The Jefferson-Hemings controversy in the post-DNA era
by MAURA SINGLETON
“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
—Thomas Jefferson, 1820
If history is “an argument without end,” as the historian Joseph Ellis says, then the dispute over whether Thomas Jefferson had sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings might rank as one of the ugliest. It has involved systematic denial, reversals of position, name calling, intimidation and all manner of scholarly abuse. It has led to accusations of shoddy scholarship, of tampering with historical evidence, of bias and duplicity and censorship. The credibility of individuals living and dead, white and black, has been routinely undermined. Conspiracy theories—hallmarks of any enduring controversy—have further tightened the Gordian knot.
A WINDING TRAIL
1802 James Callender, a muckraking journalist, writes the first public report on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in theRichmond Recorder.
1805 Jefferson responds to a series of charges against him made by critics, but all that survives is a cover letter sent to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith that alludes to the contents of the actual letter.
1826 Jefferson dies at 83. By his will, five male slaves are freed, among them Sally’s sons, Madison and Eston Hemings. Sally herself is not freed.
1835 Sally Hemings dies at 62.
1853 John Hartwell Cocke, a close friend of Jefferson’s, writes in his journal about the prevalence of interracial sex: “Were [such cases] enumerated … they would be found by the hundreds. Nor is it to be wondered at when Mr. Jefferson’s notorious example is considered.”
1858 Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, writes to her husband repudiating the claim that Jefferson fathered children by Hemings. Her letter endorses the theory that Samuel Carr was their father. The same year, the biography The Life of Thomas Jefferson by Henry Randall dismisses the Jefferson-Hemings story as “invented by the Federalists.”
1862 Edmund Bacon, Monticello’s overseer for 20 years while Jefferson was alive, suggests that someone other than Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children.
1873 The recollections of Madison Hemings, now 68 and living in Ohio, appear in the Pike County Republican. His assertion that Jefferson was his father is roundly ignored by historians. A second newspaper article published months later on the recollections of former Monticello slave Israel Jefferson corroborates Madison’s claim.
1874 In James Parton’s biography The Life of Thomas Jefferson, the Hemings scandal is dismissed as a lie spread by Jefferson’s political enemies; Parton fingers one of the Carr brothers as the likely father of her children.
1954 An account of the Jefferson-Hemings story by Lerone Bennett Jr. in Ebonymagazine, “Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren,” revives public interest in the story.
1960 Merrill Peterson publishes The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, which treats the Jefferson-Hemings story as a “legend” without credibility.
1961 Pearl Graham publishes an article,“Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson,” in theJournal of Negro History. Drawing on Jefferson’s Farm Book, she argues that a relationship existed.
1968 In White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, Winthrop Jordan endorses the possibility that Jefferson had a relationship with Hemings.
1974 Fawn Brodie publishes the highly controversial Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which depicts a passionate romantic relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.
1975 Dumas Malone publishes a journal article, “A Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings,” which assails the motives of S.F. Wetmore, the newspaper editor who interviewed Madison in 1873.
1977 In The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, John Chester Miller calls the possibility of a relationship inconsistent with Jefferson’s character. Like other historians before him, he endorses the theory that one of the Carr brothers fathered Hemings’ children.
1979 CBS drops plans for a TV miniseries about Jefferson and Hemings after intense pressure from Jefferson historians Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone and descendants.
1981 Virginius Dabney, a writer and Jefferson descendant, publishes The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal.
1984 In one of his last interviews, Dumas Malone tells a New York Times reporter than Jefferson and Hemings may have had a sexual encounter “once or twice.”
1996 In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis calls the likelihood of a liaison remote.
1997 Annette Gordon-Reed publishes Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which lambastes Jefferson scholars for failing to make “a serious and objective attempt to get at the truth of this matter.”
1998 In the journal Nature, Dr. Eugene Foster publishes the findings of a DNA test, the first scientific proof that a Jefferson male fathered Hemings’ last child, Eston. The DNA test excludes both of the Carr brothers from the list of possible fathers.
