Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

M. Andrew Holowchak

Reviewed by Richard Dixon

M. Andrew Holowchak, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, examines the epistemology used by Fawn Brodie, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Andrew Burstein, in their studies of the Jefferson-Hemings paternity claim. Dr. Holowchak’s approach is a needed addition to the debate which has largely been waged in arguments over the quality and reliability of the available evidence. He is uniquely qualified to analyze the techniques used by these three authors who are the most vigorous in promoting a paternity version using psychology, imagination, and a unique syllogistic process.

Brodie’s approach, outlined in her 1974 book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, claimed a special expertise in the application of Freudian psychology to find the hidden meaning in Jefferson’s words. Gordon-Reed in her two books, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, and The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family, never does come to grips with the probative evidence. She employs an inductive technique where she can assume a premise of thought or action for Jefferson and then proceed to imagine a predetermined outcome.

Dr. Holowchak describes their technique as follows: “Many, like Fawn Brodie and Annette Gordon-Reed seem to think a tendentious approach to history is acceptable – that it is appropriate to begin with the conclusion from which one wishes to argue and then seek out evidence in support of it. Inconsistent evidence, gleaned along the way, is merely ignored.”

Andrew Burstein is a unique example of one who first considered this unknown relationship between Jefferson and Hemings and concluded that the paternity claim was unfounded. However, when the DNA evidence came out, which failed to prove that Jefferson was the father of any of the Hemings children, it somehow convinced Burstein to change his mind. In Jefferson’s Secrets, Burstein refers to the “mounting circumstantial evidence,” but there is no circumstantial evidence which was unknown prior to the DNA tests.

The paternity issue should be framed on the premise that Jefferson had no involvement with Sally Hemings. Indeed, there is no evidence of any physical contact or a relationship of any kind between the two by any contemporary witness during the years she was at Monticello. Unfortunately, Brodie, GordonReed and Burstein assume the opposite and craft their arguments to support their desired conclusion.

This is why Dr. Holowchak’s contribution to this literature is important, because he looks behind the conclusions of these writers to subject their etiological causes to recognized patterns of historical scholarship. When assertions of fact are based on psychological arguments or inductive reasoning, the writers invite increased scrutiny on the reliability of their methodology.

Testimonials on Framing a Legend

"In this book we have the first clear-headed assessment of what has become an accepted truth. Professional historians will now have to take account of M. Andrew 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 reputation that drives this inquiry, but a plea for the proper use of evidence that extends far beyond the borders of Jeffersonian literature. Congratulations are in order."

Lloyd Gardner, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University

"It is a superb work that demonstrates its argument beyond question and, along the way, should mortify defenders of the Jefferson-Hemings thesis for their slipshod and even dishonest work."

Forest McDonald, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, University of Alabama "Framing A Legend will be regarded as a monumental work in American history. It is brilliant, illuminating, and refreshing. Dr. Holowchak meticulously illustrates serious flaws and the 'immorality of agenda-driven scholarship' of popular scholars. This well written volume is a must-read for all lovers of history."

Cynthia Burton, author of Jefferson Vindicated "Holowchak's book is extremely well researched and written. Like a surgeon with scalpel, he has carefully dissected the true facts from the falsehoods in the Jefferson-Hemings issue. Holowchak makes a convincing case for Thomas Jefferson's innocence in this affair and should restore America's faith in Jefferson's moral values."

White McKenzie Wallenborn, M.D., Past President, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, and member of "Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2000), sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

"Indeed, as Holowchak writes, something is 'horribly skewed' when more students 'know' Jefferson as Hemings's lover than as author of the Declaration. Holowchak takes apart the certainty of the liaison and thus indicts the abject way in which revisionists have mainstreamed the allegation."

Harold Hellenbrand, President, California State University, Northridge