Everybody knows that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings, right?
But what we think we know, isn’t so. This article by Marina Brown at allday.com is riddled with falsehoods and unproven assertions.
A few years ago, a group of distinguished historians, led by Robert F. Turner of the University of Virginia, was empaneled to assess the available evidence on Jefferson and Hemings. Turner summarized the panel’s findings in a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal. The findings refute nearly all the conventional wisdom as retold in the allday.com article.
At All Day, Brown writes:
Martha Jefferson died in her early 30s after an 11-year marriage. Thomas never remarried—Martha had asked him not to. But he did begin an affair with his late wife’s half-sister.
But the evidence supporting this alleged affair is virtually non-existant.
[Martha’s] family owned over 100 slaves. One of them was the mixed-race Betty Hemings, who had 10 children. Betty’s youngest was Sarah “Sally” Hemings, whose father was Martha’s father.
Because of their relation, the Hemings were treated “well” at the Jefferson estate—they were craftsmen, domestic workers, and chefs.
Advocates of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity make a number of seemingly compelling arguments that upon close inspection turn out to be either false or easily explained. One is that Sally and her children received “extraordinary privileges” at Monticello. Most Jefferson scholars acknowledge there is no evidence of that.
Jefferson’s affair with Sally probably began in France when he was an ambassador and brought her along as a servant for his daughter. Sally was only 15 or 16 years old, making the romanticized ideas of their love pretty creepy.
The claim that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings began with James Thomson Callender, a notorious journalist and scandalmonger. Callender had demanded that Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800, appoint him postmaster of Richmond, Va. At one point during the summer of 1802, Callendar shouted from in front of the White House, “Sir, you know that by lying [in press attacks on President John Adams] I made you President!”
When Jefferson refused to make the appointment, Callender promised “ten thousand fold vengeance” and wrote a series of articles denouncing Jefferson as a French agent and an atheist. When those charges had no effect, he insisted that the president had taken a young slave girl to be his “concubine” while in Paris during the late 1780s. At the time, Sally attended to Jefferson’s young daughters, who lived in a Catholic boarding school across town in Paris that had servants’ quarters. She didn’t live at the Jefferson residence.
Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton—political rivals of Jefferson’s at the time—rejected Callender’s charges, because they knew Jefferson’s character and had bitter personal experiences with Callender’s lies.
Two [of the alleged children of Jefferson and Hemings] didn’t live until adulthood, but Jefferson freed the others when they came of age. The Hemings were the only family he freed out of hundreds of slaves.
Jefferson did free Sally’s two youngest sons in his will. But he freed all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, and Sally’s sons received the worst treatment among those freed. Unlike others, they received no land, house, tools or money. Sally herself was never legally freed.
After gaining their freedom, other slaves of the Jefferson estate wrote memoirs that verified the rumors—Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children.
Allegations that the “oral history” of Sally’s descendants identified the president as the father of all of Sally’s children are also incorrect. [Heming’s youngest son] Eston’s descendants repeatedly acknowledged—before and after the DNA tests—that as children they were told they were not descendants of Thomas Jefferson but rather of an “uncle.”
In 1998, a DNA test confirmed the truth.
The study found a link using Field Jefferson, a descendant of the Jefferson male line and Eston Hemings, one of Sally’s sons. Scientists also tested Thomas Jefferson’s nephew’s descendent’s DNA to see if he could have fathered the children, but there was no match. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation accepted these findings.
This characterization of the DNA evidence is exceedingly misleading. The tests did not prove Jefferson’s paternity; they merely could not absolutely rule it out.
In reality, the 1998 DNA tests alleged to prove this did not involve genetic material from Thomas Jefferson. All they established was that one of more than two dozen Jefferson males probably fathered Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston. And there is good reason to believe that at least seven Jefferson men (including the president) were at Monticello when Eston was conceived in the summer of 1807…
A more plausible candidate is Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph.”
Most scholars believe Sally had six children with Jefferson…
The case against Jefferson was the subject of a yearlong examination by a group of 13 distinguished scholars, including historians Robert Ferrell (Indiana University) and Forrest McDonald (University of Alabama), as well as political scientists Harvey Mansfield (Harvard) and Jean Yarbrough (Bowdoin). Save for a mild dissent by historian Paul Rahe (now at Hillsdale College) the group concluded that the story is probably false.
Sorry to see that a Twitter feed I like, History in Pictures, bought into this tripe by retweeting the story. Sad.