The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia tells us that James Hemings (1765-1801) was a chef de cuisine, trained in Paris, yet he was born into slavery and lived much of his life enslaved. At thirty years of age, he negotiated for legal manumission and began his life as a free man. He traveled and pursued his career as a chef, but unfortunately his career and life in freedom were short due to his tragic and untimely death at age thirty-six.
James Hemings arrived at Monticello as a nine year old boy, along with other of his siblings and their mother Elizabeth Hemings. They were a part of the Wayles estate, and among the many enslaved people who came into Thomas Jefferson's possession through his wife's inheritance. Six of Elizabeth Hemings's children were fathered by John Wayles, making James a younger half-brother to Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. This family would prove to be extremely capable, intelligent, and resourceful.
As teenagers, James and his brother Robert Hemings were taken to Williamsburg and then Richmond as personal attendants to Thomas Jefferson following his election as wartime governor of Virginia in 17791 They were obviously trusted for when British troops under Benedict Arnold threatened to attack Richmond in 1781, the Hemings brothers were charged with taking Jefferson's wife and children to safety.
Serving in attendance on Jefferson made James Hemings more visible and insured that he was allotted better clothing than slaves working the fields. When Jefferson was away and his services not needed, Hemings was permitted to hire himself out and keep his wages, yet better clothing and pocket-money did not alter his position as a slave. His future was still determined by the person who legally owned him; the direction of his life was not his to decide. Correspondence indicates that it was Jefferson's idea that Hemings travel with him to France for the primary purpose of his training in "the art of cookery."
In May 1784 James Hemings received a summons to join Jefferson in Philadelphia. From there they would be traveling to Paris, as Jefferson had been appointed an American minister to the French court, and he had a "particular purpose" for sending for Hemings.5 These instructions were sent via William Short, who would follow Jefferson to Paris to serve as his secretary, but meanwhile Short was in a flurry of activity, as he began his own travel arrangements and tried to locate Hemings.
At that moment, James Hemings was in Richmond working as a riding valet for Henry Martin, an acquaintance of Jefferson's. Writing to Jefferson, Martin provided a brief view of Hemings's work ethic stating that "James has attended me some time ... and conducted himself much to my satisfaction as he has been very careful and assiduous."6 Perhaps this is why Jefferson decided it would be James Hemings that he would take to Paris. His instructions were to travel with Short if possible, but if not, to come to Philadelphia without delay. But Hemings had his own agenda and displayed a strength of will in insisting that he go to Monticello first before embarking for Philadelphia and the adventure ahead.7 Despite this detour, he managed to join Jefferson and eldest daughter Martha in time to sail with them from Boston harbor in the early hours of July 5, 1784.8
While in Paris, James Hemings was trained in the art of French cooking. He studied first with the caterer and restaurateur, Monsieur Combeaux, apprenticed with pastry chefs and then with a cook in the household of the Prince de Condé. After three years of study he became the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson's residence that functioned also as the American embassy. Here his dishes were served to international guests, statesmen, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats. His wages of twenty-four livres a month was a regular income and more than the occasional gratuity, but was half of what Jefferson paid his previous chef cuisinier.
James Hemings applied some of his earnings toward engaging a tutor to teach him the French language. With his immersion in French kitchens, working among a French-speaking staff, then with the more formal training of a tutor, it is likely that he developed a good command of the language. The importance of language skills would have been evident to him upon his initial arrival in France. From the port of Le Havre, Jefferson had sent Hemings ahead to Rouen to arrange their lodging, where he proved resourceful, as he was able to return half of the 72 francs Jefferson had given him for expenses.
Ease with the language would bode well for his work in the kitchen and his experience of the French culture around him. It was a time of political unrest in France that contained talk of rights and liberty. His familiarity of the language likely made him aware of the French law that allowed a slave, even one brought in from another country, to petition the courts for freedom. His wages as chef de cuisine made retaining a lawyer a possibility, but nevertheless Hemings did not pursue that option and left Paris with Jefferson in October 1789 to return to the United States an enslaved man. His negotiations for freedom would come later.
