Contrary to popular belief, President Thomas Jefferson did not father the children of his slave, Sally Hemings, according to William G. Hyland Jr., author of ‘In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal.’ It was his brother Randolph, “a ne’er-do-well,” who had a history of consorting with his brother’s slaves.
Hyland, a lawyer and member of the board of directors of the Thomas Jefferson Society, says the DNA results that established a link between Hemings and Thomas Jefferson implicated the wrong man. Randolph, 13 years younger, would have the identical Jefferson Y chromosome as his older brother and would have been a match for the DNA, he says.
Further, Randolph was at Monticello around the time of conception of each of Hemings’s children, including Eston, the youngest. Hyland spends a great deal of time trying to link Hemings and Randolph and exculpating Thomas Jefferson from the relationship, arguing, in part, that a ruffian, not a refined man would mingle with slaves.
Hyland also tries to overturn theories mapped out in Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking tome, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.’ The effort is not new. A long line of historians has concluded that the affair was unfounded. But Gordon-Reed’s research put it on the map. Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles, who died in 1782, after which he never remarried. Both Hemings and Jefferson remained silent on the affair.
Hyland took time from his busy schedule to discuss his book with BV Bookshelf:
We’ve never really heard Jefferson’s side of the story. You address that.
He basically denied the allegation in private. He wrote a long letter to his Secretary of Navy Robert Smith and basically denied the allegations. But he never in public denied it. That was kind of his routine and practice. He believed if he denied one thing in public that another thing would crop up and then another thing. So he never denied it in public, but he did deny it in private to his friends and family. Randolph is really the one who had the affair with Sally. There is no doubt that a Jefferson fathered one or more of her children. It’s just a question of whether it was Thomas Jefferson or some other Jefferson.
Why do you think it’s Randolph?
There were a number of factors. They had the same Y chromosome DNA that would have matched. Again, DNA was never taken from Thomas Jefferson because he didn’t have any male children. Randolph had six male children. Thomas had all female children except for a small infant who died and the DNA match was to a male child. So the DNA match was to a male child. So Randolph was more likely to be the father.
Also he was kind of a ne’er-do-well partier. I mean he actually socialized with the slaves. The kicker and hard evidence I found was a really obscure letter that was in the archives at the University of Virginia written from Thomas Jefferson to his brother on August 12, 1807. That was about nine months before [Sally] gave birth to Eston who was the DNA match. The letter invites Randolph to Monticello. In all probability he was there at the conception time for Eston.
You say that like it’s a bad thing, socializing with the servants and the slaves . . .
That was something that Thomas Jefferson, a refined person, would not think to do at that time. But for Randolph it perfectly was natural. It wasn’t a bad thing. I just put it out as a different mindset of the two brothers.
It will be interesting to see how the book will be received . . .
There is no doubt it was a Jefferson. The question is which Jefferson? I just think the public hasn’t heard the other side of the story. They’ve only heard one side, especially after the DNA findings. That was the nail in the coffin. There are a lot more facts on both sides that need to be heard. I say in the book that I wanted to stabilize both sides to give a different perspective than what you’ve heard. There are other facts and there are other inaccuracies. I really think the truth does matter.