J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thomas Jefferson Looks at the Ladies

Today’s Boston Globe offers a review of Mr. Jefferson’s Women, by Jon Kukla. The reviewer is Prof. Michael Kammen of Cornell, whose A Season of Youth is an interesting exploration of how the memory and symbolism of the American Revolution played out in American art and literature.

Kammen writes:

Jon Kukla never uses the familiar colloquial phrase, but [Thomas] Jefferson comes across as a male chauvinist pig - a misogynist even more committed to patriarchalism than many of his contemporaries. He had no interest in education for women, except to prepare them for deferential roles as republican mothers. Equally serious, he strongly opposed any place for women in civic life.
Of course, the same could be said for most of Jefferson’s contemporaries, male and female. His misogyny appears not in his policy ideas but in his private writings.
This lifelong outlook had its genesis in 1763, when a socially inept Jefferson at 20 proposed marriage to the lovely and well-connected Rebecca Burwell, age 17, who rejected him in favor of a gentleman less rustic and with a superior lineage. For almost a decade thereafter, even as his male friends married, Jefferson displayed a dismissive mistrust of the fair sex and in 1770 recorded the following in his memorandum book: “Entrust a ship to the winds, do not trust your heart to girls, / For the surge of the sea is safer than a woman’s loyalty.” There was nothing wrong with his libido, however, because during the summer of 1768 he made repeated attempts to seduce the wife of one of his closest friends, who was away for months on frontier militia duty and had asked Jefferson, who lived nearby, to serve as the guardian of his wife and young child.

On Jan. 1, 1772, at the age of 29, Jefferson married a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. . . . The Jeffersons appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage that produced six children, only two of whom survived to maturity. When Martha died of exhaustion in 1782 following her final pregnancy, Jefferson's grief was not only genuine but overwhelming. As Martha lay on her deathbed, she displayed four fingers and said to her husband that “she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them. Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again.” He did not, yet two intense but very different relationships ensued.
One of those relationships was Jefferson’s unrequited interest in Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman he met in Paris. The image above is an engraving of her that Jefferson had at Monticello; click on it for more detail about her.

The other relationship was with Sally Hemings, Martha’s half-sister. Jefferson’s own words acknowledge his attempts to woo the four white women, but the evidence of his affair with Hemings appears in his closely documented activities and her pregnancies, in other people’s words, and in the Jefferson Y-chromosome haplotype. Kukla’s book and Kammen’s review testify to how many scholars now accept without quibble that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, an idea still controversial a decade ago when Annette Gordon-Reed analyzed the previous historiography in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Kukla ultimately credits Jefferson with “thoughtful actions that implied respect, gratitude, and some measure of affection” during that relationship, noting how the law hemmed him in from treating Hemings better.

When it came to women, Jefferson was also hemmed in by his own personality. Though he was eloquent on paper, and thus eloquent to us, he was a diffident speaker and apparently shy. But as a rich, intelligent Virginia gentleman, he didn’t like to admit such shortcomings. Kukla’s book tracks how we know Jefferson showed interest in four women not enslaved to him. Three turned him down, two while they were married to other men. Yet, in a bitter irony, he wrote complaints about the uncertainty of “a woman’s loyalty,” putting the blame on the other sex. Jefferson certainly felt the bitterness, but I think he was too close to the situation to note the irony.


Anonymous said...

Kukla' book is an absolute disaster in trying to explain any Jefferson/Sally Hemings relationship. He states on page 115that Callender was esentially correct about such a relationship. Kukla is NOT well read on this at all because the DNA test, of which I assisted Dr. Foster, completely ELEMINATED any Tom Woodson/Thomas Jefferson connection. There was NO Jefferson/Woodson match..thus Callender was a liar using his 1802Campaign Lies tactics.

Dr. Foster's decision to choose a male descendant of Eston Hemings, whose family ALWAYS orally claimed a descent from "a Jefferson uncle" (meaning Thomas Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, with Jefferson DNA) was most unfortunate because it would AUTOMATICALLY show a Jefferson match, and it did. This positive test was picked up by the media to mean Thomas, it was not, it was Randolph's DNA, the same as Thomas DNA. Nature Journal was also in the dark because Foster had NOT told them of other Jefferson DNA.

You the public was fooled in this because DNA was so new to the public at the time.

Another piece iof misinformation used by Monticello as a center piece of their study was the Pike Co. interview of Madison Hemings when he weas made to say that Dolley Madison named him on her visit to Mionticello on January 19, 1805, a trip she NEVER made. If this one important statement is a lie, then are we to believe anything he wrote?

Kukla goes on to state that Jefferson fathered six children (pg. 115) born to his slave Sal;ly Hemings. How would he know, only ONE was DNA tested and that one was bound to match as explained above. I do not see anywhere where Kukla tried to explain that it was almost SIX years after return from France before Sally had her first recorded child. This was during the time brother Randolph had lost his first wife and would not remarry until after 1808 when Eston Hemings was born.

Mr. Kukla did not tell you of the findings of a blue ribbon panel of scholars known as the Scholars Commission Report (13 prominent and senior professors) (see www.tjheritage.org) who found NO proof of a Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings relationship.

The public is being confused by the witings of such "authorities" as Mr. Kukla without adequate research. Please don't believe them or the Monticello misstatements and confusion. An agenda exists at many points regarding this inappropriate and amateur DNA Study handling. I ask you to challenge people, organizations, foundations, academians, authors and anyone who pose as an "authority" on the DNA Study and propose that Thomas Jefferson is guilty of fathering slave children. I was there and I know why and how the misinformation was used to further certain agendas.

Herbert Barger
Jefferson Family Historian
Asst. to Dr. Foster on DNA Study

J. L. Bell said...

I was wondering if I’d hear from you or your “Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society” colleagues, Mr. Barger.

