The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, Eyler Coates, Ed., Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001, 316 pp.; $12.95 (soft cover)
In October 1998, an article entitled “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child” appeared in the prestigious British science magazine Nature. It reported results of DNA testing meant to determine the truth of the old rumor that Thomas Jefferson kept a black concubine who bore him several children. The results were inconclusive and tended to disprove the traditional concubine story, but the article was deceptively written, and its headline turned a possibility into a certainty. The press enthusiastically reported Jefferson’s miscegenation as fact.
In January 2000 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns Jefferson’s home Monticello, issued a report concluding that Jefferson fathered at least one, and probably all six of his slave Sally Hemings’ children. About two weeks later, CBS released a mini-series called “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” full of steamy scenes of Thomas Jefferson romancing a beautiful young slave girl. Jefferson and Hemings were now as tightly bound in the public mind as Anthony and Cleopatra.
In May 2000 a group of Jefferson admirers established the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to reassess the evidence for the Hemings affair, and this collection of essays called The Jefferson-Hemings Myth is the result of their work. Taken together they are a careful summation of all we know, as well as an account of the recklessness and deceit of those who promoted the miscegenation story. As this book clearly shows, the DNA testing disproved the oldest and most persistent accusation against Jefferson, and suggested only that some male in the Jefferson line was the father of the last of Sally Hemings’ children. It paints a devastating portrait of an American intellectual class hungering to crucify Jefferson.
The Callender Story
The book tells us that rumors about “dusky Sally” were first circulated in 1802 by a political enemy of Jefferson named James Callender. Callender, an alcoholic and misanthrope, was an Englishman who fled his homeland in 1793 just ahead of the sheriff, and settled in Philadelphia. He had been a notorious political pamphleteer, and became a naturalized American citizen to avoid extradition to England, where he was wanted for sedition. In the ten years until his death, he continued to write unfounded scandal stories, and managed to defame all of the men who had been or were to become the first five American presidents.
At first, his sympathies were with Jefferson’s Republican party, and he wrote slashing slanders against the Federalists, who imprisoned him for sedition. Jefferson came to his defense, not only for partisan reasons but because he despised sedition laws as a threat to free speech. Callender got out of jail at about the time Jefferson took office for his first term as president in 1801, and asked for the patronage job of Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson refused, and Callender added threats of blackmail to his demands. When Jefferson refused again in even stronger terms, Callender switched sides politically, and started attacking Jefferson and the Republicans.
In the Sept. 1, 1802, issue of the Richmond Recorder, he wrote the first of many assaults on the president’s character: “It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the President himself.” [capital letters in the original] He went on to claim that Jefferson first had his way with Sally while he was ambassador to France, and that she had returned pregnant to Monticello.
These charges were repeated by other federalist newspapers, and Callender boasted that he had ended Jefferson’s political career. He was wrong; Jefferson won reelection in 1804, a year after Callender drowned in the James River after an extended drinking binge.
The accusations were not repeated during Jefferson’s second term, and appear to have been forgotten until 1870, when Sally Hemings’ son Madison told a census taker he was Jefferson’s son. This account, complete with elaborations upon Jefferson’s Paris dalliance with Sally, was published in the March 1873 issue of the Pike County Republican, an Ohio newspaper. This story prompted Fawn Brodie’s salacious 1974 best-seller, Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History.
It has always been theoretically possible that Jefferson slept with his slave. He set out in 1784 at age 41 for a five-year term as ambassador to France. He was single; his wife had died two years previously and Jefferson never remarried. After he arrived in Paris he sent for his daughter Polly to join him. He gave instructions that she be accompanied by an older slave–who was unable to come–and 14-year-old Sally came in her place. Sally had come to Jefferson as part of his wife’s property, and it is possible she was the result of a union between Martha Jefferson’s father and a slave. This would have meant she was Mrs. Jefferson’s half-sister, but this is not confirmed.
