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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Monday, July 28, 2008

A Sea Change in an American Controversy

Back in 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at New York University, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. It’s a well argued book, if not a well written one. It looked at two things: all the documentary evidence about Sally Hemings’s children, and all that historians and journalists had written since 1802 about the various reports that Thomas Jefferson or others had fathered those children.

Gordon-Reed’s firmest conclusion was that historians had not given fair consideration to the people who said that Jefferson was the father. And no one could really argue with that after looking at her evidence and arguments. Authors had clearly used double standards to judge those remarks against the denials from Jefferson’s acknowledged descendants.

As for the validity of different people’s claims to be descended from Jefferson, Gordon-Reed later told the P.B.S. show Frontline in an interview archived here how she found some stronger than others:

I researched the question of whether or not Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a child named Tom, who was first Tom Hemings, and then later changed his name to Tom Woodson. I came to the conclusion that that story was not supportable.

There was simply not enough in the documentary record for me to say that I believed that Thomas Woodson, who definitely existed, was in fact the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I came to that conclusion because there are no records at Monticello ever listing him as a child of Sally Hemings, even when he would have been a very small child.

Madison Hemings’s memoir says that [his mother] Sally Hemings was pregnant when she returned from France with Jefferson, but that that child had died, and the thinking is that perhaps he just didn’t know. . . . But why would his mother say that the child died?

There was no documentary record of Tom, unlike the Madison Hemings situation, where you actually have a child telling his story. Madison Hemings’s story is not really properly cast as oral history [i.e., a tradition passed down in a chain of people]. He is a witness, a historical witness from the time, who’s telling you about his life.

The oral history of the Woodson family is very strong, but it was not enough for me to say that that story was as wrapped up as the Madison Hemings story.
Gordon-Reed didn’t include Thomas Woodson or any child named Tom on the Hemings family tree in the frontmatter of her 1997 book. She held back from judging Madison Hemings’s claim as valid, arguing only that it needed fairer consideration. Instead, in her introduction she wrote:
It is not my goal to prove that the story is true or that it is false. I suspect that if that is ever done, it will be the result of the miracles of modern science and all the wonders of D.N.A. research, and not because of any interpretation of documents and statements.
Despite that caution, I think that Gordon-Reed’s book produced a sea change in how American historians looked at this question, from believing that a Jefferson-Hemings relationship was unlikely (as had been stated the year before by Joseph Ellis in American Sphinx) to believing that it was more likely than not.

TOMORROW: The wonders of D.N.A. research.

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