“There is not a truth existing which I fear, or would wish unknown to the whole world.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1826, days before death
It is now accepted as a fact that one of the preeminent Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson – the Apostle of Liberty and Reason – engaged in an illicit sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, by whom he bore up to six children. Thus, it is considered a fact that Jefferson was either a hypocrite who esteemed virtue and family while having an affair, a tyrant who abused a young woman in his power, or some brew of both. The transformation of official opinion is captured in the two editions of historian Joseph J. Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. In the first edition, Ellis argues that “we can never know” whether there was an affair, though he believes the possibility is “remote” and based upon “flimsy and wholly circumstantial evidence.” In the second edition, however, Ellis repudiates his previous position. “The likelihood of a long-standing sexual relationship between Jefferson and Sally can never be proven absolutely,” claims Ellis, “but it is now proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” In fact, nothing of the sort has been proven. If anything has been proven, it is that Jefferson’s detractors are – and always have been – unscrupulous and shameless.
It is fashionable these days for the self-styled “intelligentsia” to deride “dead white males” for their supposed shortcomings by contemporary standards. “The study of the stereotypical ‘dead white male’ has gone out of fashion in academe,” says historian John Ferling in the Washington Post. “When teachers and curriculum planners and textbook authors look at the founding fathers today, they see too many white males,” explains education professor David W. Saxe. “George Washington is dissipating from the textbooks.” As Ellis observes, Jefferson is the “deadest white male in American history” and the “most valued trophy in the culture wars.” He may have defined the spirit of a colonial revolution against the mightiest empire in the world (the Declaration of Independence), doubled the territory of America without spilling any blood while expending a trifle in treasure (the Louisiana Purchase), spearheaded a national political party which dominated the republic for a generation (the Democratic-Republicans), founded a prestigious university (the University of Virginia), been a certifiable genius with an estimated IQ of 150 (alongside Galileo, Michelangelo, and Handel), and imparted timeless wisdom in every area of public policy (“a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned…is the sum of good government”), yet Jefferson belonged to the wrong race, class, and gender, and is therefore deemed not worth honouring. Instead, history is mined for obscure and insignificant figures who meet modern-day criteria of acceptability – and who may even be interesting in their own right – but who teach us little to nothing about the past. In this fashion, history is politicized and becomes propaganda, disturbingly reminiscent of the Soviet alteration of paintings and photographs to purge dissidents and promote Party members. “What exactly is stoking the contemporary rage against Jefferson?” asked Sean Wilentz in The New Republic. “An anachronistic political correctness, certainly, in which early twenty-first-century personal is the early nineteenth-century political; and an ideological disquietude about the greatest articulator of American democracy, the burden of whose principles might be lifted off certain shoulders if he could be shown to have been a mountebank.”
In addition to falling prey to this politically correct circus, Jefferson’s Southern identity also makes him a prime target. Jefferson’s principles of ‘76 (the inalienable right of self-government and necessity of periodic revolutions) and ‘98 (strict constructionism and States’ rights) are not just American principles, but distinctly Southern principles – particularly the latter. “The theory of the contractual nature of the union, the strict construction of the Constitution, and states’ rights were the particular innovations to which Jefferson gave voice and a first theoretical framework,” explains historian Luigi Marco Bassani. “They subsequently became an integral part of the Jeffersonian credo and forged a political ruling class, first in the opposition and later in power within the first decades of the nineteenth century.” Jeffersonian principles of decentralized power and limited government formed the foundation of Southern politics throughout the Antebellum Era. John Randolph of Roanoke, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, the Fire-Eaters, and others all contributed to the evolution of the Southern political tradition, but Jefferson remained the cornerstone upon which they built. This continuity is well-illustrated by the striking similarity in theme and tone between of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ First Inaugural Address in 1861 and President Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address in 1801. In theme, both extolled self-government, fiscal economy, agrarianism, and peace. In tone, both were calm yet confident, passionate yet dignified.
Jefferson, a member of the gentry of Old Virginia, was always regarded as one of the best and brightest of his generation, a gentleman of the finest intellect, taste, and manners. Although Jefferson loved and was loyal to the Union, he was a Virginian first and an American second; Virginia, Jefferson avowed, was his “country.” This order of allegiance – State over Union, or “Society” over “the State” – was firmly rooted in the Old South. Accordingly, in the emerging conflict between the North and the South, Jefferson sided with his own country. “It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts & Connecticut,” Jefferson said of the South, “and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings as well as exhausting our strength and substance.” Indeed, as Secretary of State, Jefferson stated to the President, “Whenever Northern and Southern prejudices have come into conflict, the latter have been sacrificed and the former soothed.” To expose Jefferson as a hypocrite, therefore, is not only to dethrone a Founding Father, but also to dishonour a Southern icon and thereby dishonour the South herself. There is no greater threat to the money and power of the fascists and socialists perched in Washington, D.C. than the Southern political tradition which Jefferson personified. Indeed, many of the features of modern politics which are taken for granted today were originally abhorred by Jefferson as grievous betrayals of the American Revolution, to which secession and resistance were the only hope:
“I see…with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic, and that too by constructions which leave no limits to their powers […] And what is our resource for the preservation of the Constitution? Reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them. The representatives chosen by ourselves? They are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient voting together to outnumber the sound parts, and with majorities of only 1,2, or 3, bold enough to go forward in defiance. Are we, then, to stand in arms? No! That must be the last resource, not to be thought of until much longer and greater sufferings…We must have patience and long endurance with our brethren…and separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left are a dissolution of our union with them, or submission to a government without limitation of powers.”