Hemings organized his first American kitchen in a small house at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City following their arrival there in March 1790. Secretary of State Jefferson was disappointed by the shortage of housing that forced him to lease what he consider a small, "indifferent" house. The stay in New York was brief. The seat of government moved to Philadelphia in December 1790. In Philadelphia Hemings would be called upon to prepare dinners for European diplomats, the president, Jefferson's fellow cabinet members, congressmen, and many national and international visitors. His wage of seven dollars monthly was the same as that paid Jefferson's free staff, Gustavus, Francis Sayes, and Joseph. Only Petit, Jefferson's French butler and manager of the household fared better. Hemings was often allotted "market money," indicating that he was out making purchases for the kitchen and circulating among other free and enslaved working people and tradesman. Surely he would have learned that in Philadelphia he could lawfully become a free man.
Pennsylvania law stated that, "If a slave is brought into the State and continues therein for the space of six months, he may claim his freedom ...." There were instances when Hemings was in Philadelphia over six months, such as the period from October 22, 1791, to July 13, 1792, when his name appears regularly in Jefferson's accounting records as doing much of the marketing.
According to Pennsylvania law, he could have become a free man at this point but obviously chose to wait. Was this a bargaining tool for Hemings? Was he adhering to an agreement made with Jefferson in Paris? There is no evidence uncovered thus far that gives more detail than the manumission agreement drawn up by Jefferson as he prepared to leave the office of Secretary of State at the end of 1793 and retire to Monticello. The agreement reads:
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.
There was an obvious trust on the part of Hemings. He was to teach the person of Jefferson's choice to be "a good cook." Jefferson's choice was James's brother Peter Hemings, but the manumission agreement held the caveat that he must first train his replacement to Jefferson's satisfaction. The agreement could have gone on interminably, but on February 5, 1796, approximately two years following their return to Monticello, Jefferson drew up the document that discharged Hemings "of all duties and claims of servitude."
Following his manumission James Hemings traveled. His destinations are not recorded though a remark by Jefferson to his daughter Maria implies that he may have traveled internationally, perhaps journeying back to France. If so, he would have found a very different Paris with the continuing revolution and many old acquaintances dead. By May 1797 Jefferson noted that Hemings had returned to Philadelphia and was contemplating a trip to Spain, though Jefferson tried to persuade him to give up traveling and save his money. Whether he took Jefferson's advice is not known, but by 1801 and Jefferson's election to the presidency, Hemings was working in Baltimore.
Jefferson held the impression that Hemings would be willing to come and work for him again as a free man. Once he began setting up his presidential household in Washington, he sent an inquiry to Baltimore, requesting that Hemings join him. Jefferson heard back through an intermediary that Hemings was working at a tavern in Baltimore and did not feel he could leave immediately. Hemings suggested that Jefferson should write to him directly. Jefferson received similar information from a former employee, Francis Sayes, who had worked with Hemings when they were in New York and in Philadelphia. Sayes reported, "I have spoke to James according to your Desire he has made mention again as he did before that he was willing to serve you before any other man in the Union but sence he understands that he would have to be among strange servants he would be very much obliged to you if you would send him a few lines of engagement and on what conditions and what wages you would please to give him with your own hand wreiting." Jefferson did not write and reasoned that he did not want to "urge him against inclination." He found a replacement for Hemings, a native French chef recommended by the French legation in Philadelphia. Miscommunications must have been resolved, however, as Hemings returned to Monticello in August and September of that year while Jefferson was in residence and received $30 for a month and a half wages for his work in the Monticello kitchen.
Just two months later Jefferson, then in Washington, heard a disturbing rumor. He wrote an acquaintance in Baltimore to learn the truth—had James Hemings committed suicide? Within days he received confirmation that Hemings had taken his life. Only one explanation was given, "the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause."
This leaves many questions about James Hemings unanswered. Nevertheless, he left an important legacy in culinary history. He - along with the highly trained enslaved individuals who succeeded him in Washington and at Monticello - serves as inspiration to modern-day chefs and culinary historians alike.
Research & images & much more are directly from the Monticello website - to begin exploring, just click the highlighted acknowledgment above.