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President Thomas Jefferson was widely recognized as a Francophile, embracing all things French including art, culture, and custom. In particular, Jefferson loved French cuisine. However, his expensive tastes for French finery regularly outpaced his income, causing Jefferson to rely on his abundant supply of enslaved labor to prepare his favorite French delicacies. Throughout his life he employed French chefs to train several enslaved members of the Monticello community in the delicate art of French cookery. These enslaved chefs received the best training France had to offer, but were tasked with the hard and constant labor of cooking elaborate meals for Jefferson in France, New York, Philadelphia, at Monticello, and the White House at limited or non-existent wages.

The first enslaved person Jefferson sought to train as a French chef was James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings. In May 1784, as Jefferson made arrangements to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in France as American minister to the French court, he summoned Hemings to accompany him on the journey. He sent instructions to his soon-to-be secretary William Short: “I propose for a particular purpose to carry my servant Jame with me.”1 Hemings soon joined Short, Jefferson, and his eldest daughter Martha for their voyage, departing from Boston on July 5, 1784.2

Once in France, Jefferson’s “particular purpose” became clear and Hemings began training in the art of French cookery.3 First, he studied with caterer and restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux until February 1786.4 After covering the basics with Combeaux, Hemings learned the delicate art of French pastry and apprenticed with several pastry chefs including a chef in the household of the Prince de Condé.5 Upon completion of these apprenticeships, Hemings became the head chef at Jefferson’s place of residence, the Hôtel de Langeac. In this position Hemings earned 24 livres a month, half of what Jefferson paid his previous chef cuisinier.6

Hemings experienced France during a period of political unrest which would ultimately culminate with the start of the French Revolution in 1789. During this time, Hemings was certainly exposed to discussions of rights and freedoms. In fact, under French law, Hemings could petition the courts to obtain his freedom despite the fact that he was brought from a different country. Ultimately, Hemings chose not to pursue his freedom through this channel and instead returned to the United States as an enslaved man in October 1789 with Jefferson and his sister Sally.7

An inventory of kitchen utensils at Monticello conducted February 20, 1796 by James Hemings.

Library of Congress

Hemings continued in his position as chef when Jefferson moved to New York and Philadelphia to serve as the Secretary of State under President George Washington. During this time he earned a monthly wage of seven dollars, the same amount Jefferson paid his free domestic staff members. When Jefferson’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end in December 1793, James bargained for his freedom. The resulting manumission agreement stated that if Hemings returned to Monticello he could train another enslaved person in French cookery to serve as a replacement chef. Once the replacement chef was properly trained Jefferson agreed that Hemings “shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free.”8

When he returned to Monticello, Hemings trained his brother Peter Hemings to take his place and on February 5, 1796, James obtained his freedom. In the deed of manumission, Jefferson stated, “I Thomas Jefferson of Monticello aforesaid do emancipate, manumit and make free James Hemings, son of Betty Hemings, which said James is now of the age of thirty years so that in the future he shall be free and of free condition, and discharged of all duties and claims of servitude whatsoever, and shall have all the rights and privileges of a freedman.”9

From this point onward Peter Hemings took over for his brother as chef at Monticello. However, when Jefferson was elected to the presidency he made different arrangements for the White House. Initially, Jefferson hoped that James Hemings would come to the Executive Mansion as a free man and work as the head chef. At this point, Hemings was working as a chef in Baltimore. Jefferson made contact with Hemings indirectly, offering him the job of chef de cuisine through an intermediary. On February 23, 1801, Jefferson received a letter from former employee Francis Say stating that James Hemings would be willing to serve as chef but that 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 handwriting.”10 Jefferson declined to contact Hemings directly and as a result, James did not bring his skills in French cooking to the White House. According to historian Annette Gordon-Reed, Jefferson likely knew that Hemings request for direct correspondence was about more than a piece of paper. It was about being treated as a free man by his former owner. Jefferson refused to acknowledge his freedom in this capacity and as a result, Hemings refused to acquiesce to Jefferson’s request.11 On recommendation from French consul Phillippe de Letombe, Jefferson instead hired French chef Honoré Julien to serve as the White House chef de cuisine.12

I Thomas Jefferson of Monticello aforesaid do emancipate, manumit and make free James Hemings, son of Betty Hemings, which said James is now of the age of thirty years so that in the future he shall be free and of free condition, and discharged of all duties and claims of servitude whatsoever, and shall have all the rights and privileges of a freedman.

— Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America

Although there is no further evidence of correspondence between Jefferson and Hemings, they did resolve their relationship to some extent because James Hemings cooked for Jefferson at Monticello in August of 1801 when the president returned home for his summer retreat. Surrounded by his family, Hemings was paid twenty dollars a month for this work. When he left Monticello that fall, it was the last time his family or Jefferson would see him alive. A few months later, President Jefferson received word that James Hemings tragically committed suicide.13

After James successfully bargained for his freedom, Jefferson made a concerted effort to keep the enslaved population of Monticello separate from the White House for fear they too would hear more talk of freedom and equality.14 For the most part Jefferson preferred to employ white staff members at the Executive Mansion, expressing in 1804, “I prefer white servants, who, when they misbehave, can be exchanged.”15 During his time at the White House, Jefferson only brought enslaved teenage girls from Monticello to train as cooks under the direction of Chef Honoré Julien, similar to the way James Hemings trained under chefs in France. This choice was strategic. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed suggests that Jefferson’s very traditional views on the roles of men and women caused him to believe teenage girls were less likely to cause problems within the White House than teenage boys. In addition, Jefferson chose young girls who already had strong ties to families and men back at Monticello, thus creating an additional incentive for them to refrain from pursuing avenues to freedom as James Hemings had done.16 All of this was done to prepare Jefferson for his post-presidency retirement at Monticello. Jefferson liked the idea of training his enslaved workers to cook fine French meals in order to afford him the luxury of French dining at home on his Monticello plantation without the expensive labor costs. 17

In 1801, Jefferson brought fourteen-year-old Ursula Granger Hughes to the President’s House to train as Monticello’s new cook. Hughes had substantial family connections within Monticello’s enslaved community. Her husband Wormley Hughes was the nephew of Sally Hemings, and Ursula herself was the granddaughter of George and Ursula Granger, known as the “King” and “Queen” of Monticello. As the granddaughter of Ursula Granger, the head cook at Monticello before the Hemings brothers took over, Jefferson brought her to the White House to train like her grandmother before her.18 Hughes did not stay at the White House very long. She was first listed in Jefferson’s account books in November 1801. By the time of her arrival, she was already several months pregnant.19 The expense of her “lying in” was recorded in Jefferson’s account books on March 22, 1801, meaning that she gave birth to her first child sometime before that date.20 While it is often reported that Martha Jefferson Randolph’s son James was the first child born in the White House, in actuality Hughes’ child was the first baby born in the residence.21

This document represents Jefferson’s account with Doctor Edward Gantt for services provided “To Ursula” on March 22, 1802 and “To her child from April 2nd to May 13th.”

Library of Congress

The challenges of giving birth and then raising a newborn were difficult for Hughes, and her apprenticeship with Honoré Julien proved unsuccessful. In June 1802, Jefferson wrote to his daughter about sending “Ursula & her child” home to Monticello.22 A few weeks later, Jefferson’s account book entry for July 13, 1802 contains a note to pay “the man who is to carry P. Carr’s carriage & Ursula.”23 When Hughes returned to Monticello, she assisted in the kitchen and in the fields and went on to have nine more children with her husband, Wormley.24

After Hughes returned to Monticello, Jefferson replaced her with another teenage girl. Fifteen-year-old Edith Fossett, also known as Edy, arrived in the fall of 1802 to train under Julien.25 Like Hughes, Fossett had strong ties to Monticello’s enslaved community. She was the daughter of David Hern, an enslaved carpenter, and Isabel Hern, a house slave and farm laborer. At the time she left for the White House, Fossett was married to Joseph Fossett, an enslaved blacksmith at Monticello.26 Several years later in the fall of 1806, another teenage girl with strong ties to Monticello, eighteen-year-old Frances Hern, known as Fanny, joined her sister-in-law Edith Fossett at the White House. Hern was the daughter of Edward and Jane Gillette, enslaved farm laborers. Her husband, David Hern, was an enslaved nail maker, blacksmith, and wagon driver.27

