A.P. HISTORY BOOK REPORT #2


December 2, 2003


A.P. U.S. History


5th Hour





Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase‑Roboud is biographical novel about the life of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress, Sally Hemings. The story spans two continents, sixty years and seven presidencies. The story starts in Paris at the dawn of the French Revolution when Thomas Jefferson was serving as a United States ambassador. A widower, Jefferson had brought his oldest daughter, Martha, to Paris with him, but he then decided to bring over his youngest daughter, Polly, with him as well. Fourteen‑year‑old Sally Hemings accompanied Polly to Paris as her maid. It was in Paris that Thomas Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’ infamous love affair began. Sally Hemings enjoyed her life in Paris, she was given the finest clothing and was allowed to study with Jefferson’s daughters. However her fairy tale life in Paris would soon come to an end when Thomas Jefferson was called back to the United Sates. Sally could have opted not to return to America with Jefferson, she could have chosen freedom on the basis that slavery had been abolished on French soil. However, Sally Hemings did return to Virginia and slavery with Thomas Jefferson. She spent the rest of her life on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, in Virginia. Even after Jefferson’ s death, when she was granted her freedom she stayed on the Monticello property.


Thomas Jefferson is the most important figure in Sally Hemings’ life. His every action affects her. Aside from being Sally’s only lover and the father of her children, Thomas Jefferson inspired his slave mistress, he gave her a reason to live. Sally Hemings gave up her freedom for Thomas Jefferson, and never regretted it for a minute. The novel follows the life of Sally Hemings, and therefore follows the life of Thomas Jefferson. It allows you to see the personal side of Jefferson’s political career, as well as experience his personal life.


Sally Hemings is the focus of the novel, and its most important character. The book follows her life from beginning to end and focuses on the impact she had on Thomas Jefferson’s life and actions. Sally gave up her freedom and her children’s freedom for love. The novel allows you to see life through the eyes of a United States president’s slave mistress. The reader is allowed to experience what life was like for Sally Hemings, the way she saw it, not the way everyone else saw it. It is through Sally Hemings’ character that the reader experiences the world.


Sally’s brother, James Hemings, was also a very influential part of her life. James is first introduced to the reader as Thomas Jefferson’s personal slave in Paris. Sally had a very close relationship with James, in Paris they would always talk about what they were going to do with their freedom when they got it. James was very strong‑willed, and the only thing he ever wanted was his freedom. When Jefferson was called back to the United States, James had not planned to return with him, he was going to take his freedom and stay in France. However, after learning of Sally’s pregnancy, and her choice to return with Jefferson, James gave up his freedom and returned to the United States as a slave. James was eventually granted freedom six years later, and tried to make Sally fight for hers. Sally refused to leave Thomas Jefferson, so James went and pursued the free life he had always dreamed of.


Woven into the this complicated love story is a first hand account of the United States’ revolution. Figures such as Aaron Burr, Dolley and James Madison, John and Abigail Adams, and John Trumbull appear throughout the story. The novel allows the reader to see the personalities, as well as the principles, of these famous historical figures. The reader gets an inside look at all of the political rivalries of the time, as well how other prominent historical figures viewed Thomas Jefferson. However, the novel does not limit its self to figures such as George Washington and Ben Franklin. The book also exposes the reader to the slave rebellions of Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner, and shows the effect they had on the slave community. Sally Hemings and her sons actually went to the