Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright Š 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

This image was lost some time after publication.

The home that Sally Hemings moved to was just inside the city limits of Paris. The HĂ´tel de Langeac was right next to the Grille de Chaillot, one of the many gated entry points into what was still at the time a walled city. The house, abutting the Champs-ElysĂŠes and along the rue Neuve de Berri, was more expensive than Jefferson could afford. He thought, however, that his position demanded a suitable residence for all the entertaining that he expected to do.

This residence was truly worthy of a French aristocrat. The expansive grounds entered by a way of an impressive courtyard, contained "green houses," an extensive kitchen garden, and another "graceful" one that Jefferson pronounced "clever."  Just off the entryway into the courtyard were the porter's lodge and servants' quarters.

Living at such a place gave both Sally and her brother James Hemingses ample opportunity to compare their surroundings in Paris with those they had seen in Virginia, and they could only have found Virginian residences wanting. The amenity of having indoor bathrooms was remarkable for both them and the Jeffersons.. The very complexity of the house, with its multiple stairways (one large formal one and two smaller private ones) and its numerous passageways leading into different areas of the mansion, no doubt piqued their interest as well.


It is not known whether James and Sally Hemings lived in the adjacent servants' quarters or whether the mezzanine floor, the entresol in architectural terms, contained rooms for servants as well. Those half-story sections within great houses, with their lower ceilings, were often designated for the use of servants or as bedrooms for people other than the master or mistress of the house. Sally Hemings's closeness to Patsy and Polly Jefferson may not have made much of a difference for most of the time they were in Paris. Until their father took them out of school, they came home only on the weekend.

By the time Sally Hemings arrived, her brother was well used to the splendors of the HĂ´tel de Langeac. What was new about his time there was his elevation at the end of 1787 to chef de cuisine, which drastically changed the level of his responsibilities and probably of his stress. No longer an apprentice, he was in charge of the kitchen and his assistants. His position made him responsible for every success and failure regarding a critical component in that diplomatic household. Jefferson entertained on a large scale, as he did throughout his life. Hemings's talents were on constant display at meals that could be for a few people or for up to thirty, as at one dinner celebrating the Fourth of July. The hectic pace and pressure for perfection drove many chefs to drink, and as the years went by, Hemings himself would fall prey to that professional hazard. He had to please not only Jefferson's exacting palate but that of the people whom Jefferson wanted to impress.

While James Hemings was busy plying his trade, his younger sister had little to do but absorb the routine of the household. This meant getting used to the other servants, who spoke another language and had their own cultural manners. Having no apparent role in the operations of the residence for long stretches of time, she was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly at the place. From her perspective that may not have been at all a bad thing, rather a source of immense joy as her nonessential status left her free to experience her new surroundings in more of her own way.


While the HĂ´tel de Langeac was certainly the center of James and Sally Hemings's universes in Paris, neither sibling's life was bound solely by the interior of the place. They were not galley slaves chained to a bench within the hold of a ship. Nor will it do to think of them as being in the same circumstances as slaves, in the field or house, embedded in the isolated and deeply rural environment of their home at Monticello. Indeed, during their time in Paris, they were able to move through an expansive world as if they were free persons of color. Brother and sister were now city dwellers, in the largest city in Europe, home to over 700,000 people.Though they did not live in the heart of the city, they were part of it and were touched by attributes of the metropolis that radiated out from its center. A much reproduced engraving depicting the HĂ´tel de Langeac, and the scene just outside of it, a mere eight years before the Hemingses lived there, tells part of the story of what their new status as urbanites meant.

The engraving displays a spectacular view of the Champs-ElysĂŠes stretching out toward the heart of Paris. In the rue de Berri, which led into the residence, there are no fewer than twenty people and two carriages. Across the street is a government building housing officials in the customs service, and on either side of the Champs-ElysĂŠes are households with no connection to the residents of the HĂ´tel de Langeac, save their mutual presence in the neighborhood. This mix of intimacy and impersonality is a mark of urban life, where people can live and work in close proximity to one another and be as friendly or as distant as they choose, producing a very different set of expectations about social life than exists in the country. In our times, technology brings the values and mores of urban life into the villages and homes of people living in the most remote parts of the globe, giving them some inkling of what life is like in the big city. As eighteenth-century provincials abroad, James and Sally Hemings had no similar template. There was much they had to learn and get used to.

James Hemings's five-year sojourn in Paris and his sister's of a little more than two years gave them ample time to get to know what one historian of Paris in the eighteenth century calls the "regular rhythms and meanings that structured the lives of most of the city's inhabitants."  Monticello moved solely to rhythms set by the needs of Jefferson and his family. He did not control Paris. Cities have a way of cutting people down to size, as was, no doubt, obvious to the young African Americans in his household. Jefferson could only appear a much smaller person in this much larger place.


The Hemingses did not live apart from the culture that surrounded them. They were in a city that lived on rituals that they learned about from their own observation and from the servants with whom they worked. Secular and religious festivals abounded within the Catholic country, celebrating the lives of numerous saints and observing various holy days, which noticeably took the Hemings's fellow servants out of the workplace on some days or formed the basis of their conversation on the days leading up to or following the events. Some of those holidays had their own special features that involved both private and public gestures—one bought a turkey for Mardi Gras or one participated in parades on other special days. Although neither Hemings ever went to school, taking in the rules and rituals of this vibrant city and complicated culture was an education for both of them. These two young people saw more of the world and experienced more of what was in it than did the vast majority of their countrymen, white or black, who during that time lived and died without venturing far beyond the confines of the isolated farms where they were born.