1999 Professors Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf organize a conference at UVA to allow historians to begin attempting to explain the significance of the liaison. The conference leads to the publication of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture.
2000 In January, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation issues the “Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” which endorses the likelihood that a relationship existed “that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.” In February, CBS airs its TV miniseries, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.
2001 At the urging of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a panel of independent scholars forms the Scholars Commission and reevaluates the evidence behind the allegations of a relationship. Their report concludes “it is almost certainly false.”
2005 In Jefferson Vindicated, Cynthia H. Burton uncovers previously unexamined records that she says cast doubt on Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children.
It is an argument that has been alive—some would say revived—for 200 years. Science attempted to answer the question in 1998, when a DNA test revealed that descendants of Hemings’ youngest child, Eston, shared the same rare Y-chromosome markers as descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. That genetic evidence—that the Hemings family descends from a male Jefferson—was compelling enough for many people to name Thomas Jefferson as the likely patriarch. For others, the DNA study only deepens the mystery.
Those who challenge the Monticello report say they are labeled as racists and blind defenders of Jefferson. Those who accept the claim have been upbraided as politically correct revisionists.
“There were a lot of fence-sitters who got off the fence,” says Lucia Stanton, Monticello’s senior historian. For many years, she subscribed to the theory that it was “morally impossible” for Jefferson to have had such a liaison, until she began looking more closely at the oral history passed down in the Hemings family. Other historians, notably Ellis and Andrew Burstein, once dismissive of its likelihood, switched camps after the DNA analysis. For many in the African-American community, the blood test simply confirmed what they already believed.
Although the DNA study itself did not pinpoint which member of the Jefferson family was Eston Hemings’ father—more than two-dozen Jefferson men were in Virginia at the time—it did disprove a long-held belief perpetuated by Jefferson’s white descendants: that one of his nephews, Peter Carr or Samuel Carr, fathered Hemings’ children. This explanation had been endorsed down the line by Douglass Adair, Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson and other prominent historians. But the DNA analysis showed no match between the Hemings line and the Carr family.
In the wake of this fresh evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, revisited the issue and in early 2000 released its own report on the paternity issue. Noting that paternity could not be established with absolute certainty, the report stated “the strong likelihood” that Jefferson fathered one, and possibly all, of Hemings’ children. With that, the “Tom and Sally” controversy would seem to be put to rest.
Instead, it has entered a new dimension.
This revision to the historical record has acted as a rallying cry among Jefferson admirers. “The allegations concerning his behavior do not merely provide an interesting sidelight on an otherwise great man. They are, in fact, a frontal assault on him and his principles,” writes John H. Works Jr. in Eyler R. Coates’ The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, published in 2001. Hanging in the balance is Jefferson’s legacy as a founding father and his place in American thought and political philosophy. Defending Thomas Jefferson, adds Works, “has come to mean defending what America means, and we feel compelled to rise to that defense.”
In the post-DNA era, however, the burden of proof has shifted dramatically. Jefferson defenders have focused their energies on finding a litany of major factual and logical errors in the arguments used by champions of the Hemings’ claim. They have marshaled evidence that points to other paternity candidates—Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, being the chief suspect. Historical arguments have given way to philosophical and legal briefs that have created a cloud of doubt about the entire affair. The general implication of many of their counterattacks is that the material facts are the same, but a new generation of “anti-hero” historians has taken over.
For Robert F. Turner, a UVA law professor with a deep regard for Jefferson, the Monticello report was problematic. “None of the pieces fit together,” he says. Jefferson had not gotten a fair hearing. So, at the behest of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society—“a group of concerned businessmen, historians, genealogists, scientists and patriots”—Turner chaired an independent panel, called the Scholars Commission, to reexamine the issue.
