In the three years that Jefferson spent in retirement at Monticello in the middle 1790s, he never ranged more than seven miles from his front door. This is a remarkable record for a man as well traveled as Jefferson, but there was much to detain him on the homefront. After over a decade away from his own domain, Jefferson now poured his energy into the agrarian ideals that he so vociferously expressed as virtues throughout his writings.
Less is known about Jefferson during this period than during any other period in his life. His correspondence dropped precipitously, and though he received visitors, he was frequently alone in the absence of his daughters, co-existing with the sole company of his many slaves for weeks on end. While isolated thus, his thoughts must have turned frequently to Maria Cosway, who had since given birth, only to abandon her husband and son in the company of an Italian castrato, with whom she absconded to Italy.
While generations of academics have insisted that Cosway was the last great love of Jeffersons life, a long line of dissenters has argued to the contrary. Over the span of her twenties and early thirties, Sally Hemings gave birth to seven children. From his tenure in France until his dying day, she was closely associated with his domestic affairs. In each of her pregnancies, Jefferson was present nine months prior to the date of labor. Coupled with the distinctly pallid appearance of Hemingss children, appearing to one visiting Frenchman to be as white as he was, many have speculated that the paternity should be attributed to Jefferson or one of his close relatives.
Jeffersons rumored association with Hemings followed him doggedly throughout his later life, and has remained attached to his name down through the succeeding generations. Persistent stories mushroomed into a full-blown scandal during Jeffersons first term as President, and public suspicions of the affair remained despite his oblique evasions and his familys outright denials. The matter had faded into semi-obscurity by the late nineteenth century when it was revived by the recollections of Madison Hemings, an emancipated slave who claimed to be the son of Jefferson by Sally Hemings. His testimony was written off by most, and remained unconsidered for nearly a decade.
Only in the last twenty-five years has the matter been re-opened to serious public consideration. A spate of studies speculating as to Jeffersons true relationship with Hemings raised the once-dismissed rumor to the level of a potentially verifiable legend. Then, in the autumn of 1998, the paternity of Eston Hemings, Sallys youngest son, was proved beyond reasonable doubt by a series of genetic tests. A member of the Jefferson line was the father of one, and likely most, of Hemingss children. Though the possibility remains that a relative of Jeffersons could be the man in question, the overwhelming majority of circumstantial evidence and testimony points directly to Jefferson himself.
The Hemings family, headed by Betty Hemings, mistress to Jeffersons father- in-law John Wayles, had always been afforded preferential treatment at Monticello. They enjoyed especially comfortable lodgings on Mulberry Row, where Jeffersons most privileged slaves lived, and many of the younger generation were later emancipated or allowed to roam free. Sally Hemings herself had the charge of Jeffersons chamber and wardrobe, and was never involved in serious labor of any kind. In addition, Jeffersons own quarters were outfitted with a series of trap doors and secret passageways that may well have been necessitated by such an illicit arrangement.