It is too common today, vis-à-vis Jefferson’s avowed sexual involvement with Sally Hemings, to fall back on what I call the Consilience Argument: in effect, the argument everything (biological and historical evidence) argues for a relationship and nothing argues against it.
That begins with the 2000 Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation’s 2000 study of the DNA evidence and historical evidence. They state:
The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of the five other of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records: Harriet (1795), Beverly, an unnamed daughter who died in infancy, a second Harriet, and Madison.
Again, there is today the plaque at Monticello: the inevitable brainchild of the TJF’s 2000 study.
The historical evidence points to the truth of Madison Hemings’s words about “my father, Thomas Jefferson.” Although the dominant narrative long denied his paternity, since 1802, oral histories, published recollections, statistical data, and documents have identified Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. In 1998, a DNA study genetically linked one of Hemings’s male descendants with the male line of the Jefferson family, adding to the wealth of evidence.
Monticello’s Lucia Stanton too falls back on the Consilience Argument in a letter to Professor Robert Turner who asked Dan Jordan, then president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, for a response to the testimony of Monticello’s overseer, Francis Bacon. Bacon, in reply to the suspicion that Jefferson freed Sally’s daughter Harriet Hemings because she was his daughter, stated in 1862: “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.” Stanton, as a proxy for Jordan, issued this response:
For many who have finally concluded that Thomas Jefferson was the most probable father of Sally Hemings’s children, Bacon’s account is the hardest bit of evidence to assimilate. So one needs to ponder what Bacon’s motives for misrepresenting the situation might have been. He too can be viewed as having “a stake in the outcome,” out of deep loyalty to Jefferson or pride in his association with the famous President…. For the Monticello committee, the issue boiled down to one lone voice against a chorus. A single dissenting opinion was not of sufficient weight to negate the preponderance of evidence on the other side.
Note here how the Foundation merely presumes that Bacon, an eyewitness to events at Monticello, was lying.
Then also there is Annette Gordon-Reed. She states in a 1999 interview with C-SPAN: “The situation isn’t just about what the DNA test says. It has to be seen—the totality of the circumstances have [sic] to be considered as well.” Gordon-Reed also bloviates in an interview with Brian Lamb: “The results of a DNA test … coupled with the information that I write about and, you know, putting the DNA test together, that (1) this story is true, (2) as well-established as most—(3) many more things in history have been established.” Hmm, a bit of Michael Jackson moonwalking?
In The Inner Jefferson, Andrew Burstein says: “Perhaps the DNA findings have not absolutely made Thomas Jefferson the father of his house servant’s children, but mounting circumstantial evidence makes him by far the most plausible father of these children, as most would now agree.”
R.B. Bernstein: writes of the convergence of the DNA results, “close analysis of circumstantial evidence and oral tradition in Annette Gordon-Reed’s book,” and Frazer Nieman’s Bayesian argument in which he concludes “mathematically” in Bernstein’s words “the odds against anyone but Jefferson being the father were ten thousand to one.”
In his book, Understanding Thomas Jefferson, E.M. Halliday says: “In the autumn of 1998 careful DNA tests revealed a high scientific probability that Jefferson had indeed fathered the last one of Sally’s children, which along with circumstantial evidence strongly suggested that he fathered them all.”
I could limn an indescribably large number of instances of the Consilience Argument, but the point is this. Scholars seldom delve into the relevant available evidence for Jefferson’s paternity, which is scant. They merely rehash some version of the Consilience Argument with today’s Manifesto of 2018’s strong conclusion: Jefferson fathered without question all of Hemings’ children.
- The DNA evidence points to Thomas Jefferson as the father of Eston Hemings.
- There is a chorus of evidence pro-paternity and one lone voice against it.
- So, Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings’ children.
The problems with the argument are many.
Premise 1 is false. The DNA evidence is consistent with Jefferson being the father of Eston Hemings, though it is also consistent with numerous other male-line Jeffersons. Following the direct testimony of slave Isaac Jefferson, there is good reason to believe Jefferson’s brother Randolph was the father. Isaac said in his “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave”: “Old Master’s brother, Mass Randall, was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn’t much more sense than Isaac.” That does not show that he had an affair with Sally Hemings, but it does place Randolph often among the slaves at Montello and it is very suggestive. There is no similar testimony that places Thomas Jefferson at the scene of the crime, as it were. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation merely sloughs off this direct testimony.
