Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson DNA Myth
Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was published in 1997 with its ninth reprinting this spring, and last year’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family won the “triple crown,” a Pulitzer Prize for History, a National Book Award for non-fiction, and the George Washington Book Prize for the “most important book on America’s founding era.” What appears to have escaped the notice of the awards committees, however, is that Gordon-Reed has presented diametrically opposite views in these books on the central question of whether or not Thomas Jefferson actually fathered slave children.
In the aftermath of 1998 DNA testing conducted on the descendants of Hemings; Thomas Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson; Thomas Woodson, who asserted that Thomas Jefferson was his father; and two nephews of Thomas Jefferson, Gordon-Reed rewrote the introduction to subsequent editions of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to reflect the DNA findings. Woodson, long thought to be the best candidate for a linkage to Thomas Jefferson, proved to not be related at all, and Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston (she had seven children) was found to be connected to the Jefferson line. Gordon-Reed, by training an attorney, was careful to state that “The DNA test does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson,” [p.X] a disclaimer maintained all the way through the most recent printing.
In The Hemingses of Monticello, published last fall, however, she returns again and again to an assumption that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered all of the Hemings children. The work is peppered with references such as Thomas Jefferson “had a still growing number of children with Hemings” [p.591] and he is referred to throughout as “their father.” Since Gordon-Reed presents no actual evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity beyond her previous work and rather fanciful interpretation of the thin, contradictory history of the Hemings family, how does she move from point "A" (does not prove) to point "B" (fathered everybody) in separate, but concurrent, books?
One might say “Well, The Hemingses of Monticello is written from the standpoint of the Heming’s family,“ but the narrative is in Gordon-Reed’s voice, is presented as a work of history, and all of its promotion is structured from the premise that, as stated on the dust jacket, Sally Hemings “bore seven children by Jefferson.” Thus far, her lawyerly dancing on this matter has largely escaped notice.
Gordon-Reed’s New York Law School bio, updated in April of this year, makes no mention of Thomas Jefferson fathering seven slave children, stating instead that she rewrote the earlier work’s introduction to reflect “a near-certain confirmation of a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings’ youngest child.” Similarly, her oral presentations and interviews display careful word-smithing with an eye to where her words will appear. For example, an Australian journalist who knows little of American history came away from an April interview with her firmly convinced that “DNA evidence confirms slave Sally Hemings bore sons and daughters to the third president of the United States,” but in the Washington Post a month later, Gordon-Reed is more careful. Here, the comments are somewhat more fuzzy: “The most you can say is that it went on for 35 years,” yet, true to the tack she takes in The Hemingses of Monticello, she buttresses an underlying shared assumption with the interviewer that Jefferson fathered everyone. Virtually none of the press reports of her recent awards have shown any awareness of Gordon-Reed’s practiced inconsistency, and the lack of actual evidence pointing to Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Eston Hemings --- let alone all --- of Sally Heming’s many children.
Gordon-Reed is an attorney. She knows what DNA evidence can and cannot prove, and her conflicting published statements demonstrate that she knows quite well that she is on very shaky ground. She is also well aware that, beyond a wide but often ignored body of historians and Jefferson scholars, there is little threat to the “powerful” story that Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children even though the proffered evidence began to fall apart virtually as soon as it was published.
It all started when a popular British science journal found itself in a rush to get an article into print. The title was simply too good for Nature to pass up: "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child" [November 5, 1998, p.27-28]. No matter that the shell-shocked authors of the DNA study soon complained on the journal’s own pages that "The title assigned to our study was misleading" and stated that "Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings" [January 7, 1999, p.32]. It was exactly what many wanted to hear and came at the same time that a sitting president was having some very real problems with his sexual escapades in the Oval Office.
And it mattered not a whit that the journal Science received an admission from Nature that "the whole thing really was rushed through" after they learned that the "popular press" had gotten wind of the study. Nature was reeling from criticism by the scientific community --- almost none of which was reported in the mass media --- and tried to make the best of a bad situation by not dodging questions and providing forthright, if embarrassing, answers to questions. A spokesman for Nature sheepishly explained that the misleading headline and problems with an accompanying commentary (co-written by Joseph J. Ellis who was later suspended by Mt. Holyoke College over another matter) "probably would have gotten straightened out if there had not been this frantic rush to beat the leaks" [“Which Jefferson was the Father?” January 8, 1999, p.153].
