The Thomas Jefferson – Sally Hemings Myth and the Politicization of American History by David N. Mayer



Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence states : “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

If the original draft of the Declaration of Independence had been approved there would have been no slavery after the revolution of 1776. The original draft was not approved, slavery was not abolished, and a civil war was fought leaving a legacy of bitterness in America still felt today.

The Thomas Jefferson – Sally Hemings Myth and the Politicization of American History 

Individual Views of David N. Mayer,
Concurring with the Majority Report of the
Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter

by: David N. Mayer
Professor of Law and History
Capital University
Columbus, Ohio

April 9, 2001


  1. Introduction
  2. Evolution of the Myth
  3. Myth vs. History: Oral Tradition as Unreliable Evidence
  4. Broader Context of the Myth Today: The Assault on Standards
  5. The Flawed Case for the Jefferson-Hemings Story
    1. Annette Gordon-Reed’s Book
    2. The TJMF (Monticello) Committee Report
  6. The Implausibility of the Story
    1. Denials by Jefferson Himself and Virtually All His Contemporaries
    2. Jefferson’s Character
  7. Conclusion
  1. Introduction

I concur in the Scholars Commission’s conclusion that the allegation that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings is “by no means proven.” My own view is that the allegation is not at all plausible. Moreover, I unreservedly join Robert F. Turner in his individual views, which I regard as the most complete and objective analysis yet written of all the evidence relevant to the Jefferson-Hemings allegation. I write my own separate report to state my views on the matter and to discuss the Jefferson-Hemings controversy in a broader context. As I see it, belief in the paternity allegation—which, to me, is quite literally a myth—is a symptom of a disturbing trend in the history profession in recent years, discussed below.

It is primarily out of my concern for the history profession, and far less so out of my concern for Jefferson’s legacy, that I agreed to serve on the Commission and that I am writing this essay. Let me make clear from the outset what has motivated me, and what has not motivated me, in this endeavor.

I freely admit that I am an admirer of Thomas Jefferson; but my admiration for Jefferson always has focused on his ideas, principally his ideas about government, and not on Jefferson as a man. For over 25 years—since I first began my formal studies of Jefferson’s political and constitutional thought as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan—I have been fascinated with Jefferson’s philosophy. My own studies have focused particularly on Jefferson’s ideas about limits on governmental power, the subject of my book The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994). While I necessarily learned a great deal about Jefferson’s life and times while doing the research for this book and my other writings on Jefferson’s thought, I always have found the substance of his ideas far more interesting than the circumstances of his life. Moreover, I believe that Jefferson’s place in American history—his central role in our nation’s founding and the evolution of its system of government—justly derives from his ideas. As I see it, genealogy is irrelevant: the true “children” of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His true legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government. The attributes of Jefferson the man—his character and the circumstances of his life—are essentially irrelevant to that legacy. Indeed, as I noted in my comments at the University of Virginia on the 250th anniversary of his birth (April 13, 1993), it saddens me that Americans today seem to have done a better job preserving Jefferson’s legacy in bricks and mortar (having in mind the splendid restorations of Jefferson’s “academical village” in the University as well as his two homes, Monticello and Poplar Forest) than we have in preserving his legacy of ideas.

Frankly, I regard Jefferson’s personal life as neither interesting nor important. What troubles me most about the controversy over Jefferson’s alleged relationship with Sally Hemings is that this matter unjustifiably has overshadowed Jefferson’s true significance. I do not join with those who regard the Hemings paternity allegation as a per se libel of Jefferson’s character; as discussed below, belief in that allegation has served to advance the interests of a number of partisans, some of them detractors of Jefferson but others genuine admirers of Jefferson, who use the story of a relationship with Sally Hemings to transform Jefferson into either a villain or a hero to advance their own agendas.

I agreed to serve on the Scholars Commission because I became increasingly concerned about the way both the admirers and the detractors of Jefferson were willing to use the Hemings story for their own purposes without regard to historical truth or to objective, well-recognized standards of good historical scholarship. I was particularly troubled by the fact that many eminent scholars have so readily abandoned professional standards in seizing upon the 1998 DNA study—and, in the process, either blithely ignoring or deliberately misrepresenting the findings of that study—as so-called “proof” of the paternity allegation, again to advance their own partisan agendas.

  1. Evolution of the Myth

Throughout American history, the Jefferson-Hemings paternity allegation has been used for partisan purposes. That certainly was the case of the allegation’s early history, during Jefferson’s own lifetime. It originated in an 1802 Richmond, Virginia newspaper story by the hatchet journalist James Thomson Callender, a disappointed job-seeker who felt he had been betrayed by the new President and whose bitterness toward Jefferson was quite evident throughout the piece. The allegation was nothing more than unsubstantiated rumor, for there is no evidence that Callender had any first-hand knowledge of Monticello. The allegation then was spread by Jefferson’s political enemies in the bitterly partisan Federalist press, particularly in the fall of 1802. Significantly, however, after Americans gave President Jefferson and his party an overwhelming vote of confidence by bolstering Republican majorities in both the House and Senate in the mid-term Congressional elections, the Hemings allegation seemed to die. “Little was said about Hemings, for example, in the months before [Jefferson’s] 1804 landslide re-election, and only infrequently during the remainder of Jefferson’s lifetime did references to the alleged affair appear in print,” concluded the scholar who has most thoroughly studied the Hemings story in the context of Jefferson’s reputation during his lifetime. (Robert M.S. McDonald, “Race, Sex, and Reputation: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Hemings Story,” Southern Cultures 4: 46-63 (Summer 1998), p. 47.) The Hemings paternity allegation resurfaced again in New England—the last bastion of the Federalist party—in 1805, occasioning Jefferson’s letter to friends denying the “charges” made against him, except for the truthful allegation of his youthful affair with the wife of his neighbor John Walker, an allegation which at the time probably was taken far more seriously than the Hemings story. (Ibid., pp. 55-59.)

In the decades following Jefferson’s death, both before and after the Civil War, the Hemings paternity allegation—together with other miscegenation stories linked to Jefferson—surfaced from time to time as partisans of North and South, Whigs (or Republicans) and Democrats, and anti-slavery political activists and pro-slavery Southern apologists, all used the “Jefferson image” to help further their own cause. As Merrill D. Peterson has noted, the story was revived and retold especially by abolitionists in the antebellum period. “The most common version of the story in anti-slavery circles was the one related in 1838 by Dr. Levi Gaylord, of New York. He had heard, he said, from the lips of a Southern gentleman: `I saw for myself, the DAUGHTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON sold in New Orleans, for one thousand dollars.’ Gaylord wanted this `sounded longer and louder through the length and breadth of the land’ until a virtuous indignation should wipe out slavery. Goodell’s Friend of Man printed Gaylord’s story, whence it spread to other newspapers.” (Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960, 1962, p. 182.) After the anonymous poem “Jefferson’s Daughter” appeared in the abolitionist newspaper Liberator, other anti-slavery activists—principally the black writer and abolitionist William Wells Brown—popularized the story. “Upon the flimsy basis of oral tradition, anecdote, and satire, the most intelligent and upright abolitionists avowed their belief in Jefferson’s miscegenation,” Peterson reports. (Ibid., p. 183.)

Although the underlying motives changed, 19th-century exponents of the Hemings story and other Jefferson miscegenation legends continued to use the allegations for partisan purposes. “Unlike the Federalists, the abolitionists were smearing the South’s peculiar institution, not Jefferson or democracy. They dwelled less on Jefferson’s `African brothel’ than on his alleged mulatto offspring.” (Ibid., p. 182.) Peterson also notes that one other group contributed to the revival of the legend in the second quarter of the 19th century: British aristocrats who, in their commentary on America found Jefferson—the symbol of American democracy—”a convenient target for their criticism.” (Ibid., pp. 183-84.) After the Civil War, the legend continued to be used for partisan purposes, by Republican Party activists (many of them former abolitionists) who took Jefferson as a symbol for both the defeated Confederate cause and for the Democratic Party.