Tradition has it that Sally returned from Paris pregnant with her first child, Tom. However, as The Jefferson-Hemings Myth reports, there is some doubt about this child; although Monticello records duly noted the births of Hemings’ six other children they are silent about Tom. Tom is said to have lived at Monticello until age 12, when he left the plantation and took the surname of Woodson. It is his descendants who have always claimed loudest and longest that Thomas Jefferson was his father, and he was the TOM of the Callender account. Hemings herself was never known to claim she was Jefferson’s mistress, and until her son Madison started giving interviews to the Pike County Republican 35 years after her death, no other child of hers is ever known to have made that claim either. The tradition among descendants of her youngest child, Eston, has been that a Jefferson relative–perhaps a brother or nephew–was the father. There has long been reason to think Jefferson’s nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, fathered at least some of the Hemings children, and until the DNA analysis, the scholarly consensus was that Jefferson was innocent of miscegenation.
The DNA testing was based on the fact that men pass their Y chromosome essentially unchanged to their sons. Jefferson had no sons, so it was not possible to determine his Y chromosome from male descendants, but researchers found male-line descendants of one of Jefferson’s uncles, who would have carried the same chromosome as Thomas. They also tested male-line descendants of Sally Hemings’ last child, Eston Hemings, and of Tom Woodson, as well as male-line descendants of Samuel and Peter Carr.
The results were clear: Tom Woodson’s male descendants carry neither the Jefferson chromosome nor the Carr chromosome. Their Y is more characteristic of Europeans than of Africans, so if Tom really was Sally’s son she probably was impregnated in Paris, but not by Jefferson. If the Woodson men had been found to carry the Jefferson Y chromosome, it would almost certainly mean Thomas was their ancestor, because in Paris there were no other Jefferson men who could have slept with Sally. Callender’s original charge and the most persistent oral claim to Jefferson descent were therefore refuted.
The Eston Hemings male line, however, was found to carry the Jefferson chromosome, and this caused much joy among those determined to slur Jefferson. They ignored the fact that this finding meant only that some Jefferson had fathered Eston, and that there were seven other male Jeffersons of reproductive age, frequently at Monticello, who could easily have had a fling with Sally.
It is worth noting that descendants of only two of Hemings’ six children (or seven, if we include Thomas), had their DNA tested. It would have been pointless to test the descendants of the daughters because they would not carry the Y chromosome of their father. The testing therefore does not let the Carr brothers off the hook. It shows only that they did not father Tom or Eston.
The article in Nature reporting the DNA results had two serious flaws. The first was the title, which falsely suggested the results were decisive. The second was its failure to explain there were other Jefferson men who could have been Eston’s father. The author of the article, Eugene Foster, had acknowledged receiving information about these men but simply left it out. He did not claim the data were conclusive but did write that “the simplest explanation” for the results was that Jefferson was Eston’s father. By offering no other explanation, he clearly suggested the “simplest” explanation was the only one.
Later, perhaps shaken by the headlines his slanted article gave rise to, Dr. Foster wrote a supplement to his Nature article, explaining that other Jeffersons could have fathered Eston. The press, which had leapt upon the first article, ignored the second.
As this book points out, “proof” of a Jefferson-Hemings affair gave the media great joy for several reasons. First, it “confirmed” the oral tradition of slaves in the teeth of prim white denial. (Of course, it did no such thing. It refuted the strongest oral tradition–Tom Woodson’s–and was consistent with the relative-of-Jefferson tradition–Eston Hemings’–that no one ever had reason to deny.) Second, it could be cast as a dramatic case of Jefferson the freedom lover oppressing a poor black woman who was his property. Furthermore, coming as it did at the height of the William Clinton sex scandals, it implied that presidential dalliance was a long American tradition. Finally, it gave the press an opportunity to indulge in overwrought racial non sequiturs. The Jefferson-Hemings Myth quotes Reuters: “The confirmation of a direct link between one of the country’s founding fathers and generations of black claimants to his name symbolically affirms the central role of African Americans in the making of the modern nation.”
However, it is the actions of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) that most astound the authors of this book. The foundation, which maintains Monticello and is supposed to honor the memory of the third president, was if anything even more eager than the press to condemn Jefferson. Its official report, which appeared a little over a year after the Nature article, simply set aside Tom Woodson, fastened upon the inconclusive Eston evidence, and concluded that Jefferson had fathered all six of Hemings’ children.