The editors at another journal, Natural Science, were unimpressed with Nature’s excuses and particularly scathing in their editorial assessment, " ‘Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child’ -- Journal Article Raises a Question of Credibility”:
Rather than accept the authority of the editor of Nature or some other journal in the determination of scientific truth, both the media and the public at large should be skeptical about all scientific claims until they have been evaluated, not only by peer-reviewed journals, but also in the open forum of scientific and public discussion. In particular, the public should be skeptical about scientific claims that support political interests. When such claims lack intrinsic scientific significance (as in the case of those made in the [Dr. Eugene A.] Foster paper), their publication in a scientific journal should be recognized for what it is: an abuse of the scientific press. [March 19, 1999]
As for the Washington Post's retraction after more than a half-dozen articles on the subject, it might as well have been printed in invisible ink. Ombudsman E. R. Shipp conceded that the Post’s and other papers’ reporters couldn’t help “finding irresistible the possibility of a 200-year-old presidential sex scandal on a par with President Clinton’s” and that they had failed to make clear what is fact and what is speculation in the controversy over the DNA testing which demonstrated only that "a" Jefferson fathered the fifth child of Sally Hemings --- not which Jefferson. Shipp also recounted how the study’s principal author, Dr. Foster, “has tried to rein in these stories but to no avail.” [“Reporting on Jefferson,” May 30, 1999, p.B6].
In “Founding Fatherhood” [February 26, 1999] the Wall Street Journal stated that "the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson," and pointed out quite rightly that there were no fewer than eight Jeffersons who were candidates for some or all of Hemings children. This is a rather important point since two of Jefferson's nephews spoke of having sexual relations with Hemings and they were only cleared of fathering Eston Hemings. In addition, Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph lived in the area and was known to"play the fiddle and dance half the night" down at the slave cabins. An article I co-authored with Kathryn Moore in the Washington Times,"The Myth of Tom and Sally," also noted that while it can be demonstrated that Thomas Jefferson's visits to his Monticello plantation occurred approximately nine months before the births of Hemings’s children, even this is built on numerous assumptions, while it is an undeniable fact that the births actually ended when the family patriarch retired permanently to Monticello.
But the story really was just too good to go away. What did go away, however, were the calls by advocates of digging up the third American President to check his DNA when I located the burial site of Sally Hemings's grandson, William Hemings, for Jefferson Family historian Herbert Barger. As noted in the Wall StreetJournal ["Uncle Tom" January 7, 2000, p.W11], "The Hemings grave provides the first opportunity for a valid Y-chromosome DNA sample from an unbroken line of descendants. The catch? Hemings's descendants oppose the scientific tests, saying the oral tradition is good enough for them. Seems some science is more equal than others."
History News Network has a large, diverse following that is, if the comments to its articles are any indication, a generally well-read bunch. Yet I would wager that barely a handful of this readership is familiar with either the howl of distress that immediately arose from the authors of the DNA study on the very pages of Nature, or the confession-is-good-for-the-soul statements by Nature’s spokesperson in Science. As for the detailed retraction in the Washington Post, (which even listed all of the problem articles they had published), it came and went with nary a mention beyond Natural Science Magazine’s pages in spite of the high level of public interest in the subject.
The media was swept up by the story. It’s so compelling, so seductive, to a society consumed by racial matters, that even the Wall Street Journal, which has diligently maintained a critical eye on the claims of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity, had inadvertently stamped its imprimatur onto the tale. Much to the distress of some of the editors, the statement "DNA testing would reveal that our nation's third president had almost certainly fathered several [slave] children,” slipped by in a Leisure & Arts section book review, demonstrating just how deeply ingrained the “myth of Tom and Sally” has become ["Poisoned Quills" March 8, 2006, p.D14].
In such an environment, Annette Gordon-Reed could make almost any sensational claim --- on the narrowest or most twisted of evidence --- about a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and a female slave on his plantation, and be assured that she would find an excited reception and little scrutiny, particularly as the book’s publishing schedule also coincided with the election of a popular president of mixed heritage. Rare is the full-length article on The Hemingses of Monticello that fails to draw any number of connections to President Barak Obama, and Gordon-Reed has both written and made public addresses on the genuine significance of Americans electing an African-American president.