It is in the context of this 19th-century manipulation of the “Jefferson image” that we must place the so-called “memoirs” of Madison Hemings, published on March 13, 1873 as the first of a series of interviews with former slaves entitled “Life Among the Lowly,” in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, a partisan newspaper edited by Samuel F. Wetmore, a Republican Party activist. As Professor Turner notes in his individual views, there are many good reasons to be highly skeptical of this 1873 newspaper article. One reason is that we are not sure the statements attributed to Madison Hemings really were his and not the words of the editor, Wetmore. Even if the statements were indeed Hemings’, they are clearly hearsay, for Madison Hemings had no first-hand knowledge of a relationship between Jefferson and his mother. Indeed, given that there is no evidence that Sally Hemings herself claimed Jefferson as the father of any of her children as well as the fact that Madison Hemings’ statements so closely resemble the original Callender allegations from 1802 (for example, in their identical misspellings of John Wayles’ name), it is possible that Hemings based his story on Callender’s. Whatever the source of the words attributed to Madison Hemings, they clearly reflect a deep bitterness toward Jefferson—a bitterness that is fully understandable if Madison Hemings genuinely believed he was Thomas Jefferson’s son, for all the available evidence indicates Jefferson essentially ignored him. (The significance of the lack of any evidence showing Jefferson’s affection toward Madison Hemings, or any of Sally Hemings’ other children, in refuting the paternity allegation is discussed more fully in Part VI.B., below.)

The unreliability of Madison Hemings’ story as reported in the 1873 Pike County Republican is further highlighted by Wetmore’s follow-up interview in his “Life Among the Lowly” series with another former Monticello slave, Israel Jefferson, which Samuel Wetmore published in his newspaper several months later (on December 25, 1873) in an effort to corroborate Hemings’ story. As Professor Turner notes in his individual views, Israel Jefferson’s statements are even less credible than Madison Hemings’. Shortly after Israel’s story was published, Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, wrote a scathing six-page letter to the editor in response, pointing out many factual errors in Israel’s account and, of course, denying the “calumny” of the Hemings paternity allegation. Randolph added, “To my knowledge and that of others 60 years ago the paternity of these parties were admitted by others.” (Thomas Jefferson Randolph letter, c. 1874, University of Virginia Library.)

The “others” to whom Randolph referred were Peter and Samuel Carr, nephews of Thomas Jefferson (the sons of his sister Martha and his childhood friend Dabney Carr, whom he raised as if they were his own sons). James Parton, in his 1874 biography of Jefferson, quoted Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph as telling fellow Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall that “there was not the shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or any other instance had commerce with female slaves.” T. J. (Jeff) Randolph alleged that Sally Hemings was the mistress of Peter Carr, while Sally’s sister Betsey Hemings was the mistress of Peter’s brother, Samuel. (Letter from Henry S. Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868, printed in Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1951, pp. 236-37.) Jeff Randolph also told Randall that he once confronted Peter and Samuel Carr over the matter (after a visitor at Monticello had left a newspaper with “insulting remarks about Mr. Jefferson’s mulatto children”), and that the Carr brothers tearfully confessed their guilt, with Peter saying, “Ar’nt you and I a couple of _____ pretty fellows to bring this disgrace on poor old uncle who has always fed us! We ought to be _____, by _____.” (Ibid., p. 238.)

Randall explained that he did not include the allegation against the Carr brothers in his Life of Jefferson because Jeff Randolph prohibited him from doing so, saying “You are not bound to prove a negative. If I should allow you to take Peter Carr’s corpse into Court and plead guilty over it to shelter Mr. Jefferson, I should not dare again to walk by his grave: he would rise and spurn me.” Randall added, again citing Jeff Randolph, that Jefferson was “deeply attached to the Carrs—especially to Peter. He was extremely indulgent to them and the idea of watching them for faults or vices probably never occurred to him.” (Ibid.)

Randolph’s sister, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, claimed that the father of Sally Hemings’ children rather was Samuel Carr, “the most good-natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense.” (Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, October 24, 1858, Coolidge Family Papers, University of Virginia Library.) Ellen Coolidge further claimed that her brother had overheard Peter Carr “say with a laugh, that `the old gentleman had to bear the blame of his and Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeeds.” (Ibid.)

One other direct observer of happenings at Monticello offered his testimony denying the Hemings paternity allegation against Jefferson. Edmund Bacon, who was Jefferson’s slave overseer for many years, in a reminiscence first recorded in 1862, denied that Sally Hemings’ daughter (presumably Harriett) was Jefferson’s daughter. “She was not his daughter, she was—–‘s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early.” (Rev. Hamilton Wilcox Pierson, “Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson,” manuscript of the recollections of Edmund Bacon, printed in James A. Bear, ed.,Jefferson at Monticello, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967, p. 102.)

Notwithstanding the denial of the Hemings paternity allegation by members of Jefferson’s family and eyewitnesses to life at Monticello, the allegation survived in the oral traditions of several American families who claimed descent from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, including the descendants of Madison Hemings as well as the descendants of Thomas Woodson, who claimed to be the child Callender had identified as “Tom.” (These oral traditions are discussed more fully in Part III, below.) The Hemings allegation also remained alive in the writings of many black American political activists and scholars, including W.E.B. DuBois. (See Peterson, Jefferson Image in the American Mind, p. 184.) But the allegation was given new life when the claims made in Madison Hemings’ “memoir” were resurrected in a bestselling biography of Jefferson published in the 1970s.

In her book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History(1974), the late Fawn M. Brodie resurrected the story attributed to Madison Hemings, as well as the original 1802 Callender allegation, that while in France, Jefferson took as his “concubine” the teenaged Sally Hemings. Jefferson scholars have long rejected Ms. Brodie’s flimsy “psychological evidence” of a Jefferson-Hemings affair in France (see Brodie,Intimate History, pp. 294-300)—and with good reason, for Brodie’s “psycho-history” was not only implausible but also failed to fit the facts. As Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall writes: “[Brodie] suggested that, when Jefferson traveled through France and Germany and eight times described soil as mulatto in his twenty-five sheets of notes, he was not referring, as he labeled the appropriate column of his charts, to yellowish soil in the hills and valleys he traveled through but was really thinking of the contours of Sally’s body. And when he was taking notes on a new kind of mold-board plow that he invented shortly after the journey, he was really thinking of plowing the fertile Sally as soon as he returned to Paris. But mulatto is a precise term describing yellowish-brown soil. And when Jefferson used the term mulatto to describe soil during his French travels, Sally was still on a ship with Polly, accompanying her to France. If he had ever noticed her or remembered her at all, Sally had been only ten years old when Jefferson last visited Monticello hurriedly in 1784 to pack [Sally’s brother] James Hemings off to France with him. She was only eight when Jefferson last resided at Monticello and was mourning his wife’s death. Unless Brodie was suggesting that Jefferson consoled himself by having an affair with an eight-year-old child, the whole chain of suppositions is preposterous.” (Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993, p. 476.)

Despite its obvious shortcomings, Fawn Brodie’s account of a sexual liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, beginning in France and continuing at Monticello following their return to the United States, captured the imagination of many people and became a part of American popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. From scholarly treatments such as Winthrop Jordan’s book Black over White (1968) to imaginative recreations such as Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel Sally Hemings (1979) or the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris (1995), the story of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship became widely accepted by many Americans. Thus, when Annette Gordon-Reed, an African-American associate professor of law at New York Law School, sought to vindicate Madison Hemings’ claims in her bookThomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), she found a ready audience. (The flawed case for Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children presented in Professor Gordon-Reed’s book is further discussed in Part V.A., below.) Although historian Joseph J. Ellis, in his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), had joined other Jefferson biographers in doubting the story of a sexual liaison with Sally Hemings, he had read the manuscript of Gordon-Reed’s book—which was going to print just as his own book was published—and declared in a blurb for its inside cover, “Short of digging up Jefferson and doing DNA testing on him and Hemings’ descendants, Gordon-Reed’s account gets us as close to the truth as the available evidence allows.”

