It is quite likely that I shall be on the receiving end of some strong opprobrium for this post, but, well, here it goes anyway.
So, Shaun King in the New York Daily News in an article being spread around the internet has accused Thomas Jefferson of being a "rapist" (in the article headline) and "monstrous" in the body of the article for his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, with her and them not ever being freed by the in-debt Jefferson. Much of the article is accurate, including that last point, as well as that he owned more than 600 slaves (sorry, having trouble linking to article itself). The main point is that because he legally owned her she had no ability to consent or not consent, so therefore any sex between them was rape, indeed, monstrous rape, with in fact it appearing that this all started when she was about 14, so adding in by current standards statutory rape, although that point was not made in the article.
I would contend that the correct point in the article is that slavery was itself a monstrous system, and that anybody trying to defend it because some slavemasters were not as cruel as some others is unjustified. It cannot be justified. It was monstrous. And, indeed, the nature of it profoundly morally polluted all interpersonal relations that occurred within it, including sexual ones.
Well, I would say that we do not know whether or not she consented or not. Those pointing out that she could not refuse are, of course, correct. But that does not mean that she did not consent. There is a parallel, although less so, with ongoing situations where male bosses impose themselves on female subordinates, where the surbordinate may really not be able to give up the job because of economic reasons, needing to support a family, no alternative jobs available. OK, this is not as bad as slavery, but it is also very similar. Yes, that is now illegal, but we call in sexual harassment, not monstrous rape, with rape still involving a clear unwillingness of the person supposedly being raped. In the case of Sally Hemings, we simply do not know,
Let me note a possible alternative view on what happened between them, although this may not be true, and Jefferson's failure to free her does not speak at all well of him. None of this is mentioned in Shaun King's article. So, when Jefferson (TJ) took Sally Hemings (SH) with him to Paris when she was 14 and he became ambassador, he was 44. This is noted in the article, hence, of course the further statutory rape aspect. But what King left out is that at the time TJ was a widower and alone. Furthermore, the really important detail, SH was the half sister of his dead wife, with both of them sharing the same father. Now today we consider all of this not only to be monstrous, but an abomination, really horrendous. But at the time, it was not at all uncommon, quite widespread in fact.
So it is not at all impossible that TJ himself fell in love with this slave who so reminded him of his dead wife, and she may well have been sympathetic and understanding and not at all in a mood to resist or reject him, in fact, the feeling may have been mutual, although we shall probably never know. Now at this point somebody might say, "well, why did he not do the right thing and free her and marry her?!" There is a very simple and obvious reason. It would have been against the law. Miscegnation was outlawed in Virginia in the 1690s and that law would remain on the books until a half century ago when the SCOTUS famously overturned it in Loving versus Virginia, the ruling that basically ended all anti-miscegenation laws throughout the US. Maybe he was just a monstrous rapist, but it is also quite possible that they were both oppressed by this law and system where they could not do what they really wanted.
So, he had to cover it up, although one can certainly ding him on his hypocrisy in certain writings that are not favorable to African-Americans. But then we know that for him, he was deeply hypocritical, the slaveowner who wrote all those stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that would later by used by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance their cause.