As for the sticky matter of how she moves back and forth at will between point "A" (does not prove) and point "B" (fathered everybody), despite any meaningful change in the physical evidence, Gordon-Reed is content in the knowledge that even if more people catch on to the shenanigans, she will always find a welcoming audience. The members of the various awards committees certainly don’t appear to have noticed this. Or, perhaps, if some did, it was of no particular concern to them.
Comprehensive treatments of the opposing viewpoints about the paternity of Hemings's children can be found in the “Statement on the TJF [Thomas Jefferson Foundation] Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” and the “Scholars Commission Report of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society.” A particularly intriguing development is the release this month of William Hyland, Jr.’s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal. Like Gordon-Reed, author Hyland is an attorney, but rather than holding teaching positions, he is a trial lawyer by trade who most recently wrote "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson" in The American Journal of Trial Advocacy [Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007]. Readers may wish to check out the Hyland and Gordon-Reed books, and decide for themselves which of these dueling attorneys makes the better case.
comments powered by Disqus
Herbert Barger - 7/8/2009
It was the Campaign Lies article of James Callender in 1802 that stated that the boy was Tom Woodson and we know that was a lie.............there was NO DNA evidence of a Jefferson-Woodson match.
Annette Gordon-Reed's first book was using the Pike County newspaper article by Samuel F. Wetmore, abolitionist reporter, as some sort of historical and proven statement which it WASN'T. In her latest book she acknowledges that Madison's statement that he was named by Dolley Madison upon his birth at Monticello on Jan. 19, 1805 was a MISSTATEMENT and she tries to "VISION" what he may have meant to say. I researched this preposterous false claim long ago and some may have read it on my many comments. If we can't believe just that one statement (and there are several open to challenge), how can we believe ANY of these statements?
Madison claims that Eston Hemings was a son of Thomas Jefferson BUT Eston himself and his later generations believed they descend from "a Jefferson uncle", meaning Uncle Randolph as TJ's grandchildren and their slave playmates knew him by.
Annette Gordon-Reed used this unreliable source, added along with her first book to get a friend at Monticello appointed as Chairman, Monticello Study Group, to use as some sort of "authority." She even changed the meaning of a critical letter from a TJ granddaughter to her husband.....reversing completely the meaning. Also in her first book she acknowledges that DNA did not prove that the Eston descendant tested was proven to be a Thomas Jefferson descendant. YET in her latest book she flat out states that 7 of Sally's children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Among these 7, DNA does not prove Tom Woodson or John Weeks Jefferson (the Eston descendant) were children of Thomas Jefferson. How does she get off telling the public such false information and at the same time winning Book Awards? Monticello, keeper of the Jefferson flame and it's large amount of family letters and research does not stick it's neck out with such unproven GARBAGE.
DNA proved two things....nothing else. 1. There was NO DNA match between Jefferson and Woodson DNA.
2. The Eston family claim that they descended from "a Jefferson uncle", meaning Randolph, younger brother of Thomas Jefferson. Yes, there was a match and it was to be expected BUT Dr Foster did not inform Nature Journal of this valuable piece of information. This was the beginning of a maneuvered study to "nail TJ."
Jefferson Family Historian
J L Bell - 7/7/2009
Giangreco misrepresents Annette Gordon-Reed's first book by suggesting that it treats the Woodson family's claims of descent from Thomas Jefferson as having the same evidential support as the Hemings/Jefferson family's claims.
Most of Gordon-Reed's first book concerns how historians treated Madison Hemings's statements from the 1870s and others related to his brother Eston. The genealogical chart of Sally Hemings's children at the start of the book doesn't include a boy named Thomas, the basis for the Woodson claims. This chart appeared in the early printings as well as the edition issued after the NATURE report.
Giangreco doesn't acknowledge that the lack of a DNA match between Jefferson and Woodson males is totally consistent with Madison Hemings's statements. Madison Hemings said that his mother's first child died young, and therefore could not have grown up to be Thomas Woodson.
Indeed, of all the detailed statements from people at Monticello about Sally Hemings mother and her children, Madison Hemings's is the only one that has proved fully consistent with our modern understanding of DNA. It's a shame that so many people refuse to acknowledge that and its implications about the probable father of those children.
Herbert Barger - 7/7/2009
Henry you are absolutely correct about the Callender and Brodie claims.........DNA proved them both wrong.......NO Jefferson-Woodson match.
