Whose lives mattered to the American revolutionaries? How did they—individually, and collectively—draw the lines dividing those who they considered as part of the nation they envisioned, and those they did not? In other words, who were fully human—“men” to be considered “created equal”—and who were not? On a slave plantation, from the moment of birth, cultural practices around inheritance and patriarchy were deployed to invalidate the enslaved child’s claims to full humanity. Understanding these practices—and how Thomas Jefferson enacted them, at the same time as he formulated our nation’s founding ideals—offers us a sobering picture of the limitations of the promise of the new nation, even for those who shared its year of birth.
Another Hemings Baby
On April 24, 1776, shortly before Thomas Jefferson left his Monticello plantation for Philadelphia, where his most famous words would soon be written, one of the enslaved women he had recently inherited from his father-in-law gave birth to her 11th child. Betty Hemings was not married, and her previous children had at least four different fathers. Some of these unions may have been her choice; others, within the context in which an enslaved woman, as property, could not meaningfully consent, were undoubtedly rape. Enslaved women were assumed to be sexually available not only to their master, but also to his male relatives and other white men hired to work on the plantation. Betty’s new baby’s father was Joseph Neilson, a white carpenter employed by Jefferson.
Record-Keeping and Personhood
The birth of a baby slave was a non-event, as far as the colonial government of Virginia was concerned—not that it still had any power by April of 1776, four months after the royal governor had fled to New York. The official recording of births (as well as baptisms, marriages, and deaths) only became important when the government developed an interest in monitoring, taxing, disciplining, and counting its population. On any Anglo-American slave plantation, only one person had such an interest in the lives of the enslaved: their owner. Thus, the first record we have of Betty’s 11th child’s existence comes not from a birth certificate, but instead from an oblique, sterile reference in one of Thomas Jefferson’s Memorandum Books.
These were volumes in which he recorded the details of his routine financial transactions (“Pd. Ursula for eggs 3 3/4d.”), as well as significant events that had bearing on his finances (“My mother died about 8. oclock this morning in the 57th. year of her age”). On April 25, 1776, his first entry declared “Pd. Granny Smothers fee for B. Hemings 10/.”—referring to the midwife’s ten-shilling fee for a delivery. Nothing more. No other indication of the child’s name, or whether the child was a boy or a girl—suggesting a limited investment in the life of his new piece of property.
This wasn’t especially unusual, given the high mortality rate of children born into slavery in Virginia—more than 10% would not live to see their first birthday, and only about 4 out of 5 would survive to the age of 10. Throughout the Americas, the births of slaves regularly went unrecorded. In Jefferson’s case, the absence of the baby—his new property—from the record he made highlights that the only reason the event was worth recording in his Memorandum Book is because money changed hands, and Jefferson wanted to keep track of that transaction.
What was this baby’s name? How did he come to have it? The first time Jefferson saw fit to record it was when Johnny was about nine years old. On a list titled “Roll of the negroes taken in 1783,” Betty Hemings is named first on the list of the 203 people he held as slaves. Nine of her children, arranged by age with their birth years noted, appear on the following lines. Second from the bottom, between “Sally. 73.” and “Lucy. Aug. 77.” is listed “Johnny. Apr. 24. 76.”
Betty herself probably got her name this way—it seems unlikely that her African mother would have chosen it.
We talk about names being “given,” or “taken”—a woman might take her husband’s name when they marry; a newborn is given a name by their parents. But while these formulations suggest benign, even voluntary, practices, the naming—or rather, re-naming—of enslaved people was a violent act of deracination, in the literal sense of “uprooting.” Particularly for those who were brought to the Americas from Africa, their owner’s act of “naming” them was a forceful erasure of their previous identity, and a highly personal symbol of their new existence as a slave. Often, this power was exerted over subsequent generations, as slaveowners continued to choose the names for the offspring of their human property. Betty herself probably got her name this way—it seems unlikely that her African mother would have chosen it.
The names given to the enslaved conveyed many, many messages. Firstly, slaves were rarely given a last name—scholars can generally distinguish free people of color from the enslaved in archival records on the basis of whether or not they have last names. The denial of a last name also constituted a denial of full personhood—white people, no matter how marginalized and dependent their position, always had two names.
But Johnny’s mother was among those few enslaved people who did have last names, whether of their own choosing or imposed by an owner. According to the memoirs of her great-grandson, Madison, Betty’s father was a “Capt. Hemings,” a white man, whose “English trading vessel…sailed between England and Williamsburg, Va.” Although his attempt to purchase his daughter from her mother’s owner failed, Captain Hemings did succeed in passing his name on to Betty.
Having thus deprived them of any other patriarch to oversee their lives, Jefferson adopted a paternalistic attitude towards the people of African descent whom he listed as his property, referring to them as the “souls in my family.”
From the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, using Betty’s last name may simply have been a matter of convenience—to distinguish her from the eight other “Betty’s” he owned in 1783. Not all of his “Betty’s” had last names—many, instead, he distinguished by when they were born. He arranged his list based on which of his four plantations they lived on, and then, when appropriate, listed children under the name of their mothers, indicating the relationship only by a slight indentation before a list of substantially younger people, arrange in order of birth year.