According to the Abbeville Institute’s own Donald Livingston, such ideas have now been branded a “Southern heresy” and “un-American.” Therefore, according to the dictates of the modern political establishment, Jefferson must be discredited.
The rumors of Jefferson’s affair with Sally have roots stretching back to his own times, originating in earnest with James T. Callender in 1802. Callender, a notorious “scandal-monger,” swore “ten thousand fold vengeance” against President Jefferson after failing to blackmail the president into appointing him to federal office. “He knows nothing of me which I am not willing to declare to the world myself,” assured Jefferson. Callender, who had smeared President John Adams in the previous election – along with Washington and other Federalists – described himself shaking his fist at Jefferson’s White House, shouting, “My lies made you president.” Embittered, Callender turned his poisonous pen against the president whom had denied him the patronage to which he believed he was entitled. While Jefferson served as the Minister to France, Callender claimed, he took Sally – an “African Venus,” “slut,” and “wench” – as his “concubine” and returned home with her carrying his child, “Tom,” a “sable resemblance” to himself. Callender’s libels against Jefferson, which began in the Richmond Recorder but quickly circulated among the Federalist press in New England, not only accused Jefferson of sexual impropriety, but also of Jacobinism: in addition to mixing races, Jefferson was a French conspirator plotting to smuggle the Reign of Terror from France to America and erect Lady Guillotine in Washington, D.C.! Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, Jefferson’s arch-nemeses throughout his public life and victims of Callender’s libels, both rejected Callender’s claims. Hamilton and Adams may not have seen eye-to-eye with Jefferson on politics, but they were well-acquainted with Jefferson’s high character and Callender’s low reputation.
As was his policy with all accusations, Jefferson never publicly responded to Callender, convinced that engaging in a war of the words was analogous to severing the heads of a hydra. In a letter to members of his Cabinet, however, Jefferson privately denied the charges, insisting that he had nothing to hide. “I wish to stand…on the ground of truth,” Jefferson told his colleagues. In other private letters, Jefferson described Callender’s writings as “scurrilities” and Callender himself as “human nature in a hideous form.” On one occasion, when the story was brought up before Jefferson, his daughter described him responding with a “hearty, clear laugh.” For Jefferson, who took criticism personally, to have literally laughed off such an accusation in front of his daughter is significant. Although Callender drowned to death in a drunken stupor a year after turning on Jefferson, his lies did not die with him. “As to Federal slanders, I never wished them to be answered, but by the tenor of my life,” said Jefferson. “The man who fears no truths has nothing to fear from lies.”
For ages, Callender’s sleazy sex scandal was rightly buried, although the rumor occasionally reemerged in the abolitionist press. In the Antebellum Era, Jefferson stood as a controversial yet powerful symbol of the American founding. “Your character in history may easily be foreseen,” Adams told Jefferson. “Your administration will be quoted by philosophers as a model of profound wisdom; by politicians, as weak, superficial, and shortsighted.” When Jefferson died, his friend and colleague James Madison declared that he would “live in the memory and gratitude of the wise & good, as a luminary of science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of humankind.”
After the so-called “Civil War,” Jefferson fell out of favor, his vision for America – an agrarian society and decentralized republic – having been crushed by industry and a centralized nation-state. Southerners and Northerners both recognized that Hamilton had finally overthrown Jefferson. “Lincoln…permanently altered the relationship between the federal government and the states, creating the dominant central power that Hamilton had desired,” argues economist Thomas DiLorenzo. “By 1865 the Jeffersonian tradition of states’ rights – by which the citizens were the masters rather than the servants of their government – had been all but eradicated.” According to historian David N. Mayer, Jefferson was seen as “a symbol for both the defeated Confederate cause and for the Democratic Party.” Indeed, while vanquished Southerners, heartbroken and embittered, looked to Jefferson for vindication, victorious Northerners, exultant and arrogant, branded Jefferson the “germ” of treason and rebellion. In the early twentieth century, however, Jefferson was rescued from obscurity and obsolescence by historian Vernon L. Parrington, who began the process of rebuilding Jefferson’s reputation. “To safeguard freedom from encroachment by the political state, and to establish the rule of justice, were always the great and difficult ends that Jefferson aimed at,” explained Parrington, who reintroduced Jefferson as a “libertarian” for “laisseiz-faire agrarianism” and against “centralizing capitalism.” As time passed, Jefferson’s impressive genius and timeless ideals, though rarely realized, became popular among the people. “We honor Jefferson,” notes columnist George Will, “but live in Hamilton’s country.” In 1974, however, the Jefferson-Hemings scandal was revived by Fawn Brodie, and later taken to extremes by Annette Gordon-Reed in the 1990s. Both Brodie and Gordon-Reed claimed to want to let the real Jefferson breathe, but their true intent was to smother him to death. Callender, like a cockroach, survived the fallout.