That a final verdict was by no means established was bizarrely evident on April 12, 2001, the anniversary eve of Jefferson’s birthday. At the White House, President Bush welcomed a multiracial group of Martha Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’ descendants for a birthday celebration. A few blocks away, at the National Press Club, flashbulbs were going off for a different reason: the Scholars Commission announced the release of its 500-page report on the Hemings affair with opinions ranging from “serious skepticism” to a conviction that the allegations about Jefferson were “almost certainly false.”
Sally Hemings, the central character in this story, remains static, a figure in outline only. What is known about her would fit on the back of an envelope.
Those who challenge the Monticello report say they are labeled as racists and blind defenders of Jefferson. Those who accept the claim have been upbraided as politically correct revisionists. As historian Edward Ayers has observed, it is a case in which “each side has assumed the worst about each other.”
As the evidence is sifted and resifted, competing theories and contradictory conclusions emerge. But Hemings, the central character in this story, remains static, a figure in outline only. History has given her many nicknames, but what is truly known about her would fit on the back of an envelope. She bore six children and was listed as living in Charlottesville as a free person in an 1833 census, but it is not even known where she is buried. A description survives that she was “mighty near white.” Jefferson appears to have made reference to her perhaps five times in his tens of thousands of letters, scholars say.
That this debate has enjoyed such longevity may be partly due to the inability of historians to establish an objective standard for evaluating evidence. Different scholars weight the same evidence differently. There is a very real ambivalence about the role, let alone the certitude, of oral history. Some approach the Jefferson-Hemings story as a puzzle; others treat it as a mystery. Put another way, can the truth be discovered if enough pieces of information are collected, or can it only be gleaned by better analyzing what we already know?
Assessing the Evidence
In an 1873 interview, Madison Hemings stated that he and his siblings (Beverly, Harriet and Eston) were Thomas Jefferson’s children.
Documents and birth patterns suggest a long-term relationship, which produced the children whose names appear in Jefferson’s records, according to the Monticello report. The family history of Sally Hemings’ descendants, transmitted orally over many generations, states that Hemings and Jefferson are their ancestors. From what is known of Madison Hemings’ character, “his word was his bond,” says Monticello senior historian Lucia Stanton.
But: Madison’s statements were “solicited and published for a propagandist purpose” by newspaper editor S.F. Wetmore, says Dumas Malone. Other historians have also argued that his claim was contrived—by his mother or himself—to give him a measure of social respect. Most of the relevant facts attributed to him occurred long before his birth, according to the Scholars Commission. Several of his factual allegations can be established as false by available records.
Sally Hemings’ birth patterns match Jefferson’s Monticello visitation patterns.
In a statistical analysis by Monticello, the correlation between Jefferson’s presence and Hemings’ conceptions suggests a 99 percent probability that he was the father of her children. The findings are significant in light of the fact that he traveled a great deal during her 16 years of conception.
But: The study assumes that all of Hemings’ children had the same father. It also assumes that any other paternity candidate would have had identical arrival and departure dates. Also, Hemings’ continual presence at Monticello is uncertain. “The simplest explanation … is that Monticello was normally kept locked during Jefferson’s absence, and thus his return would prompt visits to the mountain by numerous friends and relatives—including other candidates for paternity,” states Robert F. Turner in the Scholars Commission report. Turner and others also take issue with the gestation period lengths used in the statistical analysis.
Jefferson could not have lived a double life without raising his family’s suspicions.
Monticello was a goldfish bowl. Jefferson had as many as 50 guests at a time at the house in addition to his daughter and her family, but there are no surviving documents that indicate anyone saw anything.
But: Sexual relations between the races was an accepted practice, as long as the man did not acknowledge his illegitimate heirs or talk about it. These covert affairs would not have left a trail in the written record. “What we take as the big taboo—crossing the racial boundary—was the norm in this period,” says Peter Onuf. “What we think is the worst was then probably the most acceptable behavior. It happened all over the place.”
Hemings and her children received special treatment.
