Monday, January 15, 2018

James Hemings turns down Thomas Jefferson

In 1801, newly elected Thomas Jefferson wanted his former (freed in 1796) slave James Hemings (1765-1801) as his presidential chef, but Hemings wanted Jefferson to contact him personally and said he was busy with an engagement with Mr. Peck, a "Tavern Keeper" in Baltimore.  William Evans, the owner of the Indian Queen, a block away on the same street as Peck's Columbian hotel, was the go-between for Jefferson and Hemings. James had accompanied Jefferson to France where he took lessons on French cooking. 

The new President wanted French food served in his White House, and was able to hire a Frenchman, Honore Julien, who had worked for the wealthy Bingham in Philadelphia, then for President Washington.  

Following excerpts from letters (online at Library of Congress) discuss the attempts to have James Hemings be the White House chef, and the last letters about his tragic early death by suicide, probably as a result of his drinking.  The image shows his marvelous handwriting in a kitchen inventory.

TJ to William Evans   Feb 22, 1801:
You mentioned to me in conversation here that you sometimes saw my former servant James, & that he made his engagements such as to keep himself always free to come to me. could I get the favor of you to send for him & to tell him I shall be glad to recieve him as soon as he can come to me?

Evans to TJ  Feb 27, 1801:
… your former Servant James I Immediately communicated to him, he told that he was under an engagement with Mr Peck, a Tavern Keeper, of this place, which he said was out of his power to relinquish for a few days, I requested him to be particular In mentioning the time he could be in readiness to go you, he gave me for answer that he would make up his mind in the course of the evening and let me Know his determinations, but on finding that he did not call agreeable to promise I sent for him a second time, the answer he returned me, was, that he would not go untill you should write to himself…

TJ to Evans  Mar 31, 1801:
I supposed I saw in the difficulties raised by James an unwillingness to come here, arising wholly from some attachment he had formed at Baltimore; for I cannot suspect an indisposition towards me. I concluded at once therefore not to urge him against inclination, and wrote to Philadelphia, where I have been successful in getting a cook [Honore Julien] equal to my wishes. I am glad Francis remains there, as I cannot bear a servant who drinks, & on the whole am supplied to mind. I would wish James to understand that it was in acquiesance to what I supposed his own wish that I did not repeat my application, after having so long rested on the expectation of having him.

TJ to Evans  Nov 1, 1801:
a report has come here through some connection of one of my servants that James Hemings my former cook has committed an act of suicide. as this whether true or founded will give uneasiness to his friends, will you be so good as to ascertain the truth & communicate it to me.

Evans to TJ  Nov 5, 1801:
I received your favour of the 1st Instant, and am sorry to inform you that the report respecting James Hennings Having commited an act of Suicide is true. I made every enquiry at the time this melancholy circumstance took place, the result of which was, that he had been delirious for Some days previous to his having commited the act, and it was the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause.

TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph  Dec 4, 1801  [son-in-law]
in a letter [now missing] by that post to mr Dinsmore I gave him an account of the tragical end of James Hemmings.

Excerpts of the letters are from the National Archives Founders Archives and James Hemings' inventory list is at the Library of Congress American Memory
©2018 Patricia Bixler Reber
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