Without having to disturb Jefferson’s corpse, Dr. Eugene A. Foster was able to conduct DNA tests, which compared the Y chromosome haplotypes of 14 individuals: five living male-line descendants of two sons of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle), five living male-line descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson, three living male-line descendants of three sons of John Carr (paternal grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr), and one living male-line descendant of Eston Hemings. The results showed a match between Eston Hemings’ descendant and the descendants of Field Jefferson. The tests found no match, however, between the Jefferson male DNA and that of Thomas Woodson’s descendants. Nor did the tests find a match between the Eston Hemings descendant and the Carr descendants. As historian (and fellow Scholars Commission member) Lance Banning succinctly puts it in his paper “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?”: “Although they implicate a Jefferson, not a Carr, as Eston Hemings’ father, the DNA results cannot exclude the Carrs as possible fathers of Sally Hemings’ earlier children. Neither can they show, in and of themselves, that Thomas Jefferson was any more likely to have been Eston’s father than any of Thomas’s male-line relatives who might have had relations with Sally Hemings at the relevant times.” (Professor Banning’s paper, pp. 9-10.) In fact, Jefferson was one of at least 25 adult male Jeffersons (male-line descendants of his paternal grandfather, Field Jefferson) who might have fathered Eston Hemings, passing on to him the Y chromosome with the distinctive Jeffersonian characteristics. Indeed, eight of these 25 Jefferson males lived within 20 miles (a half-day’s ride) of Monticello—including Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph Jefferson, and Randolph’s five sons, who ranged in age from about 17 to 26 at the time of Eston’s birth.

The results of Dr. Foster’s DNA tests were reported in the November 5, 1998 issue of the British journalNature, in an article bearing the misleading headline, “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.” (A more accurate headline, of course, would have been “AJefferson—not necessarily Thomas Jefferson—fathered” Sally Hemings’ youngest child.) The article on the DNA test results was accompanied by an article “Founding father,” co-authored by Professor Ellis, which proclaimed that the DNA analysis “confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.”

Thus began the “spin” on the DNA test results—and the most recent telling of the Jefferson-Hemings story. No doubt referring to his own book which portrayed Jefferson as an enigmatic “sphinx,” Professor Ellis wrote, “Recent work has also emphasized his massive personal contradictions and his dexterity at playing hide-and-seek within himself. The new evidence only deepens the paradoxes.” And, further evidencing new uses for the Jefferson image in modern American politics, Professor Ellis concluded, “Our heroes—and especially presidents—are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all the frailties and imperfections that this entails.”

The timing of the Nature article’s publication—on the eve of the November 1998 Congressional elections and just weeks before the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to impeach President Bill Clinton—was not purely coincidental. Professor Ellis’ accompanying article also noted, quite frankly, “Politically, the Thomas Jefferson verdict is likely to figure in upcoming impeachment hearings on William Jefferson Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, in which DNA testing has also played a role.” In television interviews following release of the article, Professor Ellis elaborated on this theme; and Clinton’s apologists made part of their defense the notion that every President—even Jefferson—had his “sexual indiscretions.” (It should be added that Ellis was among the so-called “Historians in Defense of the Constitution” who signed an October 1998 ad in theNew York Times opposing Clinton’s impeachment.)

Others besides Clinton apologists seized upon the alleged DNA “proof” of Jefferson paternity to advance their own ideological agendas. British journalists and commentators used the story much as they had in the 19th century, to denigrate American Revolutionaries by associating them with slaveholding. Thus, for example, Christopher Hitchens suggested in The Nation that Jefferson henceforth be described as “the slave-owning serial flogger, sex addict, and kinsman to ax murderers.” (One is reminded of reviews in the British press of the Mel Gibson movie, “The Patriot,” last summer. The Express noted that the real Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” on whom Gibson’s Benjamin Martin character was based, “raped his slaves and hunted Red Indians for sport.”) And for many scholars of race and race relations in America, the Jefferson-Hemings story and reactions to it (particularly by those who continued to be skeptics) provided further evidence of the racism they say permeates American society. Indeed, for many, acceptance of the paternity thesis has become a kind of litmus test for “politically correct” views: those of us who continue to question it have been denounced as racially insensitive, if not racist. (For more on this, see the discussion of Annette Gordon-Reed’s views, in Part V.A. below.)

The Jefferson-Hemings story is useful symbolism for people of various political persuasions today: to those on the left, for example, it can serve as a metaphor for racism in America; to those on the right, a metaphor for immorality. Not just leftists, but conservatives too, have used the Hemings story to denigrate Jefferson and, with him, two of the cardinal values of his life, reason and individualism. As Timothy Sandefur notes in his essay “Anti-Jefferson, Left and Right” (Liberty, October 1999, p. 52), “What damns Thomas Jefferson in conservative and multiculturalist eyes alike is his appeal `to all men and at all times,’ and not to the considerations of race, class, and sex, of which the left approves, or to the `whispers of dead men’ that the conservative hears.” The Hemings story permits some to see Jefferson’s whole political philosophy as “bound up in the sexual exploitation of a slave,” Sandefur adds. “Jefferson’s position as theEnlightenment figure in America can thus be seen as inseparable from his ownership and exploitation of slaves, and the Enlightenment can be dismissed accordingly. Conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza describes a conversation he had with some thoroughly indoctrinated college students: `On Jefferson, the three were agreed: he was, in various descriptions, a `hypocrite,’ a `rapist’. . ., and a `total racist.’ Jeffersonian principles of individualism, reason, science, and private property, all become tainted.” (Ibid., p. 34.)

It is not just the enemies of the Enlightenment in America today who find symbolism in the Hemings story. Libertarians, too, find the story a useful vehicle for advancing their agendas, whether they are detractors or admirers of Jefferson. Some want to believe the story because they are anxious to pull him off his pedestal, to show in Jefferson’s hypocrisy “the need to be a nation of laws and not of men,” as an editor of Reason magazine put it. (Nick Gillespie, in reply to the author’s and other readers’ letters “In Defense of Jefferson,” Reason, April 1999, p. 11.) Others, who genuinely admire Jefferson, hope that “this new, racially-conflicted Jefferson,” who some now imagine as having had a long-term monogamous relationship with a mulatto woman, might be “more authentically libertarian” than “the old, much more `racist’ Jefferson,” as one libertarian scholar suggested to me in private correspondence. This last comment suggests that some admirers of Jefferson, whatever their political persuasion, find in the Hemings story a new way to “humanize” Jefferson, to make him less aloof. Indeed, for some who idolize Jefferson, the Hemings story provides proof that Jefferson was able to transcend the racial attitudes of his time. They are, frankly, engaged in wishful thinking, idealizing Jefferson into a 20th- (or even 21st-) century individualist comfortable with interracial relationships—which, sadly, he was not (as his retirement-years writings on race matters show).

The lesson is obvious: today, as throughout American history since the inception of the story nearly 200 ago, many Americans for various reasons want passionately to believe that Thomas Jefferson fathered some or all of Sally Hemings’ children, whether or not the evidence supports the charge.

III. Myth vs. History: Oral Tradition as Unreliable Evidence

Traditionally, historians long have recognized the unreliability of oral tradition as evidence. Family “oral history” or “family tradition” particularly is unreliable, for many reasons, as Professor Turner points out in his report. These include the high probability of errors creeping into stories that are told and retold from one generation to the next, as well as the tendency “to embellish the family legacy to instill pride and confidence in the next generation.” The problem is not peculiar to American history or modern times: notables in ancient Rome, for example, frequently claimed descent from the gods—Julius Caesar, from the goddess Venus, for example—to make them even more patrician.