Both girls remained at the White House until Jefferson left office in 1809. They worked alongside the rest of Jefferson’s staff which, in addition to Chef Honoré Julien, included mâitre d'hôtel Étienne Lemaire, an enslaved footman named John Freedman, and several other servants. Unlike the free staff, who were paid wages for their services, Fossett and Hern were allotted a customary gratuity of $2.00 a month as “drink” money. This was their only form of payment for their services. However, this small amount likely allowed the girls to participate in Washington life to a certain extent.28

As apprentice chefs to Honoré Julien, they worked in the White House kitchen, preparing meals for between ten and fourteen people. Fossett and Hern became skilled in the French style of cooking, managing a temperamental open hearth that varied wildly in temperature as they constantly moved around dishes to expose them to the proper amount of heat.29 Jefferson’s numerous dinner guests praised the delicious courses cooked at the White House. Washington resident Margaret Bayard Smith recalled, “The excellence and superior skill of his [Jefferson’s] French cook was acknowledged by all who frequented his table, for never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House…”30

When they were not cooking for Jefferson, Fossett and Hern dealt with other concerns regarding their personal lives. According to historian Lucia Stanton, it is likely that they made friends within the enslaved and free black communities in Washington D.C.31 Many years later after Edy Fossett’s brother, Thurston, escaped Monticello, Jefferson wrote, “he is supposed to have gone to Washington and to be there lurking under the connivance of some of his sister’s old friends.”32 Jefferson’s words suggest that even he took note of the relationships formed between Fossett and the free black population in Washington D.C. during her time at the White House.

"Fossett and Hern became skilled in the French style of cooking, managing a temperamental open hearth that varied wildly in temperature as they constantly moved around dishes to expose them to the proper amount of heat."

Like Ursula Hughes before them, both Fossett and Hern gave birth to children in the White House. Edy Fossett gave birth to three children born in January 1803, January 1805, and October 1807, while Fanny Hern gave birth to a child sometime in 1808. Sadly, Hern’s child died from whooping cough in November 1808.33 The child’s passing was documented in Lemaire’s account book for November 8, 1808, “Peter Lennox built the baby’s coffin.”34 Out of the five children born to Ursula Hughes, Edy Fossett, and Fanny Hern in the White House, only James and Maria Fossett survived to adulthood.35

These births, illnesses, and deaths must have been particularly difficult for these young enslaved women. Their positions at the White House kept them separated from their families and support systems back at Monticello. Fanny Hern was only able to see her husband twice a year when he transported supplies between Monticello and the President’s House. Their relationship certainly suffered the strain of distance. On one visit, David and Fanny got into “a terrible quarrel.” The fight between the two was so intense that President Jefferson summoned the Monticello overseer, Edmund Bacon, to the White House. Upon arrival, Jefferson instructed Bacon to sell David and Fanny in Alexandria, Virginia. When Fanny Hern and her husband realized the severe consequences of their fight, the pair approached Jefferson and “wept, begged, and made good promises, and made such an ado, that they begged the old gentleman out of it.”36

Edy Fossett and her husband Joseph also experienced the hardships of prolonged separation. In 1806, during Jefferson’s summer visit to Monticello, one of his accompanying staff from the White House delivered some disturbing news to twenty-six-year-old Joseph. Although it is unknown what kind of news Joseph received, it potentially involved his wife. He left his blacksmith shop and set out for the White House on July 29, 1806. When Jefferson discovered Joseph’s flight from Monticello, he took action immediately and hired a man to pursue the runaway.37 Jefferson also wrote to his White House coachman Joseph Dougherty, “we know he has taken the road towards Washington, & probably will be there before the bearer. he may possibly trump up some story to be taken care of at the President’s house till he can make up his mind which way to go; or perhaps he may make himself know to Edy only, as he was formerly connected with her.”38 Several days later, on August 3, 1806, Dougherty replied that he had captured Joseph Fossett, “I met with him in the President’s yard going from the Presidents House…I took him immediately & brot. Him to Mr. Perry & has him now in jail. Mr. Perry will start with him tomorrow, for Monticello…”39 Apparently, Lemaire sympathized with the young man’s plight writing, “The poor unhappy mulatto got was not difficult to take, He well merits pardon for this.”40

This portrait of Thomas Jefferson was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1800, when Jefferson served as vice president to John Adams, whom he would succeed in the presidency in 1801.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