So, this leaves us with the Eston Hemings descendant, John Weeks Jefferson, and "A" Jefferson DNA match. As most know, I assisted Dr. Foster with the DNA Study and I have MUCH inside information of this mishandled and biased study from many sources, including Dr. Foster, Monticello and recent misguided authors following the Monticello BIASED and politically correct research there who "hid under the rug" a vital Minority Report of a member of their research committee, Dr. Ken Wallenborn, headed by African-American ORAL historian, Dianne Swann-Wright.
It all "jumped track" when Dr Foster tested John Weeks Jefferson, KNOWING that his family, back to Eston (Sally's youngest son), had ALWAYS claimed descent from "a Jefferson uncle or nephew", (yes, I do have a copy of a family letter to this effect), meaning the President's much younger brother, Randolph, a title that TJ's grandchildren and their slave playmates knew Randolph by.
Eston NEVER claimed descent from Thomas as his older brother, Madison, did in the Pike County newspaper article. Of course we cannot believe anything from this article where several claims are baseless.
The Carr claims made by TJ relatives has not been given a COMPLETE study to date and the Hemings nieces and nephews REFUSE to test William Hemings, son of Madison, in a grave in Leavenworth, Kansas. If approved, I am of the opinion that there would be a match between this man and the Carrs or other NON Jeffersons. The DNA test only tested ONE Hemings, the youngest, who the Jefferson's were not aware of at the time of claiming there was a Carr/Hemings relationship. I say, LET'S get that DNA.........the Hemings spokesperson says.....NO......"we are happy with our family ORAL history".........are WE happy with this withholding of vital science??? What are they afraid of?
Who can correct this long festering misunderstanding, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, headed by a new Monticello President, Mrs. Leslie Greene Bowman. She and her fellow board members are in a position to conduct an updated study of ALL exising evidence and, this time, a study by competent scholars and subject specialists outside the Monticello influence. Most of the people associated with this biased study are now GONE, with exception of Cinder Stanton, from the mountain and I call for a new study ASAP. It is your country's history and the fine legacy of Mr. Jefferson that they are toying with.
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
I told Dr Foster there would be a match if the Eston Hemings family oral claims were true and that Nature MUST be notified of this. Dr Foster DID NOT listen and NEVER told them. In my opinion, Dr Foster MISREPRESENTED all that was known about the test subject. A phone call from Accuracy in Media to Nature confirmed that they knew nothing of other possible suspects and if they did they could NOT have written the false headline, "Jefferson fathers slaves last child." There
K. Burchell - 7/6/2009
Ms. Tanter is much mistaken about the conclusions that one can draw from the extant DNA evidence, none of which proves Jefferson's paternity in any of the Hemings children. This entire slander on Jefferson is an American travesty. For a balance discussion of the FACTS in this case, see www.tjheritage.org/hyland.pdf
Henry Wiencek - 7/6/2009
Caroline Hill writes that "Fawn Brodie showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally Hemings's children." Actually, Fawn Brodie was buried by the DNA findings. She argued for TJ's paternity in the belief that Thomas Woodson was the first-born child of TJ and Hemings; that he was the "President Tom" of James Callender's articles; that Tom was expelled from Monticello; and that Sally Hemings concealed his existence from her other children. Much of this Brodie got from the Woodson family oral history. But the DNA tests showed no link between the Woodsons and the Jeffersons, thus exploding the Woodson family's oral history, Callender's main claim, and Brodie's main argument. It is often said that the Jefferson/Hemings DNA test proved the reliability of oral history; but the DNA test wrecked as much oral history as it supported. I suspect that the Woodsons might actually have had some connection to Monticello, but we may never find out what that link was.
The assertion that Jefferson's nephews, the Carr brothers, fathered the Hemings children was made by Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge in a letter to her husband and by Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in conversation with the biographer Henry Randall, a conversation not recorded at the time but recounted in somewhat garbled fashion years later in a letter from Randall to James Parton.
Herbert Barger - 7/6/2009
I wish to point out to the comments made by some posters, that there is NO PROOF that Sally and Martha Jefferson were half sisters.......a rumor only. Please read a very revealing study of these rumors, "Anatomy of a Scandal, Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story" by Dr and Mrs James McMurry,Jr. NO proof whatsoever! All these charges do is to provide fodder for media to further confuse the public by TV and film productions. Please remember that the last two were based upon a long 38 year liasion and we KNOW this is impossible because there was NO DNA match of the Jefferson and Woodson DNA.
