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.

Follow by Email


Friday, August 08, 2008

Assessing T. J. Randolph as a Source

I’ve been quoting and analyzing two statements about Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the relationship between them. Both documents—letters from biographer Henry S. Randall and from Jefferson granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge—relied on oral statements from the President’s oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph (shown at left). How well does that information stand up to scrutiny? Not well. In fact, I don’t think we can avoid the following conclusions.

1. Thomas Jefferson Randolph was not a reliable source on the question of Sally Hemings’s children.

Randolph told Randall and Coolidge several things about why his grandfather couldn’t have been the father of any of the Hemings children, and who secretly was the father of them all. But those statements are contradicted by:

  • documentary evidence: Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were not separated for fifteen months before the birth of any child.
  • architectural evidence: Monticello had no bedroom close enough for Randolph to hear Jefferson’s breathing at night.
  • biological evidence: Patrilineal descendants of the youngest Hemings child, Eston, don’t share the same Y chromosome as patrilineal relatives of the Carr brothers, Peter and Samuel.
  • chronological evidence: Randall understood that “At the periods when these Carr [i.e., Hemings] children were born, he, Col. Randolph, had charge of Monticello.” Randolph, born in 1792, was three years old when Hemings had her first immediately documented child, and still only sixteen when she had her last.
  • each other: Different people recorded hearing Randolph identify two different Carrs as having had a long-term, exclusive sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and fathering all of her children.
It’s possible to come up with explanations for some of those contradictions. For example, Randolph might have consistently named Samuel Carr as the father, but years later Randall wrongly remembered hearing the name of Peter Carr instead. It’s also possible that Randolph gave out some accurate information, but stretched the truth to seem more authoritative or to make his explanations cover a longer time. But those suppositions all come back the point above: we can’t rely on the statements that ultimately come from T. J. Randolph.

Most of those statements’ contradictions were apparent when the Randall and Coolidge letters were first published in full. Nevertheless, until Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, most Jefferson biographers took Randolph’s statements about the Hemings children as the most authoritative on the subject.

2. There’s no reliable evidence pointing to Peter or Samuel Carr as father of Sally Hemings’s children.

Only two people appear to have ever mentioned the Carrs as having any contact with Hemings at all: Henry S. Randall and Ellen Randolph Coolidge. And they got their information from Randolph—contradictory and unreliable information. Knowing that, we must conclude that either Peter or Samuel Carr is no more likely to have fathered the Hemings children than any other white man living within seven miles of Monticello. They just happened to be the householders related to Jefferson who lived closest.

In fact, the Carrs are less likely to have fathered the Hemings children than other candidates because:
  • Eugene Foster’s genetic study showed that the Carr Y chromosome doesn’t match the Hemings Y chromosome. (The Jefferson Y chromosome does match.)
  • No one in the Hemings family and no one in the vicinity of Monticello except for Randolph told people that either Carr was the father. (Madison Hemings and some neighbors said that Thomas Jefferson was the father; others denied that, but didn’t record alternative names.)
Of course, given the paucity of evidence two hundred years later, and the difficulty of proving any paternity without D.N.A. from parents and child, it’s still possible to imagine ways that one of the Carrs could have had some children with Sally Hemings. For example, she could have had children with multiple men, but so secretly that no one at Monticello remarked on that possibility, and the only genetic test available happens to apply only to a child fathered by a Jefferson instead of a Carr. That’s possible. But it’s a less likely explanation than what’s already on the table: Madison Hemings’s recollection, supported by other statements from the time.

3. We have to ask what Thomas Jefferson Randolph might have been hiding.

Normally historians treat people’s statements and recollections as reflecting how they honestly see their world—unless there’s evidence to the contrary. Then we have to consider whether they were mistaken, or shading the truth, or deliberately lying. For example, Henry S. Randall was probably sincere when he wrote:
It so happened when I was afterwards examining an old account book of the Jeffersons I came pop on the original entry of this slaves birth: and I was then able from well known circumstances to prove the fifteen months separation—but those circumstances have faded from my memory.
Still, Randall was mistaken. Possibly influenced by Randolph’s assurance that there was a fifteen-month gap, he overlooked one of Jefferson’s trips to Monticello nine months before Sally Hemings gave birth.

