What Abigail Implied

Published:November 29, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In part 10 of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider two letters written by Abigail Adams, then living in London, to Thomas Jefferson, in Paris. Jefferson had recruited Mrs. Adams to receive his nine-year-old daughter Mary (also known as Polly) and her fourteen-year-old companion Sally Hemings after their trans-Atlantic voyage from Virginia and before they completed their journey to France. Adams was appalled by what showed up at her door.

In her letters of June 26 and June 27, 1787, she gently informs her old friend that Polly was “miserable” upon her arrival, without adequate clothing, and upset at being removed from the care of Captain Andrew Ramsey. Adams goes on to suggest that Jefferson really ought to come to London himself and meet his daughter, who does not even recognize a picture of her father. About Sally Hemings, she writes:

The old Nurse whom you expected to have attended her, was sick and unable to come. She has a Girl about 15 or 16 with her, the Sister of the Servant you have with you. (June 26)

The Girl who is with her is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of opinion will be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him. But of this you will be a judge. She seems fond of the child and appears good naturd. (June 27)

These few words are nevertheless subject of some discussion among historians. Why, for instance, did Jefferson entrust his daughter with a fourteen-year-old who met few of the qualifications he had established for the girl’s travel companion? In the Hemingses of Monticello (2008), Annette Gordon-Reed writes at some length about the dangers a young girl might face on a ship full of sailors and how Hemings’s presence would not have been sufficient to protect her: “It is impossible to write the story of the lives of these girls without always being aware of the ways in which sexual exploitation—either the potential for it or the actual experience of it—was a constant threat in their lives.”

Our entry, then, reads Adams’s description of Hemings as “quite a child” as “an inferred dig at the decision to entrust Polly with such a person.” One of our entry’s readers, a Jefferson scholar, disagrees, arguing that Polly’s caretakers in Virginia likely felt “that they had put Polly and her servant in the care of Captain Ramsay [Ramsey], and Ramsay clearly accepted this responsibility and took it seriously until he discharged it by delivering his charges to the American minister to Great Britain [John Adams].”

Whatever the case, in these two letters and in subsequent correspondence, Adams seems to go out of her way to demean Hemings, to argue that she should not be taken to France, and to dutifully relay the captain’s offer to carry her to Virginia. Whether Adams’s attitude is a product of Sally Hemings’s maturity, Adams’s racism, Jefferson’s widowhood and Hemings’s beauty, and even the girl’s possible resemblance to the departed Martha Wayles Jefferson, we do not know. We just know that young Sally did, indeed, go to France …

PREVIOUSLY: What the Blacksmith Saw; What the Granddaughter Heard; What the Journalist Claimed; What the Overseer Said; What the Son Insisted; What the Editor Argued; What the Friend Affirmed; What the Census Taker Wrote; and What the Poet Rhymed

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1815 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); first pages of letters from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 26 and June 27, 1787 (Library of Congress)