Jefferson Family Historian email@example.com
Herbert Barger - 7/6/2009
The Jefferson descendants that you mention, DID, for three years, study this controversy and after much long and detailed results VOTE overwhelmly to disallow Hemings membership into their Monticello Assn. (TJ descendants). This was a most wise and well researched study in my opinion. It may also be noted that Judge Robert Cooley (descendant of Tom Woodson) who had passed away from an accident, and had been adament in the Ken Burn's Jefferson film, stating he was "the ancestral grandson of Thomas Jefferson", even motivated his family to seek burial at the Jefferson Monticello Cemetery. Due to DNA, which DISPROVED any Jefferson-Woodson match, the request was DENIED. But that Ken Burns film is still replayed with those false Cooley claims.
Your remarks seem to me to center around "he was a slave owner thus they all did it and thus he was guilty of fathering slave children. How can you charge one man with the deeds of others? It is clear that you know nothing of the DNA Study but with to lump TJ in with ALL slaveowners. This is NOT research, this is political correctness and an attempt at historical revisionism.
Herbert Barger - 7/6/2009
At last, a "refreshing" article that "lays it on the line" regarding Annette Gordon-Reed's participation in this Jefferson-Hemings DNA controversy. What I relate here is based upon my actual research and participation in this study.
As a Jefferson Family Historian, I was asked by Dr. E.A. Foster to assist with the study. He chose to test a descendant of Eston Hemings, John Weeks Jfferson, whose family had ALWAYS claimed descent from "A Jefferson uncle or nephew." This was Randolph Jefferson much younger brother of Thomas Jefferson who was known around Monticello and elsewhere as "uncle Randolph" by Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren and their slave playmates. Because of this information (I have a Hemings letter to this effect), I urged Dr Foster to inform Nature of this because, this would GUARANTEE a match, which it did. Dr Foster, whose wife descends from David Meade Randolph, a historically reported suspected informer" to a scandmonger reporter rejected by Jefferson as Postmaster at Richmond, James Callender for the 1802 Campaign Lies against Thomas Jefferson, DID NOT report this information to Nature. WHY, I had also asked that he have a meeting of knowledgeable people prior to releasing the study...he DID NOT. Nature and Dr Foster NEGOTIATED this FALSE headline that "Jefferson fathers slave's last child" (I have e-mail's to this effect from both). Had they known about Randolph and the ESTON FAMILY CLAIMS THEY COULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN THAT FALSE HEADLINE.
Some people, like a former commenter on these pages, tend to bring in the "he owned slaves and we know what these people did." This is WRONG and plays to the politically correct generated biased political correctness and historical revisionist thinking that drive this controversy. The question is, did he father Sally's children? I can assure the reader that all my research and the research of 13 well known scholars (www.tjheritage.org) indicate NO. Annette Gordon-Reed's first book (she completely revised a vital letter from TJ's granddaughter to her husband, about TJ's living quarters to a COMPLETE different meaning. The other main piece of defective information used by this Monticello Study, Chaired by Dianne Swann-Wright, was from the Pike County Ohio newspaper article by abolitionist, Samuel Wetmore, in an interview of Madison Hemings who claimed he and all syblings were descendants of Thomas Jefferson, a clain that Eston, his brother, DID NOT make. There are several objections in another newspaper of the day, The Waverly Watchman, that the article was politically motivated and was not to be believed. I personally found one major claim DEFECTIVE and unprovable. Madison claimed to be named by Dolley Madison on his birthday, Jan 19, 1805, at Monticello and like all white people refused to give Sally a promised gift. TRUTH: This was written by an abolitionist using a title of a subtitle of Uncle Tom's Cabin. I suppose he wouild never think that future researchers would not discover that the Madisons NEVER visited Virginia from Washington during winter, this is only one of the several claims that was used by Dianne Swann-Wright to "Nail" TJ (because he owned slaves.)
This is all a large agenda to degrade the image of a great founding father and Monticello is MUCH involved as you will read in Mr. Hyland's very revealing book just out, "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal." He "hits the nail on the head" about this whole controversy. The Annette Gordon-Reed books are greatly defective in matters of the TJ-Sally controversy. I am astounded that the Book Award Committees did not research her charges. Read in Mr. Hyland's book how biased, manipulated and pre-conceived research has resulted in leading people to believe that TJ is guilty of fathering slave children.......you, the public, have been "CONNED" by a group of many people, foundations, individuals (making money), some of the media, as referenced in the article and MUCH more that I could tell you about. I won't go into my two interviews by A&E Biography and PBS Frontline productions on Sally Hemings, YET they did not show a word of my interviews on those programs.....there are many more similar instances. Does this not show a form of censorship and "manipulation" by these media giants?
