The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: A New, Critical Look
By John Works
The author is an 8th generation lineal descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s, as well as a past president of The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (group of Jefferson researchers and admirers), and a former president of The Monticello Association (lineal descendants who own the graveyard at Monticello). Recently, Mr. Works has appeared in the media promoting the need for a more careful inquiry into conclusions made based on 1998 DNA testing.
Whether Thomas Jefferson had sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings may rank as one of the longest ongoing controversies in American history. It still has not been adequately settled. Just more than ten years ago, after DNA testing had become very topical, a retired pathologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, wanted to settle the issue definitively by performing DNA tests on living members of the Jefferson, Carr, and Hemings families. In fact, the only thing the study managed to do conclusively is stir up more dust.
The testing centered on the Y-chromosome, since it is passed from father to son and goes unchanged from generation to generation. Thomas Jefferson had no acknowledged male descendants, so it was necessary to examine the DNA of his closest relatives. Five descendants of Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson, agreed to have their blood drawn and compared to that of male descendants of the Carrs and Sally Hemings.
On November 5, 1998, the results were published in the British journal Nature under the unfortunate title, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.” It was, I dare say, intentionally misleading. A more ethical and accurate title would have been, A Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.” (Of course, the more accurate version is certainly less glamorous.)
Some Questions Answered
The findings answered a few questions, but not the most critical one. For example, it repudiated the long-held belief that either Peter or Samuel Carr, Jefferson’s nephews, had fathered Sally’s lastborn son, Eston. It did not exclude the possibility of one of them having fathered the other four Hemings children. Furthermore, no match was found between the Jefferson descendants and descendants of Tom Woodson, Sally’s alleged child conceived in Paris, who, for generations, had been suspected of being fathered by Thomas Jefferson.
However, a definite match was discovered between the Jefferson descendants and Eston’s descendants. Yet from finding that link to announcing that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Sally Hemings’ last child was premature, inaccurate, irresponsible and sensationalist. The research was simply not conclusive. Approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons lived in Virginia at that time and carried the same Y chromosome as did Thomas Jefferson . Eight of those individuals are known to have made frequent visits to Monticello. To be fair, one must consider the circumstances and the sake of Thomas’ reputation.
Eston was born in 1808, having been conceived in 1807, when Thomas was a frail 64-year-old and declining in health. Physically speaking, he was not exactly primed for new fatherhood. Character-wise, it is simply hard to imagine the careful, cerebral and attentive Thomas Jefferson acting in a way that would have brought him immediate shame and dishonor had he been discovered. There is also the morality issue involved. Maintaining a 37-year affair with a house servant would have been preposterously out of character for him.
What about Randolph?
Another potential father is Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ much younger and less cerebral brother. Any of his four eldest sons could have been the father. In Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, Thomas Jefferson’s slave Isaac wrote, “old master’s brother, Mass Randall, was a mighty simple man—used to come out among the slaves, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” Furthermore, it is reported that Randolph fathered children by his own slaves and was friendly with white men who kept black mistresses.
There is no similar pattern of behavior recorded for Thomas Jefferson. In 1807, Randolph was 51 years old, in good health, and not married. What’s more, all of Sally Hemings’ children were conceived and born between 1795 and 1808— when Randolph was single. As circumstantial as it is, Sally Hemings had no more known children after Randolph remarried in 1809.
What we among Thomas’ lineal descendants find most disturbing about the DNA study was that no one involved in the study bothered to determine which Jefferson it was. It seems to us that Thomas, the famous one, the third President of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was being purposefully targeted from the very beginning.
Otherwise, where is the rest of the science? What about a necessary conclusion? Why weren’t additional questions asked? It makes us question the intention behind the DNA testing.
The Scholars Commission
After publication of the Nature article, The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society sought to establish an interdisciplinary blue ribbon panel of senior Jefferson scholars willing to pursue the truth, wherever it led, and to report its conclusions. The Scholars Commission selected its own thirteen members, which included a diverse group of senior academics. Several had written highly respected books about Jefferson.
The commission made its own rules and demanded complete independence—which they received—treating all interested groups equally.
In addition to the DNA evidence, the commission also sought and obtained additional and new information from various reliable sources. Spending nearly a year without pay and looking carefully at all arguments and all evidence, its members released a final report on April 12, 2001, the anniversary eve of Thomas Jefferson’s 268th birthday.
Released at the National Press Club, the report comprised 500 pages. It unanimously concluded that the case for Jefferson’s paternity of any Hemings children was far from proven, and by a margin of 12 to 1, the individual members’ views ranged from “serious skepticism” about the allegation to a conviction that it was “almost certainly” not true. Their report also disclosed numerous representations and at least one doctored historical document used by those scholars advocating Jefferson’s paternity.
The introduction states: “The question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings is an issue about which honorable people can and do disagree. After a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously the allegation is by no means proven; and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people.”
In the meantime, some media organizations still report that Thomas Jefferson was the definitive father of at least one of Hemings’ children.
The PBS Frontline website, www.pbs.org, under a section entitled “Jefferson’s Blood,” asserts: “ … (A separate study of Jefferson’s Monticello visits finds they coincide so closely to Hemings’ pregnancies, that even without DNA, the probability of his being the father is 90 percent or more. With DNA, it is far higher, perhaps 99 percent—not proven, certainly, but as close to proven as most history ever gets.)”
The PBS website continues, “Now, the new scientific evidence has been correlated with the existing documentary record, and a consensus of historians and other experts who have examined the issue agree that the question has largely been answered: Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’ children, and quite probably all six.”
With all due respect, this is an example of agenda-based journalism in which objectivity, truth, and equanimity of dignity and compassion suffer dramatically.
The Nature Clarification
Dr. Foster, now deceased, was a co-author of the Nature study and lead researcher in the DNA study. In January of 1999, Nature published a clarification of sorts from Dr. Foster. He admitted that the title assigned to the story alleviated the Carrs from paternal responsibility, but did not distinguish paternity among the Jeffersons. He said in hindsight, “It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson’s family could have fathered [Sally Hemings’] later children. … We know from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave.”
In the aftermath of the DNA testing, lineal descendants of Eston Hemings began requesting burial rights in the Jefferson family graveyard at Monticello. The Monticello Association had to determine whether the descendants of Sally Hemings met the criteria for membership. An advisory committee to the association spent three years examining whether they had a right to burial at Monticello. In 2002, the association voted 67-5 (93%) against permitting their inclusion.
While we may never know who fathered Eston Hemings, or any of Sally Hemings’ other children, we do this great man in American history a big disservice by prematurely concluding that this centuries-old paternity case has been adequately and responsibly resolved.