In his will, Jefferson freed Madison and Eston Hemings. “Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family. No other Monticello slaves achieved their freedom before the age of 31 … Harriet Hemings was the only enslaved woman freed in Jefferson’s lifetime, and she was freed when she was 21,” according to the Monticello report. Adds Annette Gordon-Reed: “The timing of the freeing of Sally Hemings’ children tracks strongly with the alleged promise that Madison Hemings said Jefferson made to Hemings about when her children would be freed.”
But: The absence of any provision for Sally in his will undercuts the theory that a “treaty” existed between Jefferson and Hemings, critics charge. Also, her sons were likely freed to care for an older relative. “In Jefferson’s codicil, Madison and Eston are to be given freedom at 21 to help John Hemings, who was elderly and vulnerable,” says Cynthia H. Burton. (John Hemings was then 51.) “He freed five men. A few of the others received money, tools, a house. Madison and Eston were given nothing.”
Jefferson was a vocal opponent of racial mixing.
But: Jefferson was a man of contradictions with well-known rationalizing talents, critics say. His statements against race mixing could be a case of inverted cause and effect. “Because miscegenation was going on at Monticello … his repeated expressions of revulsion at racial mixing may have become psychologically necessary to hide the reality,” says Gordon Wood. Or perhaps this wasn’t an issue because Jefferson didn’t consider Hemings—a quadroon—to be black, other scholars speculate.
In an 1805 cover letter to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, Jefferson responded to allegations against his character. In it, he admits to making improper advances to the wife of a friend many years before, but states “it is the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me.”
The Monticello report notes that Jefferson made no public denial of a connection to Sally Hemings, nor has any record been found that he ever commented on the paternity of her children. Of this document, Lucia Stanton says: “It’s the cover letter, not the real letter, and we don’t know what that said. It’s certainly not an explicit denial. It’s very ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways.”
But: “It is reasonably clear from the full context of Jefferson’s letter itself and the historical circumstances that Jefferson was denying all the charges made against him by his political enemies, including the Hemings paternity allegation,” says David Mayer in the Scholars Commission report. Jefferson wrote the letter 10 days after the Washington Federalist newspaper reprinted allegations that included an affair with Mrs. John Walker and “concubinage” with Hemings.
Edmund Bacon, Monticello’s overseer from 1806 to 1822, stated that Jefferson was not the father of Hemings’ children.
In 1862, Bacon told Hamilton Pierson that “people said” Jefferson freed Hemings’ daughter, Harriet, “because she was his own 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.” (The name of the father was deleted in the published account of his recollection.) Jefferson and his son-in-law vouched for Bacon’s honesty and character, says Cynthia Burton. Moreover, the historical record supports most of Bacon’s story.
But: Harriet Hemings was born in 1801, five years before Bacon’s arrival at Monticello, so there are problems with his chronology and knowledge of events. Also, according to Lucia Stanton, Bacon had a reputation among Jefferson’s grandchildren as “a great tale teller and exaggerator.” Adds Annette Gordon-Reed: “It was plain he adored Thomas Jefferson and Martha Jefferson. He would not have wanted to do damage to the memories of either of them.”
James Callender, a newspaper reporter, went public with the rumor of an interracial sexual affair in 1802.
Callender was “one of the most notorious scandalmongers and character assassins in American history,” said Dumas Malone. Adds Robert Turner: “Callender’s charge was basically a blackmail scheme. He wanted to be postmaster of Richmond and Jefferson said he wasn’t qualified. Callender said he would turn his pen on him. That threat is part of the written record. The story about Sally was not even his head volley.”
But: For the most part, argues Joshua Rothman, Callender’s reports were essentially accurate. He was purposefully sensationalistic, but “he was not usually a liar. When he ran the Jefferson-Hemings story in 1802, he believed it to be the most damaging information he had on the president, and he hoped it would ruin Jefferson’s political career.”