Worst of all we have such members of academia as Annette Gordon-Reed (Rutgers), Prof. Peter Onuf (UVA historian sitting in the Monticello chair), Prof. Jan Lewis (friend and fellow historian at Rutgers University}, Professor Joseph Ellis (disgraced admitter of being a liar about NON-Vietnam servive and other personal lies, and other recent authors who have spent considerable time at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and write the "same old misrepresented research" from the DEFECTIVE Monticello DNA Study. I have corresponded with Dr Jordan and Monticello head researcher, Cinder Stanton, trying to get this BIASED study cotrrected...........they say no but maybe they will listen to the public. Dr.Dan Jordan, then President of Monticello, appointed an African-American oral history specialist, Dianne Swann-Wright, a member of the Getting Word Project (oral slave history there), along with ten well recognized African-Americans including Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman, and their results were accepted and is the "theme" as of today of official Monticello. Jusdt imagine their belief, "not only one but possible ALL of Sally's children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Where is their proof.....ONLY ONE tested? Is this bias and misreporting or what? Dr Jordan "swept under the rug" from his study a major Minority Report written by then Monticello employee, Dr. Ken Wallenborn, until I and others complained to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, (Memorial has since been deleted from their title, who are they NOW memoralizing), and Dr Wallenborn was apologized to and his Monority Report was released, BUT not in the original released report.
I plead with all serious minded historians and authors to come forward and INVESTIGATE this FIASCO.......your children's textbooks are being changed and these lies continue to expand. I stand ready to assist anyone in these investigations. Thank you Mr. Giangreco and Mr. Hyland for your expose' of these people.
Jefferson Family Historian
Caroline Hill - 7/6/2009
Long before the DNA evidence was revealed, Fawn Brodie showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally Hemings's children, though she presented her overwhelming evidence so poorly that it negated the power of her argument. No one ever seems to consider the implications of other (or multiple) Jeffersons fathering Hemings's children while TJ was in residence at Monticello. Because the entire Hemings family occupied a privileged spot there (Jefferson's father in law was undeniably Sally Hemings's father), that would mean that TJ was, in effect, pimping for a close relative--doing nothing to stop the sexual exploitation by his relatives of his wife's half-sister, who by the way probably physically resembled his dead wife, whom he dearly loved. In addition, although it was common for slaveowners or their sons to father children by their female slaves, it was extremely unusual (if not unprecedented) for random male relatives of an owner to do the same. Also note that the nephews of TJ mentioned in the article were the sons of his sister and were excluded by the DNA tests as possible fathers of Eston Hemings. The only evidence we have that the 'nephews spoke of having sex with Sally H' is one much later statement by TJ's daughter to her children, and Gordon-Reed ably debunks the likelihood in the first book. I concur with the first comment that people like this author are desperate to deny what is obvious to anyone with a modicum of historical sense or knowledge of how 18th century plantations worked.
WILLIAM HYLAND - 7/6/2009
As we celebrate our nation's birthday, one statement should be made concerning our greatest founding father: Thomas Jefferson was either the most prolific, hypocritical liar in American history or the victim of the most profane, 200-year-old defamation of character allegation in legal annals.
There is no gauzy middle ground in this historical tableau.
The fevered debate about Jefferson and his alleged sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, changed radically in 1998. Science exploded an historical bombshell, confirming that a male carrying Jefferson DNA had fathered Sally’s last child, Eston. The British science journal Nature's distortion of that news led to a worldwide misrepresentation that DNA had specifically proven Thomas Jefferson was the father. In fact, at least two dozen male Jeffersons could have fathered Eston. Historians understood this, but certain scholars marginalized evidence pointing toward any paternity candidate but Jefferson.
For the last ten years, Jefferson’s reputation has been unfairly eviscerated by a misrepresentation of the DNA study turning reputed science into political science. The exhumation of prurient embellishments has not only misled readers but impoverished a fair debate. The “Sally” story is pure fiction, possibly revisionist politics, but certainly not historical fact or science. It reflects a recycled inaccuracy that has metastasized from book to book, over two hundred years.
