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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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Snapshot of Jefferson-Hemings in the Mid-1990s

The World Wide Web is old enough that some pages now preserve the historical consensus of the past, the way libraries have long done. For example, from 1990 to 1997, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns worked on a public-television documentary about Thomas Jefferson. He interviewed several leading historians and other voices about the man.

The website created to accompany that broadcast has become a time capsule of that moment in intellectual history, and not just because it still uses frames. That film was made before the 1998 Nature study which matched the surviving Y-chromosome from Sally Hemings’s children and the surviving Y-chromosomes from Thomas Jefferson’s patrilineal line.

Among Burns’s interviewees was Merrill D. Peterson, author of Jefferson in the American Mind. In that book and his interview for the documentary, Peterson said that having children with Sally Hemings would be out of character for Jefferson:

Was Sally Hemings his mistress?

Well, I can’t just say no. Because I can’t... No, I do not believe Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress.


Well, the reasons for that go partly to the fact that I think it would have been a moral and psychological impossibility for him to have engaged in that kind of relationship with one of the Monticello slaves, especially a person of that age, of that vulnerability, in the way that it’s generally described. It is said that the relationship began when Jefferson was in Paris and Sally had come to Paris bringing Jefferson’s younger daughter. And she would have been 15 or 16 at the time the seduction took place. And it is said that she came home pregnant by Jefferson and that the first child, one who was said to be named Tom, was born. There is no record of the Tom. But that is another question. There is no historical documentary evidence to support any of this. There is oral evidence. But the oral evidence probably came after the written evidence—after the story was written down by [James] Callender and then by others—so that it could have entered into oral memory after it was written down.

But you don’t think he did.

No, I do not think that she was his mistress, no. That would have required—just to pursue this a little further—that he continue this relationship for a period of 25 years and that two of the children would have been born after the Callender story came out and while he was president of the United States. And that would have been a tremendous presumption on the American public, I think, and public sensitivities in this area as well as his own sensitivities. And so I think it's quite impossible.
By the same arguments, William Jefferson Clinton would never have a sexual affair with an intern in the Oval Office after adultery had been a problem for him in the 1992 election, and Strom Thurmond would never have impregnated a sixteen-year-old maid working for his family. In 1996, those arguments seemed more solid than they do now.

In the same series of interviews, historians dismissing the idea of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings included Andrew Burstein, Joseph Ellis, Lewis Simpson, and Garry Wills, as well as Dan Jordan of Monticello, children’s author Natalie Bober, and translator Stephen Mitchell.

Scholars who were undecided, some saying that the unanswerable question of sex distracted from the undeniable history that Jefferson owned some of his relatives, included James Cox, Paul Finkelman, John Hope Franklin, James O. Horton, and Jan Lewis. Lucia Stanton of Monticello spoke of Hemings and her children’s reminiscences without actually stating what they’d said about their father, at least as transcribed.

Notably, the voices saying they believe the Hemings family account came from outside the ranks of historians: activist Julian Bond, Hemings descendant Robert H. Cooley III, impersonator Clay Jenkinson, and novelist Gore Vidal. (In the rest of the interview transcripts, the name “Hemings” never comes up.)

After the D.N.A. findings, there was a sea change in the historical consensus. Annette Gordon-Reed’s analysis Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy had already shown the relative robustness of Madison Hemings’s memoir and the weakness of the Jefferson family’s explanation. Many historians changed their minds about the likelihood of a relationship. Some might even have done a little scholarly penance, with Wills publishing “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power in 2003, and Burstein Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello in 2005.

Peterson, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-eight, never wrote or spoke publicly about the Jefferson-Hemings question after the Nature study. His Washington Post obituary reported that he still thought as he had before:
“He did not believe in any sexual connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” Paul M. Gaston, a longtime U-Va. colleague, said yesterday in an interview.

When the evidence for such a relationship became more persuasive in recent years, Gaston said, Dr. Peterson “didn’t argue with it. He just distanced himself from that discussion.”
Diehard deniers continue to list Peterson as a scholar in their camp, but he never engaged openly with the new evidence.