By using birth years instead of last names, and listing the enslaved in association only with their mothers—giving no indication of who their fathers were—Jefferson reinscribed the practices of conceptually excluding the enslaved from patrilineal lines of heritage. Having thus deprived them of any other patriarch to oversee their lives, Jefferson adopted a paternalistic attitude towards the people of African descent whom he listed as his property, referring to them as the “souls in my family.”
The first names given to the enslaved also conveyed their subordinate status, not only to their owners but to all white people. Slaves rarely shared first names with the white people who owned them. Instead, they were given a subset of names that were immediately identifiable as “slave names.” Sometimes these were derived from classical history and mythology—Caesar and Minerva—or from African names—Cuffee and Sambo.
Another common source of slave names were the diminutive versions of names that white babies were given—Betty Hemings herself, as well as her children Bob, Thenia (Parthenia), and Sally (Sarah), all had such names. Johnny is a very different legal name than “John,” even if that John was known as Johnny when he was a child. Indeed, the very fact that a white boy called Johnny would be called John as an adult, while a black man would carry the name Johnny his whole life, reinforced the infantilization of enslaved people of African descent—much as the practice of calling a black man “boy” would in the Jim Crow era.
Betty’s Johnny was unusual in that, by the time he was 20 years old, his owner recognized him as possessing the kind of full name that a white man might have: Jefferson recorded him on a 1796 list of the clothing he allocated to his slaves as “John Hemings.” By his 40s, he was signing his own name as “John Hemmings” in letters that he wrote. The adult John Hemmings gained that name—and his ability to write it in a context in which few slaves were allowed to read or write—through a variety of acts, by himself, his family members, and his owner. The many name changes from “Johnny” to “John Hemmings” constituted life events as significant as any other renaming.
Whether Jefferson would ever have even known the name of Betty’s youngest son prior to recording it on the 1783 list is unclear. But Johnny and his family would have known it. And this is the constant complication of working with the written records of the past. When it came to the illiterate majority, only that which was of interest to the powerful (in this case, the slaveowner) would be recorded; and only those documents considered most important by the powerful would be carefully preserved. If Jefferson and his heirs had not taken the trouble to preserve his papers, including those relating to the operation of his plantations, we would know far less about Johnny’s existence.
“Got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman”
Even though his father was a free white man, that Johnny was Thomas Jefferson’s property was unquestioned and unquestionable. As established by a 1662 law of the Virginia Assembly, status inheritance for slaves was the opposite of the patrilineality that was the norm for Euro-Americans: “Children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother.” This reversal was one of several legal distinctions that the propertied white male leaders of colonial Virginia made in the late seventeenth century, which helped to build a sense of racial difference between those who gradually came to be termed “white” and “black.”
The gendered framing of the law reflected the reality that white men had sexual access to enslaved black women more freely than white women had access to enslaved black men; and served to capture in slavery the majority of the children born from interracial unions. It also was one of the ways that Anglo-America forced black life into its reverse image: black families, such as the one built by Betty Hemings, were seen as backwards and primitive because of their matriarchal organization, reinforcing the idea that people of African descent were unfit for freedom—and, later, citizenship. This law definitively cut these children of white men off from the all-important lines of inheritance—and instead, positioned them as part of the “increase” and wealth that a white father could pass on to the legitimate progeny of his marriage to a white woman.
Betty Hemings was one of many women who were well known to have both a white and a black parent, yet her far-from-barren womb produced so many children that, by the time of his death, a third of Jefferson’s slaves were her descendants.
Johnny was hardly alone at Monticello in being the child of a free, white father. Most of his siblings also had white fathers, and his mother was herself the daughter of an English captain and an African slave—making her what was termed a “mulatto.” This term—which was an official category on the Federal Census from 1850 to 1920—perfectly encapsulates the kind of wishful thinking that characterizes attempts to fix racial difference within biological fact. The word was derived from a Spanish and Portuguese word for “mule.” Aside from labeling such individuals as animals, the term reflected the bizarrely persistent myth that the children of interracial unions were, like the offspring of horses and donkeys, incapable of reproducing. Betty Hemings was one of many women who were well known to have both a white and a black parent, yet her far-from-barren womb produced so many children that, by the time of his death, a third of Jefferson’s slaves were her descendants.
Johnny and the Declaration of Independence
Less than two weeks after Johnny was born, his brother Bob, then 14 years old, was taken away from Monticello by his owner, to serve as his manservant as he attended a gathering of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While there, Thomas Jefferson penned, revised, shared, and finally immortalized the words that would make the British colony of Virginia part of a new, independent country.
But Johnny, born into slavery at Jefferson’s home plantation, was not included among those for whom Jefferson was creating a new country. Born the same year as the United States of America, he would spend the first fifty years of his life as Jefferson’s property. And even when his master’s death on July 4, 1826 made him a free man, John Hemmings left his life as a slave under terms that meant he could still never claim the equal rights of a “man,” an American, or a citizen of the United States; terms established when he took his first breaths, in April of 1776.
Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro studies and teaches about the politics of our engagements with the past. Her previous work has addressed topics including the racial politics of the musical Hamilton, Islamophobia at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Spain, and white heritage in the American commemorative landscape. She teaches courses in History, American Studies, and African American & African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.