Brodie’s “psycho-history,” Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History was farcical. She had little to no comprehension of the time and place of which she wrote. Oblivious to the context, she went to great lengths to torture what she believed were secret meanings out of selected words or phrases. Oftentimes, her ignorance was so profound that it seemed as if she was off in her own world talking to herself. For example, Brodie thought that Jefferson’s frequent use of the word “mulatto” to describe the French soil was a subconscious expression of desire for his soon-to-be mulatto mistress. In fact, in the late eighteenth century, “mulatto” was a common term of art and science to describe a certain kind of soil color, one which Jefferson had been using for years. Brodie did not mention that Jefferson used the term “red” to describe soil five times more than he did “mulatto,” nor did she say whether this was a subconscious expression of desire for his red-headed daughter. Brodie also had a sophomoric Freudian tendency to read innuendo into Jefferson’s every word and deed. For instance, she saw in some of Jefferson’s letters to his daughter – in which he used passionate language such as the “lap” and “bosom” of his family to describe his desire for home – a thinly veiled lust for Sally’s lap and bosom. What Brodie missed is that although Jefferson’s language may seem mawkish today, such sentimentality was the language of familial love in Jefferson’s time. Brodie also believed that when Jefferson said he longed to return home and plow his fields – a common romantic sentiment among the Southern gentry and one which Jefferson had espoused for years – what he really meant was that he was longing to “plow” Sally’s body. Such perverted interpretations of plainly innocent statements were the hallmark of Brodie’s book, which titillated many book clubs but was widely panned by historians.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with psychological history, so long as it is written reasonably and responsibly. Unfortunately, Brodie embarked on a flight of fancy to cloud-cuckoo land. “In Brodie’s enthusiasm to illustrate her point,” charges author Andrew Burstein, “she misread language, invoked currently fashionable psychological explanations to overinterpret unconscious patterns in Jefferson’s writing, and construed psychic dilemmas without regard to eighteenth-century norms.”
Although Brodie was popular with the public, Gordon-Reed has made a much more lasting impact on the field of Jefferson scholarship. In her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, she fatuously argued that because an affair is not impossible, it is therefore possible, and defeated the straw-man argument that those unconditionally defending Jefferson could be wrong. Neither of these points proved anything. In her second book, The Hemingses of Monticello, Gordon-Reed upped the ante, conveniently beginning with the dubious premise that an affair did occur between Jefferson and Sally and then taking the liberty of filling in all the details – of which there are essentially none – to fit her framework. Rather than framing the theory to fit the facts, she framed the facts to fit the theory. Author M. Andrew Holowchak describes Gordon-Reed’s method as “creative fiction,” “a fanciful account,” and “a chimerical narrative, as misleading as it is delusory.” Scholarly objectivity was never Gordon-Reed’s concern, however. Indeed, Gordon-Reed admitted that her agenda was “black progress,” which she defined as the “restoration of black humanity and obliteration of the cult of the godlike white person.” According to Gordon-Reed, Jefferson’s affair with Sally was “a way of establishing black people’s birthright to America.” Denying the affair, however, “is a part of the rejection of black people’s birthright and claims to America.” Indeed, Gordon-Reed came out and said that to her, the Jefferson-Hemings controversy was a battle of “black against white.” Anyone who denied the affair, she said, was a “racist,” “white supremacist,” and worst of all, probably a “white Southerner.” An attorney, Gordon-Reed resorted to numerous fallacies and sophistries to bamboozle readers into deferring to her affected expertise.
It was also later revealed that Gordon-Reed flagrantly doctored quotes to alter their meaning and strengthen her theory. For example, one of Jefferson’s granddaughters wrote the following in her grandfather’s defense: “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.” Gordon-Reed transcribed this sentence as the following: “No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be in the public gaze.” By deleting ten words and adding two others, Gordon-Reed transformed a statement against her case into a statement for her case. A dozen changes to a sentence which result in a grammatically correct new sentence with the opposite meaning of the original cannot realistically be considered a mistake. This is one of several such egregious alterations. It goes without saying that if you need to lie to make your point, then you have no point to make.