Similarly, we can consider that Randolph was sincerely mistaken about that same fifteen-month gap. But it’s harder to find a simple explanation of why he thought he could hear his grandfather breathing at night, or why he’d tell Randall about his Carr cousins wailing over what they’d done to his grandfather’s reputation and not tell his sister. And then there’s the fact that he wanted to keep his statements from being subjected to public scrutiny.

So without concluding that Randolph definitely was stretching the truth or lying, we should consider that possibility. What would that imply about the whole situation?

What would have motivated Randolph to lie? He said that shortly before his mother died he’d promised her that he would “defend the character” of Thomas Jefferson. Randolph was clearly trying to shape how Randall and subsequent historians wrote about his grandfather. He offered an explanation of the Hemings children alternative to the one discussed most in the press until then: that they were Jefferson’s children.

Perhaps Randolph believed in that explanation, but thought it needed more evidence behind it and tried to fill in some holes. And perhaps he was trying to conceal facts that he feared would reflect badly on his grandfather, his family, and/or himself. In the latter case, what might he have been trying to hide?

Though Randolph defended his grandfather’s character, he wasn’t so careful about his Carr cousins’ reputations, or the Hemings sisters’. He said that there was a lot of sex between white men (“Irish workmen,” “dissipated young men in the neighborhood”) and black women at Monticello. Randolph said his grandfather “was extremely indulgent” toward some young male relatives, and “the idea of watching them for faults or vices probably never occurred to him.” That’s a long way from the eighteenth-century ideal of a patriarch in control of his household (not that many patriarchs truly were). So if Randolph was trying to deny or conceal something, his statements would be evidence of something even more embarrassing than that.


Anonymous said...

This interesting and, it seems to me, carefully reasoned posting, like the closely related previous one, cites an 1858 letter from Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge to her husband about Sally Hemings's children. The previous posting opened by linking to a PBS copy of the letter, which contains a transcription error that has brought criticism to Annette Gordon-Reed -- whose version of the letter others, including PBS, have apparently relied on. One illustrative example of the criticism appeared in a 2006 discussion (http://listlva.lib.va.us/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0610&L=va-hist&P=9294) at the Virginia History list here in Virginia. Richard E. Dixon, an official of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society -- an organization of hugely serious paternity disbelievers, as Mr. Bell has pointed out in the past -- wrote, in part (and I've omitted two paragraph breaks in this excerpt):

Ellen Coolidge wrote to her husband: "His (Thomas Jefferson's) apartment had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze." In her "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," Annette Gordon-Reed included as an appendix the letter of Ellen Coolidge, but altered it in this manner: "No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be in the public gaze." Gordon-Reed later brushed off the alteration, although it reversed the meaning of the sentence.

Especially given the thoroughness of the present and recent Boston 1775 postings, this problem seemed worth noting. Thanks.

Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I’m aware of that transcription error.

Neither this posting nor the preceding article quoted that part of Coolidge’s letter or drew any inferences from it. Therefore, it’s hard to see this comment’s direct relevance to the points in this posting.

Since Mr. Corneliussen has repeatedly expressed concern about “red herrings,” I wouldn’t want to think he brought up a tangential fact in order to point out an error by someone whose conclusions he’s rejected.

I’m not done posting on the historiography of the Jefferson-Hemings question, and plan to address this part of Coolidge’s letter and the ways people have used it and not used it in the last decade.

It’s also interesting to compare Coolidge’s statements about entrances to Jefferson’s bedroom to what Alan Pell Crawford wrote in his recent book.

Anonymous said...

I agree that my comment is not _directly_ relevant to this week's postings, and I'm interested to learn that it's nevertheless relevant to further postings that Mr. Bell plans on this topic.

As to my maybe seeking "to point out an error by someone whose conclusions [I've] rejected": that aspersion, conveyed as sarcasm, might imply the allegation -- seen before -- that I'm simply lying about my paternity agnosticism. Red herring indeed, but let's switch from distractingly smelly fish to self-appointed kangaroo-type prosecutions: Can there be any dignity in legitimizing Mr. Bell's ad hoc blog-ethics court by defending myself in it?

Mr. Bell is a serious writer and serious blogger and a careful scholar. His work is interesting and substantive and deserves serious attention. When comparably serious people on the anti-paternity side start writing blogs, I'll submit comments comparable to those I've made on this pro-paternity blog -- if comparable circumstances call for it.

