Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Founders & Sally Hemings

Chris Matthews is rude and talks over his guests. But then it's his show just like this is my blog (well, and Anonymous D's). I find him entertaining because sometimes he says the most unusual things plucked from outside of any box. The other day I was watching when he said something in a discussion of Republicans and women's issues about how the Founders probably weren't thinking of Sally Hemings.

Sally was a house slave of Thomas Jefferson. She was also the younger half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife. There are no existing pictures of Sally, but reports say she was attractive. She was of 1/4 (or less) African descent and 3/4 (or more) of European ancestry. Her children were at most 1/8 African and most of them passed for "white" and entered the dominant society (generally outside of Virginia) when they were freed in Jefferson's will. A few of her grandsons fought for the North in the Civil War.

Historians still argue about whether Thomas was the father of Sally's children, but DNA evidence indicates it was definitely someone in the Jefferson family. Thomas is clearly the most likely candidate.

Matthews's statement has been giving me some mental perturbation. He is absolutely right that even though the Constitution was established by "We the People" which would seem to include all human beings in the United States, citizenship and civil rights did not apply to Sally. She had at least three strikes against her. She was a slave, a woman, and held no property (kind of hard to do when you are property). We fixed the first two problems with Constitutional Amendments. The property requirement apparently disappeared in the move towards more universal suffrage. Another group, Native Americans, were out of luck in 1789 but a century or so later were declared citizens by the US Supreme Court (without even a civil war or anything).

These exclusions from citizenship and civil rights for Sally and so many others were clearly wrong. There's no way around it. Fortunately, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence established principles that helped right these wrongs though it was no easy process (see the Lincoln movie and check out the history of the Women's Suffrage Movement).

Hardly anyone today disputes that someone like Sally Hemings should be a citizen with all civil rights. I know there are some who still have issues with this sort of thing. I've even heard some really odd and extreme arguments in recent years that the Constitution was meant for White Christians only. Fortunately, this is generally considered crazy talk. But some old attitudes have a hard time dying.

I still believe the Founders were inspired men. They set forth an inspired framework but left us with a lot of work to do. I don't think we're done yet. How much are we wrong about today that still needs some serious work to form that more perfect Union?

I meant that as a rhetorical question. Comments will be monitored.


  1. "Crazy talk" has made a comeback these past few years.

  2. It's an interesting question. God usually builds block by block. The Constitution was divinely inspired but it was just a framework. But, do we really need to amend it or should we just be amending at state level?


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