Premise 2 is also false. There are no “multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence.” There is no “wealth of evidence.” There is no “chorus” that drowns out “one lone voice.” There is no “mounting circumstantial evidence.” Here are the disquieting facts. There is not one piece of direct testimony for Jefferson’s paternity and there are four pieces of direct testimony that create problems for Jefferson’s paternity. See my book, Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father Any of Sally Hemings’ Black Children? The Thomas Jefferson Foundation merely falls back on the circumstantial-evidence testimony of Madison Hemings, in which Madison states in 1873 that Jefferson was his father and the father of his siblings, which Gordon-Reed has decreed must be taken as primary, not secondary, evidence! (I have in a large number of publications exposed the nodi with that testimony.) Now readers are in position to grasp her decree. Should the charlatanism be accepted by the general public, it would give the TJF at least one eyewitness testimony; otherwise, there are none!
For two decades, there has been no forward movement on the subject of concubinage, because there has been no need of it. Gordon-Reed, who is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on the avowed relationship, is typically cited as an unquestioned authority by biographers who are unwilling to study in her words “the totality of the circumstances.” I offer two illustrations, though numerous could be offered. Erik Neil writes in the introduction of the compilation, Thomas Jefferson: Architect, “The work of Annette Gordon-Reed and others on the Hemings family was transformational.” In John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Gordon Wood uncritically iterates the Consilience Argument in praise of Gordon-Reed in his John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, “DNA results showing that the Hemings children were fathered by someone in Jefferson’s male line, together with the powerful arguments of historian Annette Gordon-Reed, give ample reason to conclude that Jefferson indeed took Sally Hemings as a concubine and fathered six of her children.” Just what are those “powerful arguments”? Wood never says.
It is obvious that Neil and Wood have never independently studied the issue. That is scholarly slothfulness. One expects better from a scholar of the rank of Gordon Wood.
Wood might reply, “I have more significant things to worry about than Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I really don’t care if there was or wasn’t an affair!” The point of that possible objection is that historical inquiry has a cost. To study the matter of Jefferson’s avowed concubinage with Hemings is to make a decision that that topic is worth my time—in philosopher Bernard Williams’ words, that that topic is an “investigative investment.” When someone makes such an investment, he typically puts aside other things with which he is involved, so that he can study the topic.
Nonetheless, if Wood’s somewhat cavalier references to the DNA study and to the powerful arguments of Gordon-Reed are sufficient to settle the issue for him, then he can be accused of scholarly slothfulness. When Jeffersonian scholars spend the lion’s share of their intellectual time writing about Jefferson’s racism and duplicity, serious scholars need to take the cognitive time to study Jefferson on slavery and race, and they need to investigate the distinct possibility of non-involvement with Hemings. It is not enough merely to fall back on the sophistry both on the webpage of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and in the writings of Gordon-Reed. It may be asking much of a scholar the rank of Wood to study thoroughly the issue of concubinage, but until he does so, he has no business to state that there is “ample reason” to conclude that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ six known children.
The late and great historian, Forest McDonald (University of Alabama), who did study the issue, wrote of my book Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in which I tackle the issue of shoddy scholarship and the possibility of a witch hunt apropos of Jefferson’s paternity. He writes, “A superb work that demonstrates its argument beyond question and, along the way, should mortify defends of the Jefferson-Hemings thesis for the slipshod and even dishonest work.” Lloyd Gardner (history, Rutgers University) states: “The first clear-headed assessment of what has become an accepted truth. Professional historians will now have to take account of Holowchak’s effective analysis of the weak evidence for the supposed liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. It is not a matter of preserving Jefferson’s reputations that drives this inquiry, but a plea for the proper use of evidence that extends far beyond the borders of Jeffersonian literature.”
Yet it might be objected that McDonald and Gardner, both elite historians, are Rankean neo-Positivists—that is dinosaurs, from a historiographical past, who inflexibly insist that history is fact-based and that conclusions are forged in pursuance of all the available relevant evidence, not merely from an attractive sampling. What is the rage today is revisionism, discretionary postmodernism, and Progressive relativism—the more bitter, the better—where each person’s canons of proper historiography are as sound as any other’s. Yet I too am one of those dinosaurs that still obstinately cling to the belief that history is about veridicality, not whim.