One of the members of the committee that drafted the report has contributed a chapter to this book. He writes that very early on he “sensed a strong power play aimed at the TJMF to force them to accept something that was politically correct and not historically accurate.” He wrote a dissenting opinion, which he expected would be attached to the final report but which was never distributed to the press.
The book calls the foundation report “shallow and shoddy scholarship,” that simply ignores evidence that does not suit its accusatory purpose. As another contributor to the book explains, two of the most ardent anti-Jeffersonians on the report committee visited the set of the defamatory CBS mini-series and attended its premier screening. He suspects they deliberately delayed publishing the report for several months so as to coincide with the CBS release and give it publicity. He also notes that Monticello tour guides were instructed to stick to the conclusions in the foundation report, and to refrain from criticizing the CBS travesty.
Taken in conjunction with the inconclusive DNA evidence, there are many reasons to believe Jefferson did not father Sally Hemings’ children, and it is unconscionable that the Monticello foundation ignored them. To begin with, Jefferson does not appear to have been a highly-sexed man, and after the death of his wife there is no evidence he had affairs with any women. He would have been 64 years old at the time Sally conceived Eston, the son who carried the Jefferson chromosome.
Furthermore, if he had been carrying on with his slave, it would have been after the original Callender charges–shown by DNA evidence to be false–and during his second term as president. It is hard to believe he would have risked discovery and scandal to carry on an affair with a slave towards whom he afterwards showed no particular attention or affection.
He was, moreover, devoted to his daughters and grandchildren, many of whom lived with him at Monticello. His letters to them are filled with moral instruction that would have seemed impossibly hypocritical if he had been fornicating with a slave, and to do so under their noses would have invited detection. One daughter slept just above his bedroom, and reported hearing him singing Scottish airs in the morning. It would have been impossible to keep the affair secret, and all Jefferson’s family were unanimous in agreeing there was none.
For example, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s daughter, lived for most of her life at Monticello. She was 18 when Sally Hemings’ first child was born and 36 when Sally’s last child was born. On her death bed, she called her sons into her room and told them Jefferson was innocent of the charge of concubinage, and urged them always to defend their grandfather’s reputation. Either she sincerely believed there was no affair or she was lying brazenly just before she died. One of the granddaughters who lived at Monticello wrote that from what she knew of her grandfather, dalliance with a slave was “a moral impossibility.”
There is other evidence. Edmund Bacon was an overseer at Monticello, who kept notes of his observations. He reported that often early in the morning he had seen a man he took to be a lover leaving Sally Hemings’ chambers, and that the man was not Thomas Jefferson. He included the man’s name in his journal but it has been smudged out in the original–probably by someone trying to protect the guilty.
There is also a report by one of Jefferson’s grandchildren who confronted the Carr brothers with the newspaper accounts of Jefferson’s black mistress. He said the Carrs wept with remorse that their misdeeds should be pinned on their illustrious uncle. There is also a separate account of Peter Carr laughing at the fact that Jefferson bore the blame for his and Sam’s copulations.
It has long been claimed that Jefferson never denied the Hemings charge, thereby implicitly accepting it. This is false on two counts. He had a well-known policy of not responding publicly to personal accusations, so his silence means nothing. Furthermore, he denied the charges in private correspondence. There is a letter dated July 1, 1805, in which Jefferson pleads guilty to only one of the Federalists’ accusations, namely, that in his youth he made a pass at a married woman. He does not specifically deny the Hemings charge, but by 1805 it was well known, and his blanket denial can hardly have failed to include it.
So who was Eston Hemings’ father? The most likely candidate is Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother. In 1807, when Eston was conceived, he was a 51-year-old widower. There exists a letter inviting him and his family to visit Monticello at a time precisely nine months before Eston Hemings was born. Randolph was a fun-loving fellow who enjoyed spending time with slaves.