When Jefferson’s time in the White House came to an end, he made arrangements for Fossett and Hern to return to Monticello. In March 1809, Fossett, Hern, and their children departed the White House with a wagon train bound for Monticello led by Edmund Bacon and Fanny Hern’s husband, David. Shortly after their arrival, Honoré Julien arrived to help establish the kitchen at Monticello. At this point Peter Hemings transitioned out of his role as Monticello’s head cook and instead focused on brewing. After two weeks Julien departed from Monticello, leaving Edy Fossett as head cook, well prepared with her seven years of training at the White House. Fanny Hern continued to assist Edy in food preparation and the pair ran the Monticello kitchen for the remainder of Jefferson’s life. Jefferson’s guests often praised their fine cooking. In 1824, Daniel Webster famously recorded, “dinner is served in half Virginian and half French style, in good taste and abundance.”41

Upon Jefferson’s death in 1826, Fanny and David Hern were sold along with their eight children at the 1827 estate sale at Monticello in order to pay off Jefferson’s exorbitant debts. However, Edy and Joseph Fosset had a different story. Joseph was one of the few enslaved people freed in Jefferson’s will, while Edy and their ten children remained enslaved. At the estate sale, Edy and two of her children were purchased by Joseph Fossett’s brother-in-law Jesse Scott, a free African American. Several years later in 1837, Joseph freed his wife, five of their children, and four of their grandchildren. Edy Fossett and her family eventually settled in the free state of Ohio.42 At long last, Edy Fossett was able to experience freedom after her many years of forced servitude preparing French cuisine in the White House and Monticello kitchens.

This article was originally published November 16, 2018

Footnotes & Resources

  1. “From Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 7 May 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  2. Annette Gordon-Reed, the Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008), 156-158.
  3. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 7 May 1784; Gordon-Reed, 164-165.
  4. Mb 609 entry for feb 2, 1786. Gordon-Reed, 165.
  5. Gordon-Reed, 166.
  6. “Memorandum Books, 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/02-01-02-0021; “James Hemings,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Accessed October 15, 2018,https://www.monticello.org/sit...
  7. Gordon-Reed, 172-175; “James Hemings.”
  8. “Agreement with James Hemings, 15 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  9. Deed of Manumission for James Hemings, 5 February 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  10. "Thomas Jefferson from Francis Say, 23 February 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-33-02-0051.
  11. Gordon-Reed, 546-548.
  12. “From Thomas Jefferson to Philippe de Létombe, 27 July 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  13. "To Thomas Jefferson from William Evans, 5 November 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-35-02-0460.
  14. Gordon-Reed, 568.
  15. Thomas Jefferson quoted in William Seale, The President’s House, (White House Historical Association, 2008), 99.
  16. Gordon-Reed, 570.
  17. Lucia Stanton, “A Well Ordered Household: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House,” White House History, 17, (2006), 9.
  18. Ibid, 569.
  19. “Memorandum Books, 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  20. "Memorandum Books, 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  21. Gordon Reed, 569.
  22. “From Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 18 June 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  23. Memorandum Books, 1802.
  24. Gordon-Reed, 569.
  25. Stanton, “A Well Ordered Household,” 10.
  26. “Edith Hern Fossett,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Accessed October 24, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/sit...
  27. “Frances (Fanny) Gillette Hern, an Enslaved Cook,” Monticello Digital Classroom, https://classroom.monticello.o...
  28. Stanton, “A Well Ordered Household,” 8-10.
  29. Alice Ross, “Kitchen Past: Thoughts on Open Hearth Cooking for the Presidents,” White House History 20 (2007), 6-7.
  30. Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906), 391.
  31. Lucia Stanton, “Those Who Labor For My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” (Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 187.
  32. “Thomas Jefferson to John Barnes, 14 June 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-11-02-0364.
  33. Stanton, “A Well Ordered Household,” 10, 22.
  34. Étienne Lemaire quoted in Seale, 99.
  35. Stanton, 10.
  36. Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: the Private Life of Thomas Jefferson from Entirely New Materials, (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 112-113.
  37. Stanton, “A Well Ordered Household,” 11.
  38. “From Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Dougherty, 31 July 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  39. "To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Dougherty, 3 August 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  40. Lemaire quoted in Stanton, 11; “To Thomas Jefferson from Etienne Lemaire, 5 August 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/d...
  41. Daniel Webster quoted in Stanton, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness,” 188.
  42. “Edith Hern Fossett,” https://www.monticello.org/sit...

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