Indeed, family oral traditions really ought not to be called “history” at all, for they are rather, quite literally, myth. That realization hit home with me last summer when I was attending a conference at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and visited the Museum of Archeology, which is famous for its collection of totem poles and other artifacts relating to Pacific Northwest Indians (or “First Peoples,” as they are called in Canada). Totem poles, of course, were used by the native peoples to memorialize their own myths. Here’s how the guidebook I purchased at the Museum explained their mythology:

There were two kinds of myths on the Northwest Coast—those which were known to and could be told by everyone and those which were the private property of particular families and could only be told by their members. Both kinds tell of a primordial age before the world became as it is now, a time when finite divisions between humans, animals, and spirits had not yet been created and beings could transform themselves from one form into another. . . . It was a time now lost but remembered. It was a world now gone, but one that people recreated in art and ritual. Through ceremonial and artistic re-enactment of their heritage, through dance, song, and ritual acting, people maintained continuity with their genesis. So, even though mythological time belonged to long ago, before mankind became separated and distinguished from animals and nature, the memory of it could be kept alive.

The myths which everyone could tell concerned the change of that other world into this one. . . . The family myths, on the other hand, told of family origins, of ancestors who came down from the sky as birds or who married mythical animals and shining celestial beings; they told of the wanderings of the ancestors, their settlement in their present locations, and their acquisition of the privileges and powers which defined the greatness of the family line. Paramount among these were those rights whose representations the family could display on totem poles and ceremonial objects to broadcast their heritage to others.

(Marjorie M. Halpin, Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 981, pp. 9-10.)

As noted in Part V. B. below, the Monticello Committee report essentially takes the “family myths” of the Madison Hemings descendants and treats them as history. It would be like a historian today saying that a famous tribal leader among the Pacific Northwest First Peoples really was descended from a raven bird, because his family myth says so—it must be true because it’s a story people “continued to tell their children and grandchildren . . ., often at significant times in their lives”! (See discussion of Monticello Committee report, below.)

There are many reasons to doubt the reliability of the oral tradition handed down by the Madison Hemings’ descendants. Significantly, there is no evidence of an oral tradition corroborating the assertions attributed to Madison Hemings which antedates the publication of the 1873 Pike County Republican story. Thus, rather than being an oral history handed down to her descendants by Sally Hemings herself—or by any contemporaries of hers with first-hand knowledge of happenings at Monticello, or even by Madison Hemings himself, who presumably had only second-hand knowledge of his paternity—the allegation of Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’ children appears to have originated with these 1873 newspaper stories. And, like the oral tradition handed down to Thomas Woodson’s descendants, it is quite likely that the Madison Hemings oral tradition ultimately owes its origin to the original 1802 Callender allegation.

Yet, as discussed in Part V.B. below, the Monticello Committee report treats the Madison Hemings story as key evidence linking Jefferson to Sally Hemings—and indeed, apart from the so-called “Monte Carlo” simulation (the problems of which are also discussed in Part V.B. below), it is literally the only evidence cited by the Committee report in support of its conclusion that Jefferson likely fathered all the children of Sally Hemings—that is, the children other than Eston.

Among other families of Hemings descendants, a quite different oral tradition—attributing the paternity of Sally Hemings’ children to an “uncle” of Jefferson’s—appears to have been handed down from generation to generation. The Monticello Report’s effort to discount that tradition, while accepting the Madison Hemings story, is quite unconvincing, as noted below.

  1. Broader Context of the Myth Today: The Assault on Standards

The rise of three related phenomena in higher education generally—the “political correctness” movement, multiculturalism, and post-modernism—helps explain why the Jefferson-Hemings myth has become so readily accepted today, not only by the American general public but also by scholars who should know better.

The term political correctness was coined in the early 1990s, in the midst of a controversy over perceived threats to academic freedom on America’s college and university campuses. Originally an approving phrase used by those on the Leninist left to denote someone who steadfastly toed the party line, “politically correct” or “P.C.” began to be used ironically by critics of the left—first by conservatives (such as Dinesh D’Souza, author of the best-selling bookIlliberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991)) and later by liberals and many old-school leftists —who sought to defend campus freedoms against “P.C.” censors. The debate encompasses many issues, among them official campus speech codes, designed to protect certain groups of students from “oppressive” or even merely “insensitive” racist or sexist speech, as well as new curriculums emphasizing race and ethnic distinctions. (Paul Berman, Introduction to Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, New York: Dell Publishing, 1992, pp. 1-6. On the threats to campus speech generally, see Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, New York: The Free Press, 1998.)

Perhaps the most important attribute of the “politically correct” movement has been its emphasis on “race/class/gender-ism,” which pictures culture and language as giant hidden structures that permeate life and which assumes that American culture (or Western culture generally) has been dominated by the culture and language of European white males. (Berman, Introduction to Debating P.C., pp. 14-15.) In its opposition to this perceived hegemony, the P.C. movement overlaps with the other two modern movements in higher education, multiculturalism and postmodernism.

Multiculturalism began as a well-intentioned movement to diversify education—and the teaching of history, in particular—by calling attention to the experiences of women, blacks, American Indians, immigrants, and members of other groups whose stories largely had been neglected in textbooks. What began as a movement on behalf of diversity and cultural pluralism, however, devolved into a “particularist” movement that, in its overreaction to perceived “Eurocentrism,” fostered even more extremely distorted views of American history, such as Afrocentrism. (See generally Diane Ravitch, “Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures,” in Berman, ed.,Debating P.C., pp. 271-98.) Particularists “have no interest in extending or revising American culture; indeed, they deny that a common culture exists. Particularists reject any accommodation among groups, any interactions that blur the distinct lines between them. The brand of history that they espouse is one in which everyone is either a descendant of victims or oppressors.” (Ibid., p. 278.)

When advocates of political correctness or extreme multiculturalism challenge the culture of rationalism and humanism, they also ally themselves with an even more pervasive movement among American intellectuals in recent decades, the so-called “post-modern” movement. Postmodernist theory attempts to “deconstruct,” or expose, the underlying subjectivity and indeterminacy of everything we assume we know. Among historians, postmodernism has meant an assault on objectivity: a rejection of traditional standards for discovering facts, weighing evidence, and interpreting events. Traditional analytic and empirical methods are rejected in favor of history as mere “narrative.” As one theorist put it, “The past is not discovered or found; it is created or represented by the historian as text.” History, to the postmodernists, is no more factual or objective than any other discipline; “there are no grounds to be found in the historical record itself for preferring one way of construing its meaning over another,” for interpretation is inevitably “socially constructed.” (See Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry, Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 15, 108-10.)

Postmodernists and radical multiculturalists frequently argue that white male culture has achieved domination over other cultures through values such as rationalism, humanism, universality, and literary merit—values which the multiculturalists claim are not objective but rather are tools for oppressing other people by persuading them of their own inferiority. (Berman, inDebating P.C., p. 14.) These views lead to “disturbing distortions in scholarship and public discourse,” argue law professors Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry. (It should be noted that Professors Farber and Sherry are not conservatives; they are mainstream liberal law professors who are alarmed at the threats posed to law and legal scholarship by radical multiculturalist movements in the legal academy such as Critical Legal Studies, radical feminism, and Critical Race Theory.) “Because they reject objectivity as a norm, the radicals are content to rely on personal stories as a basis for formulating views of social problems. These stories are often atypical or distorted by self-interest, yet any criticism of the stories is inevitably seen as a personal attack on the storyteller,” they observe. Indeed, “because radical multiculturalists refuse to separate the speaker from the message, they can become sidetracked from discussing the merits of the message itself into bitter disputes about the speaker’s authenticity and her right to speak on behalf of an oppressed group. Criticisms of radical multiculturalism are seen as pandering to the power structure if they come from women or minorities, or as sexist and racist if they come from white men.” (Farber and Sherry, Beyond All Reason, p. 12.) Thus, not only objectivity, but also civility—the basic prerequisite for genuine dialogue—has been jeopardized.

In recent years, many American historians have become concerned at the degree to which radical multiculturalism and postmodernism have apparently dominated the nation’s two leading organizations of historians, the American History Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Many historians consequently have resigned their membership in one or both of these groups. A politically diverse coalition of historians, ranging in their political views from conservative and libertarian to left-liberal—all who share a concern for how radical multiculturalism and “identity politics” have been destroying the profession—even have formed a new organization to compete with the AHA and the OAH, called The Historical Society (THS). (See, for example, William R. Keylor, “Clio on the Campus: The Historical Society at Boston University,” inBostonia, Summer 1999, pp. 20-23.)