(Apologies, yet again, to readers who want to stick to the actual topic: Hemings-TJ.)


Steve Corneliussen (and yes, I've done some self-appointing too -- as discussed at TJscience.org)

J. L. Bell said...

In the past, when people have shown Steven T. Corneliussen the combination of historical and scientific evidence that most people use when considering the Hemings children, he’s insisted that he’s interested only in scientific evidence, and has no wish to discuss or reach conclusions on the rest.

Yet here he stretches to bring up the transcription of a historical document. So much for Mr. Corneliussen being interested only in how the popular press has represented the science of the Hemings issue.

One can’t help but note that Mr. Corneliussen wants everyone to see the transcription error by Annette Gordon-Reed, but has never brought up the transcription errors made by writers on the other side of the issue. And, despite Mr. Corneliussen’s indignant protests, it’s clear that he disagrees with Gordon-Reed about whether there’s enough evidence to identify Thomas Jefferson as father of the Hemings children.

Mr. Corneliussen can sincerely believe that he’s being “agnostic” on the paternity. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson Randolph could have sincerely believed that he was telling the truth about his grandfather and Sally Hemings. But we can see the contradictions and impossibilities in Randolph’s claims, and we can see the inconsistencies in Corneliussen’s actions, and then make our own judgments about whether to accept their statements (still possibly sincere) as accurate.

Anonymous said...

First, let's consider what got us here in following the present Boston 1775 thread.

On Thursday, in beginning a discussion of later 19th century Hemings-TJ evidence -- such as it is -- Mr. Bell linked to a controversial letter. This letter has been much discussed for a decade, because Annette Gordon-Reed, in transcribing it, reversed the meaning of a sentence bearing on the heart of the matter, and because paternity disbelievers have found her and others slow to correct the misinformation.

On Friday, in his next posting, Mr. Bell alluded again to this letter, linking back to Thursday's posting. But in Thursday's posting, he was linking readers to a copy containing the controversial error. He didn't appear to know it, and in any case he wasn't flagging the misinformation -- and all of this in a carefully done blog with obviously high standards. So I posted a comment noting the problem.

Then it turned out that Mr. Bell had actually known all along about the transcription error -- which favors his side in the paternity debate -- but had not reported it to his readers. Even that circumstance, however, didn't inspire him just to address the actual issue in some way and then move on.

Instead, it inspired him to dismiss the importance of the issue -- while at the same time announcing an intention to write about it -- and then resume, from earlier Boston 1775 conversations, his campaign to discredit me. Mr. Bell doesn't actually know me, of course, but he gleans things from the Web.

Second, in his gleaning, he gets things wrong. The rest of this comment corrects some of that.

It's true that my main paternity-debate focus is the abuse of the special authority of science. I don't like overstatements and false statements about perfectly valid, but limited, DNA evidence. And I don't like outright misuse of quantitative statistical science concerning the qualitatively suggestive coincidences between TJ's sporadic Monticello visits and Hemings's conception times.

But it's not true that I've claimed to be "interested only" -- please note Mr. Bell's word _only_ -- "in how the popular press has represented the science of the Hemings issue." The title of my essay at TJscience.org is "Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Authority of Science." Please note especially the last three words of the essay's prominently highlighted thumbnail summary: "Whether or not Hemings and Jefferson had children together, misreported DNA and misused statistics have skewed the paternity debate, discrediting science itself."

Science, not journalism, originally skewed the debate. The skewers were the editors of the journal Nature, which is science's leading international forum, and a statistical archaeologist at Monticello. The consequence has been that not just journalists but -- especially in the statistical-science matter -- credulous historians have constructed reports and arguments based partly on misinformation. In my view, that's a bad thing, and worth exposing in public, just as it's worth pointing out when a prominently and repeatedly cited primary document is a bad copy in an important way.

Anyway, yes, my main focus is the science in the debate, but it's also true -- and I would think, pretty obvious -- that I'm interested in the overall debate too. But Mr. Bell now misreports that I've "insisted that" I'm "interested only in scientific evidence" -- there's his asserted word _only_ again -- and that I have "no wish to discuss or reach conclusions on the rest."