As with Brodie’s psychological history, there is nothing inherently wrong with striving to amend the marginalization and misrepresentation of blacks in American history, so long as such an undertaking is limited to reason and not demagoguery. As Dumas Malone, author of a six-volume biography on the life and times of Jefferson, said of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, “At all events, it must be weighed against the testimony of Jefferson’s grandchildren, his categorical denial of the alleged liaison, and his own character.” Unfortunately, instead of rationally assessing the evidence, Gordon-Reed played the race card. That Gordon-Reed received the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and the National Humanities Medal for her shoddy studies is proof that in the ivory tower, the inmates are running the asylum.
Brodie and Gordon-Reed’s bestsellers, like Callender’s original smears, were not worth the paper on which they were printed. To hang a hero like Jefferson, more was needed than lame circumstantial evidence, psychobabble ranging from inane to perverted, and idle speculation about unlimited possibilities. The burden of proof, after all, is always on the positive rather than the negative claim – in other words, “innocent until proven guilty.” Brodie and Gordon-Reed both marveled at the utter absence of any documentary evidence of an affair between Jefferson and Sally. Indeed, of the 65,000 documents which Jefferson left behind, only a handful mention Sally, typically in passing and without any trace of affection or even familiarity. In fact, there is no record whatsoever of any interaction between Jefferson and Sally. Furthermore, of the hundreds of resident slaves and thousands of friendly and unfriendly visitors at Monticello, as well as Jefferson’s own family, there is not a single eyewitness account of impropriety between Jefferson and Sally – no observation of any compromising situation whatsoever. This silence, like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, speaks volumes. Not to be deterred, Brodie and Gordon-Reed decided that the absence of evidence must mean that Jefferson was an extraordinarily duplicitous man who hid his true face well or that he and his descendants simply destroyed any correspondence which revealed the truth. In short, the total lack of any evidence for an affair was construed to be proof of the affair. The most obvious conclusion escaped them: there is no evidence of an affair because there was no affair. And these ladies accused Jefferson of rationalizing!
Although Brodie was seminal and Gordon-Reed influential, the crux of the controversy comes down to three key pieces of evidence: 1) the testimony of Madison Hemings, 2) Nature’s (in)famous DNA study, and 3) Jefferson’s character and “racism.”
The first is an interview given by one of Sally’s sons, Madison, to the Pike County Republican of Pee Pee, Ohio, in 1873. Madison’s interview is the sacred text of Jefferson-Hemings true believers. Brodie and Gordon-Reed, for instance, take the interview at face value and base their entire narratives upon that presumption. As usual with Gordon-Reed, anyone who doubts the veracity of Madison’s interview is a racist who views Madison as subhuman.
According to Madison, during Jefferson’s term as Minister to France, his mother, Sally, became Jefferson’s concubine and returned to Virginia pregnant by him. Sally had initially refused to return, desiring to live free in France, but was persuaded when Jefferson offered her “extraordinary privileges” and the emancipation of her children upon adulthood. All of Sally’s subsequent pregnancies, said Madison, were by Jefferson, though he tended to neglect this secret black family.
That Madison’s version of the story is swallowed hook, line, and sinker is incredible. First of all, it is mere hearsay, a weak form of evidence which would be inadmissible in a court of law. There is absolutely no reason to weigh Madison’s interview over the opposing claims of Jefferson himself or his friends and family, yet that is precisely what is done. Karyn Traut, author of a play about the Jefferson-Hemings controversy, calls this bias an “ad-homonym” argument: modern advocates of Jefferson’s paternity, complaining that older generations of historians favored the testimonies of whites over blacks, themselves favor the testimonies of blacks over whites – in other words, they react to the dismissal of one side out of hand by dismissing the other side out of hand. In addition to contradicting all of the equally valid testimonies of Jefferson’s friends and family, Madison’s interview also contradicts an oral tradition of the Hemingses themselves, which maintains that the father of Sally’s children was a Jefferson “uncle.” Admissions against interest – and being related to a random Jefferson uncle as opposed to Thomas Jefferson himself is certainly against self-interest – are generally accorded great weight.
Second, the idea that Sally, a sixteen year-old slave described by John Adams’ wife, Abigail, as having a maturity below that of an eight year-old and requiring adult supervision, would defy her master and force him to negotiate with her is ludicrous. At the same time, the idea that Jefferson, mingling among the finest ladies of European society – and who always indicated a preference for the company of accomplished, experienced grande dames – would risk his and his family’s reputation with a childish, uneducated slave girl is equally absurd. There is also no evidence that Sally was accorded any “extraordinary privileges.” If anything, Sally and her children were treated no differently from any other house servants. It is true that Jefferson emancipated Sally’s two youngest sons in his will, though he emancipated other slaves throughout his life and in his will as well. Other slaves emancipated in Jefferson’s will, such as his lifelong valet Burwell Colbert, the blacksmith Joe Fosset, and the carpenter John Hemings received provisions for their new, free life, but Sally’s children received nothing. In fact, John received Madison and his brother as apprentices! Sally herself was never even officially emancipated by Jefferson.