The shift in consensus about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship might be a rare example of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift in history rather than science. The P.B.S. website and Burns’s film (now available on D.V.D.) capture the state of the field just before that happened.


Herbert Barger said...

Excellent article Mr. Bell and I ask that you and all citizens interested in the truth of the study, in which I assisted Dr Foster, check out www.tjheritage.org and www.jeffersondnastudy.com.

Foster tested a known carrier of both Jefferson and Hemings DNA as claimed by the Eston Hemings family, thus insuring a match. I asked that he so notify Nature and he refused and worked with them resulting in a false headline.

Herbert Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

Timoteo said...

I have noticed that since the DNA study, Democrat politicians have not quoted Jefferson as much as they use to...wasn't he heralded as the father of the Democrat party at one point?

Hey there is a good subject for a blog...former liberal politicians and historians who quoted Jefferson as a symbol of liberty...they are now disqualified as authorities on anything!!!

Guilt by association!!!

J. L. Bell said...

Please share your data, Timoteo. “I have noticed” is a frail reed, especially coming from someone whose political biases are so blatant.

That database should of course include the May 2010 speech by President Obama that PoliticusUSA reported under the headline “President Obama Takes Back Thomas Jefferson From the Tea Party.” And Al Gore’s quotations from Jefferson in his 2007 book The Assault on Reason.

I’d say Jefferson’s star has been on the wane for the past quarter-century as historians and the popular culture have paid more attention to his slaveholding. For a long time Americans excused that activity on the grounds that Jefferson didn’t really want to own slaves, and just wasn’t able to find alternatives. But more recent historians have pointed out other Virginians who did extricate themselves from slaveholding, and how Jefferson opposed their ideas.

Jefferson’s writing on race in Notes on the State of Virginia have also drawn more attention, seen since Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black as crucial in the development of “scientific” white supremacy. Those writings from Jefferson have to trouble people truly committed to equal treatment for all Americans.

In the same period, John Adams has shot up in public and historians’ opinion, which is more surprising.

J. L. Bell said...

Herbert Barger, you’ve been complaining about the Nature study ever since it was published, but your complaints have changed over the years.

Back in November 1998 you pointed to a young Jefferson nephew as the more likely father of Sally Hemings’s children. By May 1999 you pointed with equal confidence to a Jefferson brother. I think the evidence for either man as the father is very weak, and that Thomas Jefferson remains by far the most probable father.

Your comment above seems to contain a new complaint: “Foster tested a known carrier of both Jefferson and Hemings DNA as claimed by the Eston Hemings family, thus insuring a match.” You state that you raised this issue over a decade ago, but I don’t see it in the multipage responses to the study that you posted in 1998 and 1999.

This complaint is also hard to decipher; obviously a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings carries some D.N.A. from both those ancestors. But Dr. Eugene Foster designed to study to look at men’s Y chromosomes, which are passed only from father to son. Hemings D.N.A. has nothing to do with the Y chromosome match.

Charles Bahne said...

Dear Timoteo,

Why do you refuse to use the proper name of the Democratic Party? Is your intention merely to anger those who are on the other side of the political spectrum? If you want to be persuasive in your arguments, it's not a good idea to start out by insulting those who don't share your beliefs.

Robert S. Paul said...

I like this notion that Jefferson was somehow too pure in character to do this.

The same Jefferson who we know pursued a married woman while he was in France.

Jefferson is one of my favorites, but let's get real. He was still a human being, just like everyone else. And he was full of flaws.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, we know from Thomas Jefferson’s own writings that he twice tried to have affairs with other men’s wives.

Around the time that the second of those women, Maria Cosway, turned him down, Sally Hemings came to Paris. According to her son Madison and to early-1800s Virginia gossip, she and Jefferson started their relationship there. I don’t think there’s any evidence from that date to the end of his life of Jefferson making advances to any other woman.

So Sally Hemings may actually have improved Jefferson’s sexual mores by bringing him into a long-term relationship of some sort.