Sadly, the historical profession today has lost much of the standards by which evidence can be objectively weighed and evaluated in the search for historical truth. History, in effect, has become politicized in America today, as illustrated by the widespread acceptance of the Jefferson-Hemings myth as historical fact.

Taken together, political correctness, multiculturalism, and post-modernism have created an environment in the academic world today in which scholars feel pressured to accept the Jefferson-Hemings myth as historical truth. White male scholars in particular fear that by questioning the myth—by challenging the validity of the oral tradition “evidence” cited by some of the Hemings descendants—they will be called racially “insensitive,” if not racist. As discussed more fully in my critique of Annette Gordon-Reed’s book inPart V.A., below, among many proponents of the Jefferson paternity claim there has emerged a truly disturbing McCarthyist-like inquisition that has cast its pall over Jefferson scholarship today. Questioning the validity of the claim has been equated with the denigration of African Americans and the denial of their rightful place in American history. In this climate of scholarly and public opinion, it requires great personal courage for scholars to question the Jefferson paternity thesis and to point out the dubious historical record on which it rests.

  1. The Flawed Case for the Jefferson-Hemings Story

The two most significant briefs on behalf of the Jefferson-Hemings paternity claim that have appeared thus far in print are Annette Gordon-Reed’s book,Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) Ad Hoc Research Committee Report (referred to below as the Monticello Report), released in 2000 and available on the Monticello website ( I refer to both these works as briefs on behalf of the paternity claim, for both share this essential weakness: rather than objectively weighing all the relevant evidence according to established standards of historical scholarship, they both are markedly one-sided, based on a highly selective reading of the evidence, presenting the case for Jefferson’s paternity as if it were accepted as an article of faith. And for both Professor Gordon-Reed and for the staff at Monticello, it apparently is.

  1. Annette Gordon-Reed’s Book

Annette Gordon-Reed is a law professor, not trained as a historian; her book is a classic example of what historians call “lawyer’s history”—an advocacy brief which marshals the evidence in favor of a predetermined thesis rather than objectively weighs the evidence in the search for historical truth.

In both the preface and conclusion to her book, Professor Gordon-Reed quite directly admits that her mission is to expose the “troubling”—i.e., racist—assumptions made by historians who have denied “the truth of a liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.” To sustain the denial, she argues, historians must “make Thomas Jefferson so high as to have been something more than human” and “make Sally Hemings so low as to have been something less than human.” Historians have engaged in “the systematic dismissal of the words of the black people who spoke on this matter—Madison Hemings, the son of Sally Hemings, and Israel Jefferson, a former slave who also resided at Monticello—as though their testimony was worth some fraction as that of whites.” Indeed, she regards Madison Hemings as “a metaphor for the condition of blacks in American society.” He was, she notes, “a black man who watched his three siblings voluntarily disappear into the white world” and yet who “chose to remain black and to speak for himself,” only to be “vilified and ridiculed in a vicious manner” and then be “forgotten.” To vindicate him, she wrote the book. (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, pp. xiv, 234-35.)

Throughout her book, Professor Gordon-Reed vilifies as racist—without ever directly using that term—virtually every historian who has ever written about Jefferson and Sally Hemings: these include established Jefferson scholars such as Merrill Peterson, Douglass Adair, Dumas Malone, and John Chester Miller, as well as younger scholars such as Andrew Burstein. Her treatment of Burstein is illustrative of her technique. In his 1995 book The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, Burstein briefly addressed Madison Hemings’ 1873 newspaper interview, noting that it was “possible that his claim was contrived—by his mother or himself—to provide an otherwise undistinguished biracial carpenter a measure of social respect.” Burstein added, “Would not his life have been made more charmed by being known as the son of Thomas Jefferson than the more obscure Peter or Samuel Carr?” Professor Gordon-Reed answers this rhetorical question with an emphatic “no,” in the process ridiculing Burstein’s choice of words, particularly his reference to a “charmed” life. (Jefferson and Hemings: American Controversy, p. 18.) Burstein has since reversed his position of skepticism and now argues that the DNA test results “have convincingly linked [Jefferson] to Sally Hemings sexually.” (Andrew Burstein, “Jefferson’s Rationalizations,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 57:183 (Jan. 2000).)

In addition to rhetorical arguments designed to ridicule the white male historians who have written about the Jefferson-Hemings matter—suggesting not so subtly that their writings have been infused with racist assumptions—Professor Gordon-Reed also carefully selects the evidence and presents it in the light most favorable to her cause, exposing what she regards as “double standards” in historical scholarship. In the process, however, she breaks down most accepted standards for weighing evidence, particularly for weighing oral tradition evidence, creating a new double standard which gives preference to the oral tradition supporting the Jefferson paternity thesis. Legitimate doubts about the veracity of the 1873 newspaper “memoir” attributed to Hemings—doubts based not only on the many problems found in the account itself but also in its broader political context, as noted in Part II above—are swept aside, as Professor Gordon-Reed focuses on such matters as scholars’ questioning whether a word like encientewould have been used by a black man at that time period. (Jefferson and Hemings: American Controversy, p. 20.) Her aim, again, is to vindicate Madison Hemings and his story, “to present the strongest case to be made that the story might be true.” (Ibid., p. 210.)

More broadly, Professor Gordon-Reed’s agenda is to use the Jefferson-Hemings story as a metaphor for American race relations. In a letter to the editor published soon after the DNA test results went public, Professor Gordon-Reed admitted quite directly the “silver lining” she found in this controversy, what it shows about “the history of racism in America”: “If people had accepted this story, he would never have become an icon. All these historians did him a favor until we could get past our primitive racism. I don’t think he would have been on Mount Rushmore or on the nickel. The personification of America can’t live 38 years with a black woman.” (“The All-Too-Human Jefferson,” Letter to the editor, Wall Street Journal, November 24, 1998.)

Because her mission was to rebut the case made by Jefferson scholars—virtually all of whom have accepted on face value the paternity allegations made against Peter and Samuel Carr by Jefferson’s grandchildren T.J. Randolph and Ellen Coolidge Randolph—Professor Gordon-Reed ignores entirely the possibility that Jefferson’s brother Randolph or one of Randolph Jefferson’s five sons could have fathered one or more of Sally Hemings’ children. Although she lists in her bibliography Bernard Mayo’s Thomas Jefferson and His Unknown Brother Randolph (1942), she excludes Randolph and his sons from her genealogical table of “The Jeffersons and Randolphs (Relevant Connections Only),” as well as from the nearly 50 “Important Names” listed in Appendix A to her book. Nor are Randolph Jefferson or any of his children even referenced in her index.

The flawed scholarship of the book is further epitomized by a significant transcription error which appears in Appendix E, the text of Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s 1858 letter to Joseph Coolidge. In relevant part, the original letter as found in the Coolidge Letterbook, University of Virginia Library—in clear handwriting—states the following about Jefferson’s rooms at Monticello:

His apartments had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze.

As printed in the appendix to Professor Gordon-Reed’s book, however, the passage reads:

His apartments had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be in the public gaze.

(Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, p. 259.) Even if we give Professor Gordon-Reed the benefit of the doubt and assume that omission of the crucial words—which obviously changes significantly the meaning of the sentence—was not a deliberate distortion of the evidence but rather an innocent transcription mistake, so critical an error casts doubt on the reliability of her work.

  1. The TJMF (Monticello) Committee Report

Following release of the DNA study in the fall of 1998, Daniel P. Jordan, the president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF)—the institution that owns and operates Jefferson’s home Monticello—appointed a nine-person in-house research committee which was charged, in Jordan’s words, to “review, comprehensively and critically, all the evidence, scientific and otherwise,” including Dr. Foster’s DNA study, “relating to the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.” The Committee was chaired by Dianne Swann-Wright, Director of Special Programs at Monticello (including its Getting Word Oral History Project described below), and its members—described in its report as “including four Ph.D.’s and one medical doctor”—were all Monticello staff members. Although the Committee consulted with members of two other Monticello committees—the Advisory Committee for the International Center for Jefferson Studies and the Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation—it is worth emphasizing that no scholar independent of Monticello had any input in the report.