Third, some of the unsaid specifics of the affair are problematic (the Devil is in the details!). For instance, Sally went to France as his younger daughter’s handmaiden and stayed with her at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont. Jefferson, however, stayed at L’Hotel de Langeac with his secretary, where he was attended by servants and swamped with visitors. Just how, where, and when Jefferson, without any privacy, initiated and consummated – much less prolonged at the intimate Monticello – an unnoticed affair with his daughter’s handmaiden is unclear.
Fourth, the very existence of the child supposedly conceived in France, “Tom Hemings” is in doubt. Jefferson kept meticulous records of his plantation throughout his life, yet of all the Hemings births he listed, there is no Tom. The existence of a Tom appears to have been derived from a seedy rumor around Charlottesville which Callender picked up and promulgated, despite never having been to Monticello. Without any evidence for his existence outside of the untrustworthy Callender, many historians have fairly concluded that “Tom” was a hoax.
Fifth, Madison’s claim that Jefferson fathered all – or any, for that matter – of Sally’s children must be considered along with other equally valid evidence to the contrary. For instance, Jefferson’s nephews, the Carr brothers, confessed to Jefferson’s grandson, “Jeff” Randolph, that they fathered some children by Sally and were to blame for the stain on their uncle’s name. Jefferson’s plantation overseer, Edmund Bacon, denied that Jefferson fathered any of Sally’s children, claiming that he often saw another man – whose name the publisher of his memoirs redacted – sneaking out of Sally’s quarters in the early morning. Bacon also alluded to young men at or around Monticello, such as the Carrs, getting “intimate with the Negro women.” Bacon’s testimony, however, has been peremptorily dismissed by Brodie and Gordon-Reed, probably because it is somewhat of a smoking gun against their theory. Unlike the Jeffersons or Hemingses, Bacon did not have a direct stake in the answer to the question and was relatively unbiased. More importantly, Bacon was the only actual eyewitness in the scandal. “His testimony is compelling, overwhelming, and uncontradicted,” according to author William G. Hyland, Jr. “Not hearsay, not second-hand gossip, but direct eyewitness testimony.”
Sixth, the motives of Madison and the newspaper are highly questionable. It is suspicious that Madison waited until he was sixty-eight years old to tell his story and that his mother never told it at all – not so much as a peep. Scandals about Jefferson were fodder for the press, especially in the North during the buildup to the Civil War. Anything confirming Callender’s original accusation would have been sensational. The newspaper is not credible, either. The Pike County Republican, a partisan newspaper, and its editor, Samuel Wetmore, a Republican insider, had a longstanding anti-Jefferson agenda. In fact, given that Madison himself claimed that his reading and writing was secondhand, the excellent English of the interview – sprinkled with French – suggests that it was not an “interview” at all, but a story written by Wetmore himself. Identical factual inaccuracies, phrases, and misspellings from Callender’s original libels raise further questions about the legitimacy of the interview. All told, Madison’s interview is full of holes and is unreliable. At the very least, it should not be accepted as Gospel truth.
The second piece of evidence is Nature’s DNA study. This study, misleadingly titled “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” settled the issue for many, awing the public and professionals with the authority of science. This is terribly unfortunate, for the results of the study were actually inconclusive. The study tested DNA samples from the descendants of five men: Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s uncle), Eston Hemings (Sally’s last son), Peter and Samuel Carr (Thomas Jefferson’s nephews), and Thomas Woodson (who claimed to be the missing first son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally). The results showed a match between the male chromosomes of the descendants of Eston and Field Jefferson, meaning that a man in the Jefferson bloodline was probably the father of Eston. In other words, Thomas Jefferson could not be ruled out as the biological father, though he was not proven to be the father, either. The results also ruled out the Carrs’ paternity of Eston (though not of Sally’s other children, at least some of whom they confessed to fathering) and proved that Woodson was not a part of the Jefferson bloodline. The scientists also noted that Jefferson and Hemings bloodlines could have mixed illegitimately in earlier or later generations, though they found the possibility unlikely. The recent revelation of illegitimacy in the British royal line, however, uncovered by the discovery of King Richard III’s remains, is a reminder that such caveats cannot be dismissed cavalierly.
In spite of the limitations of the results, the scientists declared that they had proved that Thomas was Eston’s father. Shortly thereafter, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation endorsed Nature’s conclusions. The DNA study showed nothing more than that Eston was descended from a male in the Jefferson bloodline, but the Memorial Foundation declared that Thomas Jefferson himself was the likely father of all of Sally’s six children, anyway. “We don’t need proof,” sneered Peter S. Onuf, the historical consultant to the Memorial Foundation. “We are historians, we write history the way we want to.” At the time of Eston’s conception, however, there were at least nine eligible Jefferson fathers in the vicinity of Monticello and a total of twenty-five in Virginia. By the DNA alone, without any consideration of plausibility, the probability of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity is as low as 4%. Singling out Thomas Jefferson is not the “simplest and most probable” explanation, as the scientists said, but rather the most sensational.
