I was a substitute high school teacher in the late 1980s, occasionally in charge of a high school Social Studies class.
“How many of you think women’s lib started in your lifetime,” I asked one day. Except for a couple of students clever enough to suspect a trick question, all raised their hands. So I told them about Abigail.
John Adams wife had watched her husband leave Boston for Philadelphia numerous times as he and a group of colleagues attempted to formulate rules for a new nation. She sat down and wrote him a letter asking him to remember the ladies, left at home to run the farm, raise the children, and perform other chores in which the men who were busy rule-making could not participate.
He may not have forgotten her, but more than a century would pass before woman were granted the right to vote.
If I recall my history correctly, the 13 colonies were effectively 13 individual countries, and some of them were not all that enthused about some of the others telling them how to run their business. South Carolina, for instance, threatened to pull out if it were forced to give up slavery. Such are the realities of politics, in which a group of current congressmen may insist, “Do this our way or we will shut down the government.”
It is easy to sit, nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, and indict men who owned slaves, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them. The latter is my favorite president, even as I know he did things of which I do not approve. In 1800, for instance, as Adams County was being carved out of York County and declared a county by itself, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were engaging in campaign tactics that would make a certain 2016 candidate look like a choir boy.
I’m not proud that Jefferson owned slaves, or that, in today’s parlance, he was “in a relationship” with one of them. But I have an idea how it happened.
Had he pushed too hard to abolish slavery as an institution, South Carolina probably would have bailed on the budding nation, taking several of its neighbors with it, and this conversation would be moot. And Jefferson certainly could not, as a white man, been known in public to be bedding a black woman. In fact, into at least the 1960s, there were laws in many states forbidding such so-called “mixed marriages.”
But Tom’s wife Martha had died in 1782. One might wonder whether Sally and Tom might have been not only lovers, but in love. Officially, his daughter was his First Lady, but that is a position of politics. I believe Sally Hemings – forbidden publicly to be his wife or First Lady – was nevertheless his partner.
Maybe that is wishful thinking, born in my mind by rules that do not allow the indictment of anyone under social laws long since erased. It seems too easy to say she could not have willingly been in love with him, simply because she was a slave and he her owner.
We humans have some odd ideas about our relationships with other humans. And we often react rather violently to any transgression involving those ideas.
But I think it’s worth asking whether there would have been a United States of America had Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves and publicly taken Sally Hemings as his wife.