicious of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s pro-British views on foreign affairs, Callender used his pen to discredit Hamilton. In 1797 he published evidence—probably provided by supporters of Thomas Jefferson—that Hamilton had an adulterous extramarital affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Callender also accused Hamilton of involvement in illegal financial speculations with Reynolds’s husband, an unsavory character who had been convicted of fraud and dealing in stolen goods. Hamilton acknowledged the affair, but denied the corruption charges, claiming that he was a victim of blackmail. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s public reputation was hurt, and he never held public office again. In 1798 Hamilton’s political party, the Federalist party, pushed the Sedition Act through Congress, making it a crime to attack the government or the president with false, scandalous, or malicious statements. In 1800 Callender was one of several journalists indicted, tried, and convicted under the law. He was fined $200 and sentenced to nine months in prison, where he found himself “surrounded by thieves of every description.” By the time Callender was released, Thomas Jefferson had been elected president. Callender expected the new administration to refund his fine and appoint him to a government job. When repayment of the fine was delayed and Jefferson refused to appoint him as a postmaster, Callender struck back. In 1802, a year before his death, Callender publicly accused Jefferson of having a lifelong liaison with his slave Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha. Her mother had been impregnated by her master, John Wayles, the father of Martha Jefferson. Sally Hemings herself bore five mulatto children out of wedlock. Callender insisted that Jefferson fathered the children. Jefferson’s defenders denied the assertion. In 1998 DNA testing indicated that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children. Despised by his critics as a “traitorous and truculent scoundrel,” Callender defended himself on strikingly modern grounds: that the public had a right to know the moral character of people it elected to public office. Although he has often been dismissed as a “pen for hire,” willing to defame anyone, Callender’s work underscores one of the most radical consequences of the American Revolution. The revolution gave new meaning to the idea of popular sovereignty and ensured that ordinary Americans would be the ultimate arbiters of American politics. Passionately rejecting the notion that common people should express deference toward the educated and well-to-do, Callender aimed his political commentary at artisans and immigrants who flocked to seaport towns during the 1790s. Scandal, sensation, and suspicion of the powerful were the appeals he used to attract readers.


Document: The President Again.

It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters. The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies!

If the reader does not feel himself disposed to pause we beg leave to proceed. Some years ago, this story had once or twice been hinted at in Rind’s Federalist. At that time, we believed the surmise to be an absolute calumny. One reason for thinking so was this: A vast body of people wished to debar Mr. Jefferson from the presidency. The establishment of this SINGLE FACT would have rendered his election impossible. We reasoned thus; that if the allegation had been true, it was sure to have been ascertained and advertised by his enemies, in every corner of the continent. The suppression of so decisive an enquiry serves to show that the common sense of the federal party was overruled by divine providence. It was the predestination of the supreme being that they should be turned out; that they should be expelled from office by the popularity of character….

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