The Thomas Jefferson Scholars Commission, a “blue-ribbon panel” of independent experts, convened after the Memorial Foundation betrayed its namesake, has advanced the theory of Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph Jefferson, as the likeliest father. An oral tradition among some of the Hemingses holds that Eston was fathered by a Jefferson “uncle,” and Randolph was known as “Uncle Randolph” around Monticello. Unlike the reserved and monastic Thomas Jefferson, Randolph was known to socialize with the slaves, slipping away to play the fiddle and dance late into the night. Randolph was likely present at the time of Eston’s conception, too, and was a regular visitor to Monticello. In fact, there were even reports of Randolph fathering children by other slaves. Interestingly, Sally’s births coincided with Randolph’s interlude between wives and terminated in 1809, the same year that Thomas Jefferson came home for good and Randolph remarried. Randolph also had four sons, all of whom were young men at the time of Eston’s conception, visiting Monticello with their father and on their own. Randolph and his sons are all eligible paternity candidates for Eston.
Aside from partisan calumnies and circumstantial evidence, there is nothing implicating Thomas Jefferson as the father of Eston or any of Sally’s other children. Such an affair and abuse of power would have been totally inconsistent with what is known about Thomas Jefferson – not to mention potentially physically impossible, given that at the time of Eston’s conception he was sixty-four years-old and wracked with rheumatism, migraines, and intestinal and urological disorders which left him incapacitated. With what is known about Randolph, he appears the likeliest out of the many eligible candidates. “It does appear,” concludes the Scholars Commission, “that the circumstantial case that Eston Hemings was fathered by the President’s younger brother is many times stronger than the case against the President himself.” Nature papered over such possibilities for a shocking headline. “There is nothing in…[our] DNA study that itself would lead [us] to suspect Thomas Jefferson as the father versus Randolph or his sons,” clarified Dr. Eugene Foster, the head of the Nature study who was troubled by the misrepresentation and politicization of the results.
Last, but not least, there is the evidence of Jefferson’s character. In their inept and unethical deconstructions of Jefferson, Brodie and Gordon-Reed laid the groundwork for future public figures, jumping on the bandwagon after the DNA study, to denounce the ingenious and honourable Jefferson as a Janus-faced and Machiavellian rogue – “an easy moral superiority over our dead heroes,” according to psychologist Erik Erikson. For instance, in a televised interview with Jesse Jackson, Sr., historian Stephen Ambrose, later exposed for plagiarism, labeled Jefferson a “hypocrite,” “liar,” “misogynist,” and “dead-beat dad,” and called Sally his “sex slave.” Historian Paul Finkelman has described Jefferson as “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Polemicist Christopher Hitchens, an unabashed admirer of Commissar Leon Trotsky, labeled Jefferson a “slave-owning sex addict.” Historian Peter S. Onuf, whose assertion of historians’ privileges over “proof” is quoted above, said that Jefferson was a “monster of self-deception.” Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama’s old reverend and personal friend, came out and called Jefferson a pedophile. Gordon-Reed, not to be outdone, suggested that he was a “rapist.” Reviewing one of the many new books dragging Jefferson’s name through the mud, investigative journalist Robert Parry declared Jefferson to be “America’s Founding Sociopath.” Jefferson’s character, however, towers above this shameless, pathetic feeding frenzy. A lion is not concerned with the opinions of the sheep.
A reserved man with a brilliant mind and profound conscience, Jefferson often ruminated deeply upon matters of right and wrong. “My principle is to do whatever is right,” confessed Jefferson, “and leave consequences to Him who has the disposal of them.” For that reason, President George Washington, a man of impeccable honour, often conferred with Jefferson, his Secretary of State, on matters of ethics. As a young man, Jefferson was given to fox hunting, horse racing, cards, gossiping, and other frivolities, but upon the death of his father he adopted a strict moral code – “the steady pursuits of what is right,” as he described it to his grandson – to which he adhered for the rest of his life. Jefferson’s role models, aside from his distinguished academic mentors George Wythe and William Small, were Epicurus, Cicero, Jesus, Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Every night, before going to bed, Jefferson read something morally uplifting for him to reflect upon in his sleep. His The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ of Nazareth – the “Jefferson Bible” – though much-maligned by Christians for editing out everything spiritual, was Jefferson’s effort to extol the moral perfection of Jesus. Jefferson held his friends and family to the same standards to which he held himself. “Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly,” Jefferson wrote to his eldest daughter. “From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death.” Everything known about Jefferson indicates that he practiced what he preached. Otherwise, his whole life would have been a lie. As an example of how seriously he took character, the memory of a ragged soldier whom he passed in his carriage without stopping to help haunted Jefferson for years. According to historian Winthrop Jordan, “Jefferson was simply not capable of violating every rule of honor and kindness, to say nothing of his convictions concerning the master-slave relationship.”