I’ll start with your major false statement, move on to your major illogical statement, point out your major misleading statement, and finally note where you contradict yourself.

False statement: “Eston Hemings[’s] family ALWAYS orally claimed a descent from ‘a Jefferson uncle’.”

People who knew Eston Jefferson (as he called himself later in life) spoke and wrote of his connection to Thomas Jefferson in the late 1800s and early 1900s. You’ve seen the evidence for this in Annette Gordon-Reed’s book and the Monticello report, among other publications on this question.

Some members of the family did say in the late 1990s that their elders had told them otherwise. In 1998, one told the New York Times, “I thought I was related to Jefferson's nephew.” On Oprah, that same descendant said she’d been told the relationship was through Jefferson’s uncle or nephew. I’m relying on Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society material, so you must be familiar with that quotation.

Therefore, when you wrote that the “family ALWAYS orally claimed a descent from ‘a Jefferson uncle‘,” you misrepresented the truth. And you put quotation marks around a phrase that doesn’t appear in the record.

Furthermore, even if that latter-day oral history were true, and not created to protect the family from criticism during the late Jim Crow era, it doesn’t point to Randolph Jefferson. He wasn’t Thomas’s uncle or nephew; he was Thomas’s brother.

Illogical Statement: “There was NO Jefferson/Woodson match..thus Callender was a liar...”

Callender never wrote anything about Thomas Woodson. Callender printed rumors of a boy named Thomas at Monticello, but that boy wasn’t necessarily Woodson. Surely you don’t expect the public to assume that there was only one light-skinned black boy named Thomas in all of Virginia in the early 1800s!

The first suggestion that the Monticello boy was Thomas Woodson appeared in the 1890s or later, after he died. There’s no documentary evidence linking Woodson to Monticello or its part of Virginia. The earliest record of him implies he was too young to have been Sally Hemings’s oldest child.

Madison Hemings’s detailed 1871 claim that his and his siblings’ father was Thomas Jefferson doesn’t depend on the later claim from descendants of Woodson. Indeed, Hemings said that his mother’s oldest child had died young. That means the lack of a D.N.A. match between the Woodson and Jefferson lines is consistent with Hemings’s account; it doesn’t refute it.

Indeed, of all the statements about the father of the Hemings children made in the 1800s, Madison Hemings’s is the only one that’s consistent with all the documentary and scientific evidence amassed since. Without knowing anything about D.N.A., without knowing who would leave male descendants, without knowing what was in Jefferson’s personal papers, Madison Hemings nevertheless gave an account of his and his siblings’ parentage that matches all that evidence available to us now.

Misleading statement: “Dr. Foster's decision to choose a male descendant of Eston Hemings...”

The only Hemings son with documented patrilineal descendants when Eugene Foster did his test was Eston Jefferson. Foster didn’t “choose a male descendant of Eston Hemings”; he had no other choice. You know that well because in 1998 you wrote, “Sally's other four children had no representative blood for the test (no one elegible).”

Foster sought all possible Hemings patrilineal descendants, and tested them alongside patrilineal descendants of Jefferson’s uncle, Thomas Woodson, and the Carr brothers. His results were consistent with Madison Hemings’s statement, and inconsistent with statements from Thomas and Martha Jefferson’s descendants and Thomas Woodson’s descendants.

If you wish to claim some authority as “Asst. to Dr. Foster on DNA Study,” you shouldn’t misrepresent the basis of that study.

Contradiction: “This positive test was picked up by the media to mean Thomas, it was not, it was Randolph's DNA, the same as Thomas DNA.”

Despite the lack of any statement from the 1800s about Randolph Jefferson and Sally Hemings ever meeting, much less having a child, you state, “it was Randolph’s DNA,” as if that were fact rather than your preferred theory.

As Dr. Foster’s study was being published in 1998, you pointed your finger at Isham Jefferson instead. You also wrote, “As a Jefferson Family researcher for some 25 years, I have never suspected Thomas Jefferson guilty of fathering the Hemings children and have not changed my opinion now.”

Your language shows two things. First, you considered and may still consider fathering Sally Hemings’s children to be something a man was “guilty of”—a crime or sin, not simply a genealogical fact. Second, you didn’t approach this question with an open mind, but rather have been seeking any “suspect” but Thomas Jefferson [your word] for decades.

As you know, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and William & Mary Quarterly have published detailed examinations of the evidence on this matter. They both found the publications of your Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society colleagues to be rife with misstatements and double standards. Your comment here carries on that pattern.

Our Founding Truth said...

Very interesting post. Although, I agree with anonymous in his conclusion; the evidence of which, disproves the sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, the fact remains, Jefferson was a hypocrite of the first degree, who used anti-federalist writers to disparage men like Hamilton and Adams, but, yet was a slaveholder, and womanizer.

This promoter of rebellion, puppet of anti-christ France, should be known by his hypocrisy, and perverted character, not the object of lies from the Sally Hemings affair.

ross k. said...

Oh, bully! I didn't know there was a whole society of folks dedicated to denying Jefferson's having had relations with his slaves. This is delicious. What's the matter, you don't like black people?

In the neat faculty profile provided for Annette Gordon-Reed, it says, "Professor Gordon-Reed did not take a definitive position on whether Jefferson had a liaison of nearly 40 years with Hemings, or whether Hemings bore him several children...[but instead] to the question of how the issue had been presented by Jefferson’s many distinguished biographers. In particular, it was the vehemence of their denials that such a relationship might have existed that piqued her interest. She felt that history should be able to record both Jefferson’s enormous contributions, and the lives and voices of the blacks who were part of his life and that society."


I think that says a lot of it, right there.