Although the Committee had concluded its work by spring 1999, its report was not released until January 27, 2000. (See “Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings,” Thomas Jefferson Foundation, January 2000.) The report was immediately posted on the Internet, and Dan Jordan noted that within a week the Monticello website received nearly 60,000 “hits” a day, with some 3000 different individuals downloading the report. Two weeks later, after the television airing of the CBS miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, Jordan noted that the hits “maxed out” Monticello’s system, with as many as 900,000 in one day. Although he dismissed the CBS miniseries as “ridiculous as history,” “a soap opera,” and “strictly Hollywood,” Jordan acknowledged that “it certainly did encourage an interest in the story.” He added, “Anything that encourages and raises the consciousness of the American people about history and race is a good thing.” (Dan Jordan, interviewed in Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman, Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family, New York: Random House, 2000, p. 113.)

What was not mentioned in the TJMF’s press conference and not acknowledged on its website until about three months later, on March 23, 2000, was that one of the members of the Monticello Committee—White McKenzie (Ken) Wallenborn, M.D. (the “medical doctor” identified in the committee’s description)—had dissented stridently from the Committee’s report. Noting several areas of disagreement with the majority’s report, Dr. Wallenborn in his minority report (dated April 12, 1999) concluded that “[t]here is historical evidence of more or less equal statu[r]e on both sides of this issue that prevent a definitive answer as to Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’ son Eston Hemings or for that matter the other four of her children.” He urged the TJMF to continue to regard the paternity question as an open one. In an essay published subsequent to the release of his minority report, Dr. Wallenborn has charged that the Monticello Committee—and particularly its chair, Dianne Swann-Wright, and Lucia (Cinder) Stanton (Shannon Senior Research Historian at Monticello), whom he identified as the principal author of the Committee’s final report—”had already reached their conclusions” at the start of their deliberations. According to Dr. Wallenborn’s account, the Committee followed “the same tactic” that Professor Annette Gordon-Reed employed in her book, of ignoring or dismissing as problematic “most of the evidence that would exonerate Mr. Jefferson.” (White McKenzie Wallenborn, “A Committee Insider’s Viewpoint,” in The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. ed., Charlottesville, Va.: Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001, special advance ed., pp. 57-58.) Equally troubling is Dr. Wallenborn’s statement that Dianne Swann-Wright failed to share his dissenting report with other members of the committee. Indeed, he notes that it was not shared with the interpretive staff at Monticello nor with the TJMF Board of Trustees until he began circulating it after the January 26, 2000 press conference. (Ibid., p. 64.)

Dr. Wallenborn’s criticisms of the Monticello Committee appear to be well-founded. Upon close reading, its final report is far from being the “scholarly, meticulous, and thorough” analysis Dan Jordan claims it is. Its general conclusion, that Thomas Jefferson fathered one, if not all, of Sally Hemings’ children, fails to be adequately supported by the evidence gathered by the Committee and summarized in its findings.

Indeed, a fundamental problem with the Committee report is the apparent absence of any methodology for evaluating or weighing evidence. When the report concludes, specifically, that the “currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he was most likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings children,” it offers no standard by which the conclusory terms high probability ormost likely can be objectively measured. Generally speaking, the Committee report seems to rest this conclusion on just a few pieces of evidence—the results of Dr. Foster’s DNA tests, Madison Hemings’ 1873 “memoir,” and the “Monte Carlo” statistical study conducted by Committee member Fraser Nieman—plus one critical, but unsupported, assumption: that all of Sally Hemings’ children were fathered by just one man. This single father postulate rests on the flimsiest of evidence: the naming of the Hemings siblings’ children after one another, which supposedly demonstrates the “closeness” of the family (and thus, it is assumed, Sally Hemings’ monogamy), and the claim of an absence of evidence that Sally Hemings was not monogamous (a false claim in light of the Edmund Bacon evidence, which the Committee discounts, as noted below). The only documentary evidence which the Committee can cite in support of its conclusion that Jefferson “most likely” fathered Sally Hemings’ children other than Eston is the Madison Hemings 1873 interview. (Appendix H, Sally Hemings and Her Children: Information from Documentary Sources, pp. 8, 10, 12.)

Another fundamental flaw in the Committee’s report is the problem of bias and conflict of interest. Since 1993 the TJMF has been conducting an oral history research project called “Getting Word,” to locate the descendants of Monticello’s African-American community and to record and preserve their stories and histories. The project has interviewed over 100 people, including 22 descendants of Madison Hemings and four descendants of Eston Hemings. The very fact that Monticello staff members have been involved in this project makes it difficult for an in-house research committee to objectively evaluate oral history evidence. The problems of bias in favor of oral history evidence generally—and selective bias in favor of those particular families interviewed through the Getting Word project—were compounded by the fact that the chair of the ad hoc research committee was Dianne Swann-Wright, director of Special Programs at Monticello, who had been employed to work on the project since its inception (and her arrival at Monticello) in 1993. Given the intimate involvement of Dr. Swann-Wright and other Committee members with the people interviewed for the Getting Word project, it is not surprising that the Committee report heavily relies on the 1873 Madison Hemings story and the oral tradition among his descendants as the key evidence in support of the Jefferson paternity thesis.

As noted above in Part III, oral tradition evidence has a general problem of unreliability. The Committee report is flawed not only because it relies heavily on oral tradition evidence, but that it relies on itselectively, taking seriously only that oral tradition that fits with the story of Jefferson’s paternity. The bias is evident in the report, where it infers from the seriousness of the Madison Hemings’ descendants’ “history” that it is true and therefore ought to be treated on par with documentary and other evidence. “In a climate of disbelief and hostility,” the report notes, “they continued to tell their children and grandchildren of their descent from Thomas Jefferson, often at significant times in their lives. . . . ” (Appendix G, Oral History in the Hemings Family.) On the same page of the report, however, the Committee notes that the oral history of the Eston Hemings descendants claimed descent from Jefferson’s “uncle”—an oral tradition which apparently was taken just as seriously by this line of the family, until publication of Fawn Brodie’s Intimate History prompted family members to change the story—but the Committee dismisses the earlier tradition among Eston Hemings’ descendants as “altered to protect their passing into the white world.” (Ibid.) The change of the Eston Hemings family oral tradition following publication of the Brodie book is acknowledged by family members. “We’re just learning—from some of our cousins—stories we weren’t able to hear,” one family member said. (See Julia Westerinen, interview in Lanier and Feldman,Jefferson’s Children, p. 56.)

Significantly, the Committee report also concluded that Thomas Woodson was not the son of Thomas Jefferson, and indeed that there was no documentary evidence linking him even to Monticello and Sally Hemings. (Appendix K, Assessment of Thomas C. Woodson’s Connection to Sally Hemings.) The significance of this is twofold. First, it acknowledges the falsity of a core allegation of both the original 1802 Callender story and the 1873 story attributed to Madison Hemings: the notion that Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings began in France, and that she bore him a son soon after their return to the United States. As the Committee report finds, there is no evidence of any child being born to Sally Hemings prior to 1795. Second, the findings regarding Thomas Woodson starkly reveal the inherent unreliability of oral tradition as evidence. The Woodson descendants just as fervently believed that their ancestor was the son of Thomas Jefferson, and the Committee found that “the longstanding oral history warrants inclusion of information” about Woodson despite the absence of documentation to connect him to Sally Hemings and Monticello, let alone to Thomas Jefferson. (Appendix H, Sally Hemings and Her Children, p. 6.)