Jefferson was not just a stoic philosopher preoccupied with virtue, however. He was also a warm man deeply attached to his family. “I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post that any human power can give,” admitted Jefferson. Of “domestic felicity,” Jefferson said, “There is no other in this world worth living for.” Indeed, throughout much of his life Jefferson longed for home, yet was constantly drawn away by a sense of duty to his country. Despite these distractions, Jefferson was an attentive parent deeply invested in the happiness of his daughters, Martha and Mary, whom he nicknamed “Patsy” and “Polly.” When his elder daughter, Patsy, was having marital problems, he encouraged her to be the “link of love, union, and peace for the whole family.” Jefferson once told Patsy that a “single evening” with her was worth more than “ages” elsewhere, and that letters from her were a “blessing.” When his younger daughter, Polly, was intent on marrying a man of whom he disapproved, a wounded Jefferson wrote of “jarring,” “jealousies,” and “irregular passions,” troubling “our fireside” and causing problems for “the future fortunes of our descendants.” After receiving news that Polly had been bedridden since the birth of her first child, Jefferson sent her a reassuring letter from Philadelphia. “I know no happiness but when we are all together,” he told his daughter. “My attachments to the world and whatever it can offer are daily wearing off, but you are one of the links which hold to my existence.” With his grandchildren, Jefferson often played games, gave gifts, and even wrote letters to those who could read and write themselves. “Cheerfulness, love, benevolence, wisdom, seemed to animate his whole form,” recalled one of his granddaughters, Virginia J. Trist. Of all Jefferson’s passions, his family mattered the most. Jefferson was also kind to the rest of his household. Monticello’s overseer, Bacon, described Jefferson as “always very kind and indulgent to his servants.” Even Sally’s son, Madison, conceded in his interview that Jefferson was “universally kind to all about him.” Shortly after Jefferson’s death, Patsy reminisced about her father in a letter to her daughter, Ellen. “In the course of my life I cannot call to mind one solitary action that I would censure,” wrote Patsy. “What can I say my Dear Ellen that have so long basked in the sunshine of his affections, and have been witness to his private virtue, that will not look like partiality? But if I speak at all I must speak the truth, and so doing can utter nothing but praise.” On her deathbed, Patsy summoned her sons to her side and urged them to defend their grandfather’s legacy from defamation.
One story in particular illustrates Jefferson’s commitment to his family. Jefferson and his wife, Martha, were deeply in love and utterly devoted to each other. Jefferson described his marriage as a time of “unchequered happiness” and a state of being “touched by heaven.” “In every scheme of happiness, she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the principal figure,” admitted Jefferson. “Take that away, and it is no picture for me.” When Martha died tragically from childbirth complications, Jefferson promised to honour her request that he never marry again – an unusual promise for an eighteenth-century widower of means, but one which he kept. Unable to hear Martha’s name without descending into tears, Jefferson burned their entire correspondence. For weeks, Jefferson was inconsolable – “dead to the world,” as he said – either secluding himself in his room or riding alone in the mountains. One of Jefferson and Martha’s favorite novels was Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. In Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book – a personal collection of quotations – he included one of Tristram Shandy’s last lines. As Martha lay dying, Jefferson sat by her side and together they wrote out this special quotation. On a small scrap of paper, Martha began: “Time wastes too fast, Every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen, The days and hours of it pass over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more, Everything presses on.” Jefferson then took the pen and finished: “And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu and every absence which follows is a prelude to that eternal separation we are shortly to make.” Jefferson kept this paper for the rest of his life, hidden in a secret drawer in a secret compartment of his nightstand. The heavily worn paper had been unfolded and folded countless times over the years. Inside, Jefferson kept a lock of his wife’s hair as well as that of an infant they had lost. Upon Martha’s grave, Jefferson inscribed an epitaph from Homer’s Iliad: “Nay, even if in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet I will even there be mindful of my dear comrade.” This is the true Jefferson, not the hypocrite and scoundrel of modern imagination, but a deeply sentimental and sensitive family man.
It is unthinkable that Jefferson, who loved his family with all of his heart and cherished “domestic felicity” and the “ineffable pleasures of family society” would risk humiliating his daughters and grandchildren and destroying his home by secretly fathering children with a slave. After all, Monticello – a magnificent architectural masterpiece designed by Jefferson himself – was meant to be a sanctuary for the cultivation of reason and virtue, not a spider web of secrets and scandals. “I ask is it likely that so fond, so anxious a father, whose letters to his daughters are 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!” exclaimed Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen W.R. Coolidge. “The thing will not bear telling. There are such things, after all, as moral impossibilities.” According to historian Henry S. Randall, Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff, said that “he had never seen a motion, or look, or a circumstance which led him to suspect for an instant that there was a particle more of familiarity between Mr. Jefferson and Sally Hemings than between him and the most repulsive house servant.” As Jefferson’s peerless biographer, Malone, says of the allegations:
“They are distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson’s moral standards and habitual conduct. To say this is not to claim that he was a plaster saint incapable of moral lapses. But his major weaknesses were not of this sort; and while he might have occasionally fallen from grace, as so many men have done so often, it is virtually inconceivable that this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife’s memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect. It would be as absurd to charge this consistently temperate man with being, through a period, a secret drunkard.”