As one of Jefferson’s slaves, Isaac, recalls in his Memoirs of a Monticello Slave: “Old Master’s brother, Mass Randall was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn’t much more sense than Isaac.” It is not difficult to imagine what the widower might have got up to after a night of fiddle-playing. Moreover, it is known that in 1809, the year after Eston was born, Randolph remarried. He had a child by his new wife in 1810, so it is clear he was capable of fathering Eston.
Finally, it should be remembered that Randolph had five sons, all of reproductive age at the time Eston was conceived, and all of whom carried the Jefferson Y chromosome. Any of them could have visited Monticello with their father. Moreover, the unusual name of Eston was a given name in Randolph’s mother’s family, which also suggests parentage from that side of the family rather than from Thomas. Finally, Jefferson had a cousin named George, likewise of reproductive age and known to visit Monticello, so he cannot be ruled out as the father either. And indeed, the Eston family tradition held that a relative, and not Thomas Jefferson himself was the father–although the family is now busily revising the oral tradition to claim Thomas as head of the clan.
One can hardly expect the press to look into details like this, but it was pure partisanship for the Monticello foundation to brush aside family accounts that are perfectly consistent with the evidence, and instead base its position on the claims of blacks and the ambiguous Eston Hemings DNA evidence.
Jefferson’s accusers make much of the fact that Monticello records show Jefferson was at home during the periods when Sally Hemings must have conceived. This means nothing. It was when Jefferson was at Monticello that visitors–including possible fathers of Sally’s children–were most numerous. Also, there are few records of Sally’s movements, and it is possible she conceived her children during visits away from the plantation.
The Monticello foundation also insists that the Hemings children all must have had the same father, and that if even one had a Jefferson for a father, it means all of them did, and that this Jefferson must have been Thomas. There is absolutely no reason to think Sally Hemings was monogamous, except that this assumption may make it easier to pin her pregnancies on Jefferson. In fact, it is known that Sally’s mother and two of her sisters had different children by different fathers.
There is one tantalizing piece of evidence that could be collected but has not been. In October 1999 one of the contributors to this book located the grave of William Hemings, the son of the Madison Hemings who claimed in the 1873 interview to be Jefferson’s son. William died in 1910, so there could well be testable DNA in his grave. Significantly, William Hemings’ descendants refuse to permit their oral tradition to be put to the test. The Monticello foundation and other anti-Jefferson factions likewise show no interest in further DNA testing. The Jefferson-Hemings Myth suspects these people are perfectly content with the state of the scientific evidence as it is, since it has already been so woefully bent to suit their purposes. The authors point out that even if William Hemings carried a Jefferson gene it would only be more circumstantial evidence against Thomas and not conclusive. If, on the other hand, William Hemings carried some other Y chromosome–from a Carr, for example–this would be a strong blow to the theory of Jefferson-as-miscegenist.
The deeper one looks into this case, therefore, the flimsier the indictment and the darker the motives of the prosecution appear to be. Why did so many people ignore the evidence in Jefferson’s favor and delight in describing him as a lecher and hypocrite? This book ascribes it all to “political correctness,” but the problem is deeper. One need only compare the ecstatic denunciations of Jefferson to the outright terror the media had of printing the news that Martin Luther King was a plagiarist. Reporters at major newspapers kept quiet about that story for months, and published it only after a British paper scooped them.
Furthermore, although Hemings’ name is routinely evoked with a smirk along with Jefferson’s, after a brief excuse-making spate of articles about the African-American tradition of “voice-merging,” the word plagiarism–like the word adultery–has been permanently dissevered from the name of King. The mud has been scraped off the saint and he is buffed to as high a gloss as ever.
It would be hard to think of a contrast that better illustrates the anti-white thinking of our rulers, both in government and media: White heroes are fair game for even the most reckless smears while black heroes are untouchable. The so-called founders were debauched hypocrites whose ostensible achievements are largely white self-flattery, while it is to “civil rights” one turns for genuine heroes. This is an integral part of the program to discredit the nation’s founding as a self-consciously European enterprise and replace it with a multi-racial farrago in which the white element is the least praise-worthy.
Although this book is entirely right to point out the preposterous biases in the media’s treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings story, it was an entirely unexceptional performance. This was a story about race, and the media performed no worse than they usually do with this–for them–baffling subject.