In a book due out Thursday, eminent scholars say it’s unlikely that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children, disputing a decade’s worth of conventional wisdom that the author of the Declaration of Independence sired offspring with one of his slaves.
The debate has ensnared historians for years, and many thought the issue was settled when DNA testing in the late 1990s confirmed that a Jefferson male fathered Hemings’ youngest son, Eston. But, with one lone dissenter, the panel of 13 scholars doubted the claim and said the evidence points instead to Jefferson’s brother Randolph as the father.
“It is true that Sally’s sons Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson’s will, but so were all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother Betty Hemings who still belonged to Thomas Jefferson at the time of his death. Sally’s sons received by far the least favorable treatment of those freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will,” said Robert F. Turner, a former professor at the University of Virginia who served as chairman of the commission.
Mr. Turner made the remark in a statement announcing the release of the book, “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission.”
The commission, which worked without compensation, was formed at the behest of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, an outside group that seeks to defend Jefferson’s image.
Richard Dixon, who edits the newsletter for the Jefferson Heritage Society, which sponsored the scholars panel, said the book will provide academic heft for the ongoing debate.
“The reason that this book is important is that it does address these, we might call them, reasons why Jefferson could have been the father, in a detailed manner, and shows the fallacies in these reasons, and should bring the reader back to a point where the issue is not proven,” he said.
The claims about Jefferson date back to at least 1802, when Jefferson was serving his first term as president. A former ally of Jefferson’s wrote in a Richmond newspaper that he kept a slave named Sally as a concubine, and had fathered “several children” with her.
Hemings’ children, Madison and Eston, kept the story alive. In November 1998, results of DNA testing were released and showed a genetic link between descendants of the Jefferson family and of Eston Hemings.
A committee formed by the Jefferson foundation concluded in 2000 that the weight of evidence suggested Jefferson was most likely the father ofEston, and perhaps the father of all six of Hemings’ children recorded at Monticello.
The Heritage Society fought back with its own commission, which issued its report in 2001 disputing the conclusions. The 400-page book being released Thursday is the commission’s final product, complete with footnotes and references to rebut the other side’s claims.