There is one other oral tradition, of course, which was summarily rejected by the Committee. Beginning with the direct testimony of Jefferson’s grandchildren, Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Ellen Randolph Coolidge, the oral tradition in the family descended from Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph has identified one of the Carr brothers, Peter or Samuel (Jefferson’s nephews by his sister Martha) as the father of Sally Hemings’ children. Although that tradition apparently too was taken just as seriously as the tradition of Hemings descendants—and although it is arguably far more reliable, for it was based on the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events in question—the report essentially dismisses Carr paternity by pointing to the DNA test results on Eston Hemings’ descendant and assuming that Sally Hemings’ children were all fathered by the same man.

The Committee’s bias is evident also in the double standard it employs in weighing evidence. For example, the published account of Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon, which identified another, unnamed man as the father of Harriet Hemings, is dismissed as having “problems of chronology,” noting that Bacon was not employed at Monticello until five years after Harriet’s birth (Review of Documentary Sources, p. 4). But this ignores the real possibility that Bacon resided at Monticello as early as 1800 and also assumes that Bacon was describing an event he witnessed prior to Harriet’s birth when indeed he might have concluded that the man he saw some years later was the father of her children. However, immediately following this curt dismissal of Bacon’s account, the Committee report states that Israel Jefferson’s 1873 interview “corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim of Jefferson paternity”—even though Israel Jefferson’s account, besides the many problems noted in Part II above, also has a real “chronology problem” of its own: Israel was only eight years old at the time of the birth of Sally Hemings’ youngest child, Eston! (Ibid., p. 4.)

Important pieces of evidence that question the Jefferson paternity thesis are either ignored or blithely dismissed by the Committee’s report. For example, Jefferson’s own denial of the Callender allegations, in an 1805 letter written to a member of his administration, is dismissed as “ambiguous” (Review of the Documentary Evidence, p. 2)—an assessment that fails to take into account its clear historical context (as discussed in Part VI.A., below). The account of former household slave Isaac Jefferson, who mentioned and described Sally Hemings in his memoir, is omitted from the Committee report, even though the fact that Isaac did not so much as hint that there was any special relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings is powerful evidence questioning the paternity thesis. (Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, Isaac Jefferson as interviewed by Charles W. Campbell in 1847, printed in James A. Bear, ed.,Jefferson at Monticello, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.)

Other problems, though relatively minor, in the Committee’s report reveal that it was far less meticulously written as one would expect it to be. For example, although the report does include a facsimile of the 1858 Ellen Randolph Coolidge letter, it follows it with the flawed transcription as found in Appendix E of Professor Gordon-Reed’s book. The draft of Committee member Fraser Nieman’s article, “Coincidence or Causal Connection? The Relationship between Thomas Jefferson’s Visits to Monticello and Sally Hemings’s Conceptions”—which was going to print in The William and Mary Quarterly in January 2000, just as the Committee report was released—contains a typographical error which distorts the DNA study in a significant way. The molecular geneticists tested “male-line descendants of Thomas Jefferson” (emphasis added), the article states, when of course it was not Thomas but Field Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s paternal grandfather, whose descendants were tested.

The article by Mr. Nieman, who is director of archeology at Monticello, has far more serious problems than this embarrassing typographical error. As the Scholars Commission report notes, none of us were impressed by this so-called “Monte Carlo” statistical study. The Monte Carlo approach estimates the probability of a given outcome by comparing it to a very large number of random outcomes generated by a simulation model. Nieman’s study rested on two unsupported postulates: that there could only be a single father for all of Sally Hemings’ children, and that rival candidates to Thomas Jefferson would have had to arrive and depart on the exact same days he did. Here, the assumption of random behavior makes little sense, because the visits to Monticello of the other candidates for paternity—Jefferson’s friends and relatives (including his brother Randolph, Randolph Jefferson’s sons, and the Carr brothers)—were not random occurrences; they certainly would have been far more likely to occur after Jefferson’s return to Monticello from extended absences in Washington or elsewhere. The final impression one gets of the Nieman study is of a simulation whose parameters were deliberately set to “get” Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’ children. (Ken Wallenborn reports that when Nieman presented his study to the Committee, he stated: “I’ve got him!” Wallenborn, “A Committee Insider’s Viewpoint,” in The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, p. 53.)

As Dr. Wallenborn has noted, Neiman’s statistical study “cries out for valid comparative studies of the other Jefferson males who might have fathered Eston, and in the absence of these comparisons, the results are inconclusive.” (Ibid., p. 51.) As the Scholars Commission report notes, the circumstantial case that Eston Hemings was fathered by Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, is “many times stronger” than the case against Jefferson himself. Significantly, even the Monticello Committee report notes documentary evidence that Randolph Jefferson visited Monticello in August 1807, a probable conception time for Eston Hemings (this evidence consisting of a letter from Jefferson to his brother, inviting him to visit Monticello while Randolph’s twin sister, Anna Marks, was then visiting)—but the Committee rejects this evidence because no corroborating evidence has been found to indicate that Randolph did in fact visit at this time. (Appendix J, Summary of research on the possible paternity of other Jeffersons.) The Committee report also notes that Randolph Jefferson’s sons Thomas, in 1800, and Robert Lewis, in 1807, “may well have been at Monticello during the conception periods of Harriet and Eston Hemings.” (Part V, Assessment of Possible Paternity of Other Jeffersons.)

One final, critical assumption made both in the Nieman study and in the Monticello Committee report as a whole is the assumption that Sally Hemings was continuously present at Monticello. As the Scholars Commission concludes, however, that assumption may be problematic. Sadly, we simply do not know enough about Sally Hemings—even her duties at Monticello—to conclude that she would have remained at Monticello rather than travel to, say, Poplar Forest, at some of the probable times of her conceptions. The question is particularly important given biographer Henry Randall’s intriguing reference to “well known circumstances” that prove Martha Jefferson Randolph’s denial of the charge that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children. As documented by Randall, Jefferson’s daughter “directed her sons’ attention to the fact that Mr. Jefferson and Sally Hemings could not have met—were far distant from each other—for fifteen months prior to the birth” of the child who supposedly most resembled Jefferson. Almost everyone has assumed that Mrs. Randolph was referring to Jefferson’s absence from Monticello at that time, but she may very well have been referring to Sally Hemings’. (Letter from Henry S. Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868, in Flower,James Parton, pp. 237-38.) This intriguing possibility is yet another matter that cries out for additional research.

  1. The Implausibility of the Story

Some people have suggested that the logical principle of Occam’s Razor, which states essentially that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, when applied to this controversy would make Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings’ children, or at least of Eston Hemings. But this is a gross misapplication of the principle. Indeed, as Professor Banning points out in his paper, “Occam’s Razor tells us to prefer the simplest theory only when the simplest theory seems equally true.” (Professor Banning, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?”, p. 11.) Here, the simple theory advanced by proponents of the Jefferson-Hemings story—that Sally Hemings’ children all had the same father, and that he was Thomas Jefferson—seems plausible only if one ignores all the many facts that strongly suggest against Jefferson’s paternity. Both Professor Banning and Professor Turner have identified a large number of relevant facts, either ignored or unjustifiably downplayed by Professor Gordon-Reed and the Monticello Report, which raises serious questions about the Jefferson paternity thesis. I agree fully with these points and would like here to emphasize two additional matters which, to me, make the thesis extremely implausible.

  1. Denials by Jefferson Himself and Virtually All His Contemporaries

Jefferson refused to dignify Callender’s charges by denying them publicly, but in private correspondence stated generally that there was “not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.” (Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 15, 1826; see also Jefferson to William Duane, March 22, 1806.) And on one occasion in private correspondence he denied the Hemings paternity charge, among other allegations.

In a cover letter dated July 1, 1805 and written to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson denied the “charges” made against him, admitting that he was guilty only of one—”that when young and single [he] offered love to a handsome lady”—which he maintained was “the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me.” Jefferson’s letter to Smith referenced an enclosed letter written to Attorney General Levi Lincoln which fully responded to the charges but which, unfortunately, has not survived. From Jefferson’s cover letter it is clear that he desired both Smith and Lincoln to read the enclosed letter, as “particular friends” of Jefferson with whom he “wish[ed] to stand . . . on the ground of truth.”

