Special Report

Challenging the Jefferson-Hemings Orthodoxy

A scholars commission lays a controversy to rest.

By 9.7.11

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Claims that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for almost 200 years when 1998 DNA tests showed descendants of one Hemings child were related to Jefferson. Conveniently timed during the Clinton-Monica scandal, it was supposedly proof that Jefferson, like Clinton, was brilliant but morally flawed.

The DNA test only proved that one of Hemings' children was fathered by one of potentially two dozen Jefferson men in possible proximity to Monticello at the time. But headlines were deceptively more emphatic. And popular culture, with many historians, has eagerly embraced the salacious prospect that a Founding Father bedded a slave mistress. 

Now some historians are challenging the supposed consensus. Last week, a "Scholars Commission" released a 400-page book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, disputing the assumption. It is a sweeping update of an initial report released 10 years ago. The 13 member group, of whom 2 are now deceased, included Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, historian Forrest McDonald, Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler, and economist Walter Williams.

Although lacking formal funding, the Scholars Commission, with the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, organized a news conference at the National Press Club, complete with sandwiches and drinks. The son of the late famed Jefferson scholar Dumas Malone even attended, almost as if to convey his father's blessing from beyond. The elder Malone, who always disputed the Sally Hemings story, famously completed the sixth volume of his magisterial Jefferson biography while in his ninth decade.

These scholars, with some dissent, point to Jefferson's younger brother Randolph as a likely father of one or more Hemings children. Randolph was recorded as having socialized with the slaves at Monticello, may have fathered other slave children, and was at Monticello during the conception time of at least one Hemings child. All of the Hemings children may have been born between Randolph's two marriages. Randolph also had five sons who are themselves candidates for paternity. Two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews by a sister have long been thought possible suspects, including by Jefferson's grandson. The DNA test disproved they could have fathered one child but not the others. 

Infamously, the Hemings story was birthed by a former Jefferson protégé, whom Jefferson had used to muckrake against Federalist enemies, and who promised "vengeance" against his patron when refused a political appointment. The evident payback was an 1802 newspaper column accusing Jefferson of fathering a "Tom" by a slave mistress. The Scholars Commission and others insist there's no evidence Hemings ever had a son named Tom. And DNA disproved that descendants of a Thomas Woodson, ostensibly a Jefferson-Hemings child, were related to any Jefferson. A Jefferson overseer later disputed claims of his overlord's intimate ties to Hemings, reporting he regularly saw another man leave Hemings' quarters in the morning. According to the Scholars Commission, the descendants of the only Hemings child DNA links to a Jefferson long believed their ancestor was Jefferson's "uncle," a likely reference to Jefferson's brother. 

The scholars believe Jefferson tacitly denied the Hemings allegation to his friends while maintaining public silence. He was publicly candid about an indiscretion with another woman earlier in life. And he carefully preserved, as did his descendants, record of his dalliance with a married English woman he knew in Paris. When 13- or 14-year-old Sally Hemings came to Paris to serve as maid to Jefferson's daughters, she almost certainly lived with them at their convent school, not with Jefferson at his diplomatic residence. Jefferson never lived alone. His daughters, sons in law and grandchildren were almost constantly with him at Monticello, as were hundreds, if not thousands, of relatives, friends, and uninvited house guests across the decades he supposedly romanced Hemings. 

How would the increasingly aged and unhealthy Jefferson have trysted with a slave woman in his mansion while surrounded by his extended family? Did he tiptoe out to the slave cabins in his night shirt always unseen? None of these Jefferson intimates who lived or stayed with him left any letters or diaries recording America's most prominent statesman's sexual involvement with a slave. Either they were all clueless, blind or inhumanly discrete. Jefferson took a number of slaves to the White House during his presidency but never the woman purportedly his mistress. Jefferson left almost no mention of Sally or her children in his extensive records and voluminous correspondence. The Scholars Commission insists he gave more preferential treatment to other slaves.

Disproving Jefferson's ties to Sally Hemings is virtually impossible. Possibly he fooled all his family and friends while secretly cavorting with a slave woman across two decades. But the truth is probably much sadder than fictional images of Jefferson dancing with a beautiful Sally in Paris, or of her lovingly tending him at his death bed. Among slavery's many other evils, slave women were often sexually exploited not just by their masters but also by the masters' family and friends, often producing children who never knew their fathers. More considerate masters recognized marriages among slaves, but these unions had no legal standing. 

Jefferson's great sin was probably not cavorting with Hemings but, unlike George Washington, never freeing all his slaves. Like all people, especially great ones, he was complex and flawed. But he did pen the words of human equality in the Declaration ensuring slavery's ultimate demise. He did help ban the slave trade. He was the last U.S. President until Abraham Lincoln publicly to denounce slavery while still in office. His life and words pointed to slavery's injustice even if he failed to abide his own lofty vision. 

The Scholars Commission, if nothing else, challenges a sloppy and unhistorical consensus and recalls a man and a time, like our own, that sustained both evil and heroic virtue.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.