Let me state clearly that I am neither a professional historian, nor a preeminent Jefferson scholar. For the past twenty-six years the modicum of my expertise has been yoked to the courtroom, presenting the most persuasive evidence to a jury. As a civil litigator and former prosecutor, I have attempted to research and evaluate every scholarly book, article, Committee report, 18th century letters and ancillary material relevant to the singular, inflammatory subject of whether Jefferson had a sexual liaison with his “servant” Sally Hemings. I gained access to never before seen correspondence and personal interviews with Jeffersonian “insiders” intimately involved in the distorted DNA study. They revealed how evidence was manipulated into a censored, predetermined “official” conclusion, giving a false stigma of Jefferson’s guilt to the American public.
In contrast to the blizzard of recent agenda-driven books spinning the controversy as a mini-series version of history and slavery, I found that layer upon layer of evidence points to a mosaic distinctly away from Jefferson with one inevitable conclusion: the historians have the wrong Jefferson--the DNA, as well as other historical evidence, matches perfectly to his younger brother, Randolph and his teen-age sons, as the true candidates for a sexual relationship with Sally. Quite simply, the most credible evidence exonerates Jefferson:
• the virulent rumor was first started by the unscrupulous, scandal-mongering journalist James Callender, who burned for political revenge against Jefferson. Callender was described as “an alcoholic thug with a foul mind, obsessed with race and sex,” who intended to defame Jefferson’s public career.
• the one eyewitness to this sexual allegation was Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, who saw another man (not Jefferson) leaving Sally’s room ‘many a morning.’
• Jefferson’s deteriorating health casts severe doubt on any sexual relationship. He was 64 at the time of the alleged affair and suffered debilitating migraine headaches which incapacitated him for weeks, as well as severe intestinal infections and rheumatoid arthritis, complaining to John Adams: “My health is entirely broken down within the last eight months.”
• Randolph Jefferson had a reputation for socializing with Jefferson's slaves and was expected at Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, the DNA match.
• The DNA match was to a male son. Randolph had six male sons. Thomas Jefferson had all female children, except for a nonviable infant, with his beloved wife, Martha.
• Until 1976, the oral history of Eston’s family held that they descended from a Jefferson "uncle." Randolph was known at Monticello as "Uncle Randolph."
• Unlike his brother, by taste and training Thomas Jefferson was raised as the perfect Virginia gentleman, a man of refinement and intellect. The personality of the man who figures in the Hemings soap opera would be preposterously out of character for him.
Thus, let a fair minded public decide where the truth lies, mindful of Jefferson’s own words:
When tempted to do anything in secret, ask yourself if you would do it in public; if you would not, be sure it is wrong.
William G. Hyland Jr.
Author, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson (St. Martins, 2009)
Leigh Fellner - 7/6/2009
Contrary to Ms. Tanter's strawman arguments, Giangreco's discussion concerns the odd history of Gordon-Reed's evolving claims and distorted media coverage (see, e.g., the "Nature" article and its aftermath). The only wish, "desperate" or otherwise, which Giangreco seems to express is for logical consistency and analytical care - qualities sorely lacking in Ms. Tanter's comment (which concludes by arguing that X "probably" did Y because "hundreds of others" did Y, and even if X did not do Y, he did do Z, which was bad enough).
Marcy Tanter - 7/6/2009
Those of us who care about this issue have been very well aware of the DNA results for years now, especially because of the Jefferson descendants' unwillingness to begin to consider that TJ _might_ have fathered slaves. Given the history of Hemings that IS known, circumstantial evidence with the DNA evidence,such as it is, leads to the conclusion that Jefferson _probably_ fathered at least some of Sally's children. What fascinates me is how desperate some people are to disprove that it might be possible for TJ to have done this, as if his legacy will be tarnished. Hundreds of slave owners fathered children with their slaves, TJ was a slave owner---why should he be any different? Even if he didn't father any of Sally's children, he still engaged in the slave trade while touting individual liberties for the nation.
- Judith Kelleher Schafer, 72, a historian of slavery and prostitution, dies
- Northwestern celebrates Garry Wills with a book in his honor
- Conservatives go after UCLA's historian James Gelvin
- Laura Hillenbrand writes her masterpieces despite suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- New PBS DVD From Henry Louis Gates Jr. Explores African Influence on the Caribbean