Thomas Jefferson Papers

Agreement with James Hemings, 15 September 1793

Agreement with James Hemings

Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.

Th: Jefferson


Adrien Petit

PrC (MHi); in TJ’s hand except for Petit’s signature; endorsed by TJ in ink: “James.”

James Hemings (1765–1801), the sixth of twelve children of the slave Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings who can be documented from TJ’s papers, and the second of six she is alleged to have had by TJ’s father-in-law, John Wayles, was one of two bondsmen TJ formally freed during his lifetime, the other being his brother Robert Hemings, who in 1794 arranged to purchase his freedom. TJ freed five other slaves in his will—one outright and the others after various terms of service—all men with trades who belonged to the Hemings family, a clan he had inherited through marriage from the Wayles estate. James Hemings was the only slave who in 1784 accompanied TJ to France, where he learned the art of cookery well enough to serve as TJ’s chef starting in late 1787, and continued in that capacity at New York, Philadelphia, and Monticello. Hemings must have taught his replacement, possibly his brother Peter Hemings, to be a good cook by February 1796, when TJ signed an indenture to make him free and paid his expenses to Philadelphia. Although negotiations in 1801 to persuade Hemings to become his chef at the President’s House broke down, TJ employed him at Monticello for a month and a half in the summer of that year, but Hemings left his service and later committed suicide in Baltimore, reportedly as a result of “drinking too freely” (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Report of the Curator, [1977], p. 10–20; James A. Bear, Jr., “The Hemings Family of Monticello,” Virginia Cavalcade, xxix [1979], 78–87; Elizabeth Langhorne, Monticello: A Family Story [Chapel Hill, 1987], 25, 26, 27, 33, 34–5, 46, 75, 76, 104–8; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, forthcoming in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 28 Sep. 1778, 26 Feb. 1796, 19 Sep. 1801; Deed of Manumission to Hemings, 5 Feb. 1796; TJ to William Evans, 22 Feb., 31 Mch. 1801; Evans to TJ, 27 Feb., 5 Nov. 1801). For three other members of the Hemings clan whom TJ either “allowed” to run away or made no forceful efforts to recapture, see Lucia Stanton, “‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” in Peter S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies [Charlottesville, 1993], 152–3, 174n). The argument that the present agreement was not a benevolent act on TJ’s part is developed in Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: ‘Treason Against the Hopes of the World,’” in same, 204–5.

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