William Wells Brown and the Jefferson and Hemings Scandal
William Wells Brown wrote Clotel or The President's Daughter, a (fiction) novel based on the rumors surrounding Thomas Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings, his slave. Brown learned of the scandal while working in several antislavery activities following his escape from slavery in 1834. Brown wanted not only to improve the social status of blacks and to support abolition through his writing, but also to encourage his readers to "develop a skeptical relationship to glorified stories of the national past" (Levine 15). He chose to write a novel that not only questioned slavery, but also questioned the validity of the principles that this nation was founded on.
Rumors about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were circulating on a small scale after Hemings gave birth to several children who were noticeably light-skinned. Visitors as early as 1796 to Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, often noted, "Mr. Jefferson's [slaves] had neither in their color nor features a single trace of their origin" (Rothman 87). It was clear to many that the slave children at Monticello were the result of interracial sexual relationships. Not until James Callender made a public accusation in 1802, however, did the scandal make its way into the press.
James Callender was a supporter of Jeffersonian Republican politics, and he began writing political columns for the Philadelphia Gazette in the 1790s. His views were more extreme than those of the political party that he supported, however, and his writing was untactful. He attacked politicians who belonged to other parties, and exposed scandals where scandals could be found (or created?). He was eventually fired from the Gazette, but only after making a name for himself among the Jeffersonian Republican party. The party was struggling at the time and appreciated Callender's efforts to "diminish the public stature" (Rothman 90) of their opponents. Jefferson paid
Callender to continue writing political pamphlets to help the party. But eventually Callender became irritated with the Republicans, feeling that they used him just to suit their purposes.
When Jefferson won the election of 1800, Callender felt he had played an important role in getting Jefferson elected. He wanted to be compensated with some much needed money and a job. When he didn't hear from Jefferson quickly enough, however, he became impatient and made threats to reveal some of Jefferson's secrets. In September of 1802 Callender fulfilled his threats by outing President Jefferson and his mistress in an article printed in the Richmond Recorder. This was the first article in the press to discuss the scandal, and it primed the way for many other articles, verses, and eventually the novel, Clotel.
It's clear from his writings that Callender hated African Americans and found the notion of interracial sex to be both disturbing and disgusting. He accused Sally of...