ALL THE PRESIDENTS' WOMEN
Exhibited at Volta, New York, 2009
and as part of the exhibition, ‘Manumission’
at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York 2010
Having painted some of the Presidents’ many mistresses in 2009, Annie Kevans continues to explore this theme, delving deeper into the complex relationships between the early Presidents and their slaves.
“For most Americans the national narrative begins at Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims ... it was during that period that the basic meanings of 'whiteness' and 'blackness' were in the process of being defined for the American population ... the association of whiteness with power and privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America ever since.” Annette Gordon-Reed
For centuries, various parties have passionately disputed the allegations that certain Presidents had children with their slaves, however, recent research and DNA test results seem to back up the oral history recorded by the children’s descendants. The needs of some to ‘protect’ the memories of figures such as Washington and Jefferson, and the ongoing debates between historians and interested parties, are evidence that events which took place hundreds of years ago still have the power to ignite our passions. As Henry Wiencek wrote: “To consider Washington in connection with slavery challenges the myth of Washington as the perfect secular god.”
In the time of slavery, the manumission, or freeing, of a slave was extremely rare and was seen as an admission that a ‘special relationship’ existed between master and slave. Although the paternity of certain slaves was common knowledge at the time, and they were treated differently from other slaves, these facts were rarely legally acknowledged for fear of claims being made by slaves on a white family’s wealth. Indeed, it was no secret that Martha Washington, the very first First Lady, kept her half-sister, Ann Dandridge Costin, in bondage throughout her life.
It is impossible for us to know how the Presidents felt about their second families. Contemporary films and books portray the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, as a great romance, neatly avoiding debates over whether a 'relationship' is possible between a master and a slave, especially when that slave is just 14 and the master in question is 44.
The laws against interracial marriage were created to prevent the manumission of slaves, although interracial sex was legal. As Annette Gordon-Reed, a leading historian on the subject, explains: “Even white males who owned no slaves could contribute to the problem by producing, with enslaved black women, children who would be born free, thus destroying a critical component of the master’s property right: the ability to capture the value of the 'increase' when female slaves gave birth.” For this reason, in 1662, while establishing the rules of slavery, the Virginians created a law which decreed that a person’s status was to be defined by their mother’s status. This meant that the many children born to female slaves and free fathers would remain as slaves unless their master decided to manumit them. As this rarely happened, most of these children were legally defined as filius nullius, 'the child of no one'.