Decades after Jefferson’s death, John Hartwell Cocke, a friend who served with him on UVA’s Board of Visitors, wrote in his diary about the prevalence in Virginia of masters with slave families—“nor is it to be wondered at, when Mr. Jefferson’s notorious example is considered.”
But: The Scholars Commission argues that Cocke heard the rumors and just assumed they were true, since the two men didn’t meet until about 1811, some years after Hemings had her last child. His “cryptic diary entries provide not the slightest hint that these comments were based upon anything more than Callender’s allegations or rumor,” says Robert Turner. Other negative references in his diary to Jefferson suggest that Cocke may have been disgruntled with Jefferson and jealous of his accomplishments.Randolph Jefferson
Ignored Father or Fall Guy?
Randolph was Thomas Jefferson’s younger and less brilliant brother, a “very amiable man” who “never amounted to anything much,” said historian Dumas Malone. A Buckingham County farmer, Randolph lived 20 miles south of Monticello and often visited his brother in the spring and late summer.
Some scholars maintain that the circumstantial case is many times stronger that Randolph fathered Eston Hemings and perhaps all of Sally Hemings’ children. Critics say he is a convenient fall guy for Jefferson defenders who, in light of the DNA study, can no longer scapegoat one of the Carr brothers.
No portraits or even physical descriptions of Randolph survive, but something of his character can be inferred from a deposition Thomas Jefferson gave in court concerning Randolph’s estate: that he lacked “skill for the judicious management of his affairs,” and that “an easy pliancy to the wishes and urgency of others made him very susceptible of influence from those who had any views upon him.” Twelve years Jefferson’s junior, Randolph was also counseled about his use of alcohol.
Isaac Jefferson, a former Monticello slave, stated in a recollection: “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.”
In 1807, when Eston was born, Randolph was 51, a widower with five sons. Correspondence between Randolph and his brother indicates that he was expected at Monticello during the time that coincides with Eston’s conception. After Eston was born, Randolph married “a controlling woman,” as some scholars describe her, and he visited Monticello less often.
At Monticello, he was known as “Uncle Randolph”—and family oral history on Eston Hemings’ side maintained for many years that they descended from a Jefferson “uncle.”
Some say that this clearly points to Randolph as the patriarch. Up until about 1976—when the biographer Fawn Brodie informed some Eston Hemings descendants that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson—some Hemings descendants believed that they were distantly related to Jefferson through a nephew or uncle.
According to Lucia Stanton, however, who has interviewed descendants of Eston and Madison Hemings, the uncle story was fabricated by light-skinned descendants who had passed into white society to distance themselves from Monticello and its slave community.
“The interesting thing is, why did nobody ever say anything about Randolph before 1998? That was because the family denial involved the Carr brothers until the genetics pointed to a Jefferson,” says Stanton.
Adds historian Peter Onuf: “Where their argument comes unwound is pointing the finger in another direction. First they say it’s one of the Carr boys, the nephews of Jefferson, and if that doesn’t work, they say it’s somebody else. But what they’re saying is that interracial relations are ubiquitous. But in order to exonerate Jefferson, they have to have fall guys and what you might call a ‘fall culture’—the entire planter class.”
Cynthia H. Burton, an independent genealogist, picked up the strand of an earlier researcher, Pearl Graham, who interviewed descendants of Hemings in the 1940s. She came across a 1958 letter that Graham wrote to a Jefferson scholar at Princeton that short-listed Randolph as a paternity candidate. Randolph was rumored among slave descendants connected to Monticello to have had colored children. “It’s been out there, but not publicized a lot,” Burton says. “There seem to be a lot of stories about it.”
In her self-published 2005 book, Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search, Burton says that Randolph moved in circles where a number of white men were involved in interracial relationships. Given his “susceptible” nature, maybe he followed suit, she suggests. “Circumstantially, Randolph Jefferson far surpasses his older brother as a probable paternity candidate when considering his age, health, DNA, and that he spent evenings socializing with the slaves and was friendly with other white men who had black mistresses,” she writes.