Both the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation majority report (Review of the Documentary Evidence, p. 2) and Professor Annette Gordon-Reed (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, p. 146) dismiss Jefferson’s letter as “ambiguous” and referring directly only to the charge of Jefferson’s affair with Mrs. John Walker. Although it is true that the cover letter on its face does not identify either the “charges” or those who were asserting them, nevertheless it is reasonably clear from the full context of Jefferson’s letter itself and its historical circumstances that Jefferson was denying all the charges made against him by his political enemies, including the Hemings paternity allegation.

Jefferson wrote the letter ten days after the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Washington Federalist reprinted a letter from a “Thomas Turner, Esq.,” declared to be a Virginia gentleman, which had been first published in the Boston newspaper The Repertory on May 31, 1805. The newspaper articles raised virtually the same charges Callender had made in the Richmond Recorder in 1802, including the affair with Mrs. Walker, “Mr. Jefferson’s disgraceful concubinage” with Sally Hemings, and Jefferson’s “timidity” as Governor of Virginia when it was invaded by British troops during the Revolutionary War. (Text of the June 19, 1805 Washington Federalist article as reproduced in Rebecca L. McMurry and James F. McMurry, Jefferson, Callender, and the Sally Story: The Scandalmonger and the Newspaper War of 1802, Toms Brook, Va.: Old Virginia Books, 2000, pp. 107-110.) Indeed, Jefferson referred directly to the latter accusation (“transactions during the invasion of Virginia”) in his cover letter to Smith, in the sentence immediately following his admission of the Walker affair.

The Washington Federalist and Boston Repertoryarticles also alleged, according to “opinion,” that Sally Hemings was “the natural daughter” of John Wayles, misspelled “Wales” as it was in the original Callender article.

The fuller context of the reappearance of the Callender allegations in Boston newspapers—including the debates on Jefferson’s character in the Massachusetts legislature in January 1805—is discussed in Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974), pp. 218-223. Given the political climate in Massachusetts, it is not surprising that Jefferson wrote this letter to Levi Lincoln, who served as Jefferson’s political adviser on matters concerning New England, and Massachusetts in particular.

The significance of Jefferson’s denial in this letter to a friend, who was also a member of his administration and a political confidant, should be obvious: it is the only direct evidence left by Jefferson in his own words and handwriting that bears on the question.

The Monticello Committee report also notes, without any analysis, the only known account of the paternity allegation being raised in Jefferson’s presence: biographer Henry S. Randall’s report that when confronted by his indignant daughter Martha with an offending poem (a couplet by Irish poet Thomas Moore linking Jefferson with a slave), his only response was a “hearty, clear laugh.” (Review of the Documentary Evidence, p. 2.) This was hardly the response of a man with a guilty conscience.

Taken together, Jefferson’s denials are consistent with the testimony of many family members, friends, and acquaintances who similarly denied the Sally Hemings paternity allegation. With the exception of those few cited in the Monticello Committee report, there is little evidence that the Jefferson paternity allegation survived, even among Jefferson’s political enemies, much past the 1802 elections, but for the brief resurrection of the Callender allegations in Massachusetts in 1805. Jefferson’s 19th-century biographer Henry Randall reported that Dr. Robley Duglison, Jefferson’s doctor in 1825 and 1826, did not believe the story and that both Dr. Duglison and Professor Tucker, “who lived years near Mr. Jefferson in the University, and were often at Monticello,” never heard the subject mentioned in Virginia. (Randall to Parton, in Flower, James Parton, p. 239.) Significantly, after his retirement from the presidency, not even Jefferson’s political enemies took the allegation seriously enough to press it.

  1. Jefferson’s Character

Historians and biographers who have spent their lives studying Thomas Jefferson have found the notion of an “affair” with Sally Hemings highly implausible, given various aspects of Jefferson’s character. Indeed, before his recent turnabout resulting from the TJMF Report, TJMF president Dan Jordan once described a Jefferson-Hemings liaison as “morally impossible,” echoing the very words used by Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, in her 1858 letter.

Annette Gordon-Reed deals with this issue by presenting superficial “character” arguments—Jefferson as “gentleman,” Jefferson as “cold-blooded,” Jefferson as “family man,” and Jefferson as “racist”—and then dealing with each of these strawman arguments. (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, pp. 107ff.) But the character questions are far deeper and more complex than Professor Gordon-Reed’s caricatures suggest.

What Ellen Coolidge meant by “moral impossibility” is rather clear from the context of the statement in her letter: that it is highly unlikely that Jefferson would begin a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings in France, where she was “lady’s maid” to his daughters, for this would require us to imagine “so fond, so anxious a father, whose letters to his daughters were so replete with tenderness, and with good counsels for their conduct, should . . . have selected the female attendant of his own pure children to become his paramour.” (Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, October 24, 1858, Coolidge Collection, U.Va. Library.) Similarly, the likelihood of such a relationship existing at Monticello during Jefferson’s presidency—given not only Jefferson’s undoubted love for his children and grandchildren but also the logistic difficulties entailed in keeping secret a sexual liaison—suggest a high improbability of such an affair.

Another sense in which a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings would have been “morally impossible” to Jefferson focuses on his own personal moral code—his self-described “Epicurean” philosophy—and the abundant evidence suggesting the seriousness of his adherence to it. (On this generally, see Jean M. Yarbrough, American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998, and also Andrew Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.) This aspect of Jefferson’s character, and its relevance to his personal life and particularly the Hemings paternity thesis, has yet to be fully explored by scholars. One obvious question is whether Jefferson’s professed beliefs that “[t]he summum bonum is not to be pained in body, nor troubled in mind” and that “the indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain is to be avoided” (Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, in Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, New York: Library of America, 1984, pp. 1432-33) might have given Jefferson reason to remain celibate.

Virtually all the evidence we have about Jefferson himself suggests that he was celibate following the death of his wife, Martha, in 1782. The closest he came to a sexual relationship with any woman after 1782 was his “affair” with Maria Cosway in France, but that relationship might be more accurately described as a non-sexual romantic friendship. The very passion with which Jefferson expressed his feelings for Mrs. Cosway—illustrated by his effusive correspondence with her, particularly his famous “Head and Heart” letter—makes even more striking the complete absence of evidence of any similar romantic feelings toward any woman after Jefferson’s return to the United States. The intensity with which Jefferson involved himself in politics during the period 1789 – 1809 fits the pattern of other celibate persons throughout history who obsessively pursue their careers as a substitute for a fulfilling sexual relationship. (See generally Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy, New York: Scribner, 2000.) And after his retirement from the presidency, Jefferson just as passionately pursued the three admitted obsessions of his life—his “family, farm, and books”—and thus to all appearances kept his deathbed promise of fidelity to his wife, Martha.

Finally, there is the matter of Jefferson’s unquestioned love and devotion for his children and grandchildren—amply evidenced in his correspondence with them and in various other documentary evidence of life at Monticello and Popular Forest—in contrast to the complete absence of any evidence, direct or circumstantial, showing that Jefferson displayed any signs of affection toward either Sally Hemings or any of her children. Given this great contrast, one would have to assume Jefferson had a Dr. Jeckyll/ Mr. Hyde type of split personality in order to maintain these two very different families. Jefferson was a very private man and in many respects a complicated man (and some would say a man of many contradictions), but not even he would have been able so successfully to lead the double life that some proponents of the Hemings paternity thesis would have us believe he lead.

VII. Conclusion

Obviously a large number of people, for various reasons, passionately want to believe that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children. These include some of the descendants of two of Sally Hemings’ children who passionately want their families’ oral traditions—and for many of them and their supporters, their places in American history—somehow validated by widespread acceptance of the Jefferson paternity thesis as historical fact. But it is not the role of historians to make people feel good about themselves or their family stories; “feel-good” history is not good history. It is, rather, the role of historians to explain the past as best they can, by following objective methodology and the evidence. However upsetting this conclusion may be to many people, again for a wide variety of reasons, it is simply the case that no credible evidence has proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children.




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One response to “The Thomas Jefferson – Sally Hemings Myth and the Politicization of American History by David N. Mayer

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