In early November 2019, a tweet by Ivanka Trump quoting Thomas Jefferson in defense of her father, United States President Donald Trump alongside a response in screenshot form on Facebook:
On October 31 2019, Ivanka Trump tweeted a partial quote:
Trump added, referencing her father, that “some things never change.”
In the response tweet by @zeddary, that user replied:
You’re quoting Jefferson’s denial that he’d raped and impregnated a girl he kept as property. Which he did, in fact, do.
Neither Trump nor the respondent referenced any source material, and many others replied with Jefferson quotes they felt were contrary to Trump’s demeanor as resident. Another popular tweet made the same claim, that Jefferson was “denying” fathering children with Sally Hemings:
References to the quote commonly claimed that it was from an 1800 letter from Jefferson to his daughter, and one of its scant appearances prior to Ivanka Trump’s tweet was in a December 2017 Newsweek opinion piece making the same claim and using the same truncated quote:
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson bemoaned being “surrounded by enemies and spies catching and perverting every word which falls from my lips or flows from my pen, and inventing where facts fail them.”
A search restricted to entries before September 2019 returned almost entirely misdated discourse about Ivanka Trump’s tweet, and almost nothing about the original quote in its context. However, one out-of-context version of the quote appeared on a National Archives page published in or before 2015.
The National Archive also contained a document, “From Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 5 February 1801.” The quotation Trump tweeted originated in that letter from Jefferson to his daughter, beginning with Jefferson consoling his daughter on her ill health, after which he spoke at length regarding two of her children, his grandchildren.
That letter rendered in a run-on fashion, with no paragraph breaks and little capitalization. In a broader context, the excerpt in the tweet is bolded below, with breaks added:
but I set much less store by talents than good dispositions: and shall be perfectly happy to see [grandson] Jefferson a good man, industrious farmer, & kind & beloved among all his neighbors: by cultivating these dispositions in him, and they may be immensely strengthened by culture, we may ensure his & our happiness: and genius itself can propose no other object.—nobody can ever have felt so severely as myself the prostration of family society from the circumstance you mention.
worn down here with pursuits in which I take no delight, surrounded by enemies & spies catching & perverting every word which falls from my lips or flows from my pen, and inventing where facts fail them, I pant for that society where all is peace and harmony, where we love & are beloved by every object we see. and to have that intercourse of soft affections hushed & suppressed by the eternal presence of strangers goes very hard indeed; & the harder as we see that the candle of life is burning out, so that the pleasures we lose are lost forever. but there is no remedy. the present manners & usages of our country are laws we cannot repeal.
they are altering by degrees; & you will live to see the hospitality of the country reduced to the visiting hours of the day, & the family left to tranquility in the evening. it is wise therefore under the necessity of our present situation to view the pleasing side of the medal: and to consider that these visits are evidences of the general esteem which we have been all our lives trying to merit. the character of those we recieve is very different from the loungers who infest the houses of the wealthy in general: nor can it be relieved in our case but by a revolting conduct which would undo the whole labor of our lives.
it is a valuable circumstance that it is only thro’ a particular portion of the year that these inconveniences arise.—the election by the [House of Representatives] being on Wednesday next [in February 1801], & the next our post day, I shall be able to tell you something certain of it by my next letter. I believe it will be as the people have wished; but this depends on the will of a few moderate men; and they may be controuled by their party. I long to see the time approach when I can be returning to you, tho’ it may be for a short time only. these are the only times that existence is of any value to me. continue then to love me my ever dear Martha, and to be assured that to yourself, your sister & those dear to you, every thing in my life is devoted. ambition has no hold on me but thro’ you. my personal affections would fix me for ever with you. present me affectionately to mr Randolph. kiss the dear little objects of our mutual love, and be assured of the constancy & tenderness of mine to you. Adieu.
In several popular response tweets, Jefferson was described as “denying” an action he “actually did,” namely fathering (as a widower) the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The claim is part of known, mainstream history, and Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings was a prominent aspect of his historical legacy.
On Monticello.org, an entry devoted to Jefferson and Hemings began by stating:
Years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’s children. Four survived to adulthood and are mentioned in Jefferson’s plantation records: Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings. Sally Hemings worked for two and a half years (1787-89) in Paris as a domestic servant and maid in Jefferson’s household. While in Paris, where she was free, she negotiated with Jefferson to return to enslavement at Monticello in exchange for “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her unborn children. Decades later, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’s children – Beverly and Harriet left Monticello in the early 1820s; Madison and Eston were freed in his will and left Monticello in 1826. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.
Jefferson was inaugurated in March 1801, with Aaron Burr as his vice president:
Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated as the third president of the United States, becoming the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C. Aaron Burr, who had tied Jefferson in electoral votes before losing the election in the House of Representatives, is inaugurated Vice President.
Monticello.org provided a short history of the allegations during his presidency, noting that rumors preceded a news account published nearly two years after Jefferson’s letter to his daughter in late January or early February 1801:
In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disaffected former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years “kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.” “Her name is Sally,” Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had “several children” by her.
Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman before 1802, Callender’s article spread the story widely. It was taken up by Jefferson’s Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson’s presidency.
In that context, it seemed unlikely that Jefferson was outwardly addressing the allegations in correspondence with his daughter. A subsequent portion does mention a hinted denial from Jefferson in a letter. But that letter was dated 1805, not 1801:
Jefferson’s policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts.
Until the advent of DNA testing and its application to the claims in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that aspect of Jefferson’s history was divisive among historians:
The Jefferson-Hemings story was sustained through the 19th century by Northern abolitionists, British critics of American democracy, and others. Its vitality among the American population at large was recorded by European travelers of the time. Through the 20th century, some historians accepted the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings connection and a few gave it credence, but most Jefferson scholars found the case for such a relationship unpersuasive.
It wasn’t until 2000 that a formal conclusion was reached based on DNA evidence:
Shortly after the DNA test results were released in November 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee consisting of nine members of the foundation staff, including four with Ph.D.s. In January 2000, the committee reported that the weight of all known evidence—from the DNA study, original documents, written and oral historical accounts, and statistical data—indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children listed in Monticello records—Harriet (born 1795; died in infancy); Beverly (born 1798); an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy); Harriet (born 1801); Madison (born 1805); and Eston (born 1808).
On October 31 2019, a CNN item said of the context of Jefferson’s 1801 letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph:
Jefferson, in the letter, appears to be citing the tension between himself and his political enemies. He was likely referring to his rivalry with the Federalists and its allied press, which the University of Virginia’s Miller Center describes as having “reached a level of personal animosity seldom equaled in American politics” in 1800.
We contacted historians at Monticello.org about the controversy, but have not received a response yet.
It is true that Ivanka Trump tweeted a partial quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and further true that the quotation is authentic. In some contexts, it is inaccurately dated to the year 1800; the commentary was from a late January or early February 1801 letter from Jefferson to Randolph written prior to his inauguration. As of around 2000 it is officially accepted that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children in the years following the death of his wife.
Another aspect of the claim is that Trump inadvertently quoted a commentary in which Jefferson was denying that he fathered children with Hemings, which is where the claim gets historically shaky. Jefferson did father Hemings’ children, an allegation which existed only as a rumor until it was published in 1802. Monticello.org notes that Jefferson appeared to abstractly deny those claims in a letter, but that particular letter was written in 1805, not 1801. Based on the information available, it did not appear (contrary to assertions in response tweets) that Ivanka Trump quoted Jefferson’s denial of his relationship with Hemings, but because we cannot say for certain, we rate this claim Unknown.