Jefferson’s views on race relations also belie the possibility of an affair with Sally. Although it is fashionable to brand Jefferson as a “racist” for believing some things which were commonplace in the eighteenth century but are ugly today, Jefferson was actually one of his time’s wisest thinkers on the problem of slavery. According to historian Clyde N. Wilson, “Jefferson’s discussion of the American racial dilemma in Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia says everything true that can be said about the subject, ethically and intellectually, as will be seen a hundred years from now, should there be any men and women left who are capable of Jefferson’s range, clarity, honesty, and detachment.” True, Jefferson regarded blacks as intellectually and physically inferior to whites and was opposed to amalgamation – a frequently glossed-over point which makes his supposed paternity of six children by a slave all the more suspect – but he also considered blacks to be morally equal to whites. For Jefferson, to whom morality was the most important human quality, surpassing beauty and even intelligence, this was a significant concession and the reason why he believed that blacks could and should be free. Throughout his life, Jefferson made it clear that he saw slavery as a terrible evil – one which degraded whites and blacks by making the former tyrannical and demoralizing the latter – and prayed for its eventual abolition. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?” asked Jefferson. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free.” Jefferson was especially sickened by sexual “commerce” of slavery. “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions,” seethed Jefferson, “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Worst of all, continued Jefferson, was the repugnant example this set for the master’s children. Speaking out on such a shameful subject was controversial, and Jefferson would not have risked his reputation unless he felt the courage of conviction.
Although Jefferson deplored slavery, he equally deplored outside interference with the internal affairs of a State, which he believed was politically rather than morally motivated (“a mere party trick”) and destructive (“a fire bell in the night” and “the knell of the Union”). Of the Missouri Compromise, which conceded this outside interference to the federal government and set the North and South on a collision course, Jefferson said, “I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by unwise and unworthy passions of their sons and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.” Unlike ranting and raving abolitionists or scheming politicos, Jefferson developed a practical plan of emancipation: diffusion of the slave population from old States into new States, thereby easing emancipation and overcoming the difficulty of integration. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s idea was never tried, the Federalists – and later the Whigs and Republicans – caring more about keeping new States under the control of Northern whites than abolishing slavery.
Jefferson understood that emancipation was no simple matter; it would be the largest act of self-disinheritance in history and had failed miserably in French and British Colonies. “There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way,” avowed Jefferson. “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in the one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson was confident, however, that in spite of political and moral obstacles, slavery would ultimately go extinct as both races bettered themselves – whites growing to be more humane and blacks growing to be more responsible. In this slow but steady progress, Jefferson counseled patience. “The revolution in public opinion which this case requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age, but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also,” concluded Jefferson. It is outrageous to insist that Jefferson, a man with a strict moral code and a devout love of and loyalty to his family, indulged in and exposed his daughters and grandchildren to the very vices he strenuously abhorred. “It is difficult to imagine him caught up in a miscegenous relationship,” argues historian Merrill D. Peterson. “Such a mixture of the races, such a ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship, revolted his whole being.”
Jefferson deserves a fair trial, yet he has been condemned to a witch hunt. Aside from the senseless psychologizing and supposition, all of the evidence amassed against Jefferson is circumstantial and unconvincing. While there is no real evidence incriminating Jefferson himself as the father of Sally’s children, there is plenty of evidence exonerating him. Jefferson, along with all of his family and friends – and even some of his foes – adamantly denied the rumor. The DNA study, commonly misconstrued as proof of Jefferson’s paternity of all Sally’s children, proves no such thing. No one could be convicted in a court of law on such a case, yet unfortunately the damage has already been done in the court of public opinion. Today, more college students know Jefferson as the Founding Father who sexually exploited one of his slaves than as the author of the Declaration of Independence. “On Jefferson,” author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza says of a conversation with three sample college students, “the three were agreed: he was, in various descriptions, a ‘hypocrite,’ a ‘rapist,’ and a ‘total racist.’” Indeed, those not satisfied with the destruction of Jefferson’s memory now want to remove all of its physical traces, demolishing the Jefferson Memorial and defacing Mount Rushmore. Perhaps one day all the nickels will be melted down and the two-dollar bills burned, too. It is high time to put an end to this irresponsible and reprehensible vilification and restore one of America’s true national treasures – the author of the words “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” and “we will die free men rather than live slaves” – to his rightful glory.
Recommended Reading on the Jefferson-Hemings Scandal
The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission
Cynthia Burton, Jefferson Vindicated
M. Andrew Holowchak, Framing A Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
William G. Hyland Jr., In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal
Rebecca L. McMurry & James F. McMurry Jr, Anatomy of a Scandal: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story