James Hemings attempted a more formal approach to his education in French culture, for he was very serious about improving his French. Just before his sister Sally came to Paris, he hired a local man, Perrault, to teach him French grammar. Sally may have been included when she arrived.  Perrault, who emerges as a somewhat sad character from his description of his relations with Hemings, wrote to Jefferson at the beginning of 1789, complaining that Hemings owed him money for some of the twenty-one months' worth of tutoring he had provided. Perrault sought redress from Jefferson after having approached Hemings about the unpaid fees with outstandingly bad results. The letter makes clear that Hemings had quite a temper and was not a man to be trifled with. The report of the event comes from Perrault alone, so no one knows what he said to Hemings or how he said it, but in his version Hemings insulted him and overwhelmed him physically, kicking him and hitting him with his fists. Perrault apparently did not fight back, and he suggested that he had been seriously hurt during the assault. We do not know how Jefferson reacted to this. There is no record that he ever paid Perrault; it was not his debt. But if he had any suspicions before, he certainly knew for a fact after Perrault's letter that he had in James Hemings a very volatile and forceful personality.

While Sally Hemings did not have much of a formal occupation during her first year in Paris, there were many things for her to see and learn; and she did not have to go far to do that, with all that was going on in her immediate neighborhood. This was important because, as a female, she probably did not have as much freedom to wander around Paris as her brother. But James was there to squire her about, and he was likely eager to do that because she was family and because he had been the lone African American in the household for so long. Even with a more restricted range of motion, the Champs-ElysÊes was right outside her home. She could venture a short way down from the Hôtel de Langeac and see a statue of King Louis XV or continue on that route to view the Château des Tuileries. A trip down the rue de Berri would bring her to the very fashionable, then as now, rue du Fauborg-Saint-HonorÊ and the relatively new site of church built in the style "of a Roman basilica."


None of this required great effort on the young girl's part, and there was ample opportunity for "people watching" on a scene that changed each day. Carriage rides with Jefferson and his daughters, or even on her journey to and from the Suttons' inoculation house outside Paris, brought a new world to her. Most important of all, none of these rich and enlightening visual experiences required having any money or special social status; enslaved and free, black and white, could look upon the products of French civilization and be impressed, disquieted, stunned, or simply moved. And while her brother had been in the city long enough to take his experience somewhat for granted, Sally Hemings probably had not. She was there just long enough to get comfortable and to remain excited about all that she was seeing and learning.

One of the things Hemings learned fairly early on was how it felt to receive pay for one's work. In January of 1788 she received her first recorded wages—twenty-four livres, plus an additional twelve as a New Year's tip.  Hemings did not receive pay again until November; and when she did, the wage was half that of her brother, Jefferson having concluded that this was the appropriate rate.  Despite the cut, Hemings's salary for the rest of her time in Paris was actually well above that of the average female live-in servant in France.

There are no indications what her job was. As is so often true with Jefferson, in the absence of a direct statement of why he did something, information from other sources clarify an opaque situation. The pay scale of French servants in this period, where Hemings's salary fit on that scale, and her later role at Monticello provide a good answer to the question of what her job was in Paris. Jefferson paid all of his servants the going rate, actually a little above it, for their designated jobs. He evidently consulted people about what a maître d' hôtel or a valet de chambre, for example, should receive in the way of wages. When he began to pay Sally Hemings, he paid her at the rate of the highest-level female serviteur within a French household, which would be a cook or a femme de chambre. Her brother was the chef, so there was no other role for her, beside femme de chambre,  that merited so high a rate of pay—but, whose chamber? Hemings did not get paid twelve livres per month simply to be the femme de chambre to Patsy and Polly when they came home on Sundays. The evidence indicates that it was at the Hôtel de Langeac that Hemings began to act in what would be her roles as an adult at Monticello: chambermaid to Jefferson, a seamstress doing "light sewing"for the household, and helping out Patsy and Polly as they needed. Just as Jefferson intended it to be for her brother, the Hôtel de Langeac was a training ground for Sally Hemings's life at Monticello.


The feeling of being paid for her work, in a place where she considered herself to be a free person, could only have been empowering to Sally Hemings. For the first time in her life, she had something that belonged to her that she had worked for. Work, and payment for it, tends to foster a sense of independence and encourages thoughts about the future. Writing of Harriet Jacobs, Virginia Cope has noted that Jacobs's "initial act of freedom consist[ed] of walking into a Philadelphia shop and making a purchase," a moment of supreme importance to one who had lived as an item of property and could now confound her status by purchasing her own. The moment riveted Jacobs. Even though she had not worked for the money,, Jacobs's participation in the market transformed her sense of self.

Hemings, working for a set salary, was in an even greater position than Jacobs to feel the effects of having money and the ability to transact business. There were now new things to consider about the way she lived. She could decide to save or to spend—thinking of what to spend her money on or what she might be saving for—all this in a society that offered a dizzying array of choices about how, when, and whether to become a consumer. Any money she did not save she could spend on clothing or use to go with her brother to museums, or to the many low-cost theaters that were cropping up to serve lower-class patrons—there was no Jim Crow in eighteenth-century Paris. She could give charity to those who had no money, or buy gifts for people back home. Paris, unlike Virginia, provided a world outside her own thoughts that was right at hand to strengthen her powers of imagination. The people who saw her would have had no reason to doubt that she was anything other than a free person of color, confirming the very different and expanded options open to her in this new place. With no suffocating community ethos upholding her enslavement, Sally Hemings, like Jefferson, was able to breathe the air of liberal eighteenth-century Paris with "perfect satisfaction."

Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright Š 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.