Actually, I do wish I could reach a paternity conclusion. I just can't. That's why I'm an agnostic on it. And it's true that I generally stay out of the nonscientific parts of the debate.

But it's not true that I don't discuss the debate overall, and it's certainly not true that I appointed myself to serve _only_ as a science referee. That's why, in the second paragraph of the home page at my Web site, I deliberately include the word _mainly_ in the paragraph's last line. That paragraph says, "In my view, this paternity debate is important, is likely to heat up again with the tenth anniversary of the 1998 DNA news, and often requires a referee. So entirely without official sanction, since there's no such thing for a situation like this anyhow, I've appointed myself to serve as a referee mainly concerning the debate's scientific dimensions." Mainly.

It's just silly, in other words -- even if the context isn't science -- to think that I'm going to stand by silently when, for a second day in a row, readers get sent to a bad copy of a primary source document.

Mr. Bell declares that I've "never brought up the transcription errors made by writers on the other side of the issue." That's true. But does he know of any? I don't.

More importantly, does he know of a transcription error comparable to the one being discussed here, and propagated by scholars of stature comparable to his own or to Professor Gordon-Reed's, and then left uncorrected in various places over the course of years? I don't.

Two paternity-disbelieving scholars with skills at that level are Robert F. Turner and Cynthia H. Burton. I've read their work carefully, and I've sent them loads of criticism, not because they posted their work on a blog, but because they asked me for comments, in part because they wanted the perspective of a paternity agnostic.

And yes, of course I disagree "with Gordon-Reed about whether there's enough evidence to identify Thomas Jefferson as father of the Hemings children." I also disagree with Burton and Turner that there's too little evidence to make that identification seem plausible. I wonder what Mr. Bell thinks the word _agnostic_ means if it doesn't mean that I disagree with all of them about what the evidence shows.

Mr. Bell, I've blown the whistle on you twice now. Twice you've not only argued the call -- which of course is legit, since this is a blog, not a basketball court -- but you've gone on the attack, personally, against the self-appointed ref. True, this is the wild blogosphere, not a structured, orderly basketball game. Nevertheless I'm blowing the whistle again, this time for bad sportsmanship, and calling a technical foul on you.

Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

Steven T. Corneliussen would have us believe that he’s acting as a “ref,” that he’s a “paternity agnostic” who offers objective assessments of other people’s writings on the Jefferson-Hemings matter.

It’s obviously important to Steven T. Corneliussen to believe this of himself. And it’s useful to the partisans he consults with to believe it. But he’s been writing publicly on this issue since 2002 and has always come down on one side of the question, so I think people can make up their own minds on which way he really leans, whether or not he can perceive or admit it himself.

For example, a researcher at the University of Rochester summarized Mr. Corneliussen’s 2002 letter to Nature this way:
Letter to editor defending the “Scholars Commission” claim of “not proven” by echoing the strategy of taking each piece of evidence in isolation, claiming that it alone is inconclusive, then arguing that the case doesn’t hold up, ignoring the total weight of the evidence.
And that was way back at the beginning of Mr. Corneliussen’s career as an “agnostic.”

For the record, in my eyes Mr. Corneliussen’s claim of objectivity is ludicrous and increasingly pathetic.

Mr. Corneliussen’s own words in this comment show how dishonest he has become, both to himself and to the world. He just wrote:
But it's not true that I've claimed to be "interested only" -- please note Mr. Bell's word _only_ -- "in how the popular press has represented the science of the Hemings issue."

In earlier comments on another Boston 1775 posting he wrote:
Maybe J. L. Bell is right about interpretation of _historical_ evidence concerning TJ's Carr relatives. But I'm only talking about what science itself -- the molecular findings -- proved or disproved.
I'm not arguing against that historical interpretation. I'm only blowing the whistle on the false claim that the interpretation shares the status of what the DNA scientists called their molecular findings.
Note Mr. Corneliussen’s repeated use of the word “only.”

Again, it’s clear that Mr. Corneliussen retreats into claims of being interested only in scientific claims when he’s asked to examine historical evidence as part of the total. He pops out of his hole pointing to historical evidence when it favors one side and one side only.

Mr. Corneliussen claims that he doesn’t know of any transcription errors by people writing against the evidence of a Jefferson-Hemings link. Obviously he hasn’t read Helen Leary’s assessment of the question in the National National Genealogical Society Quarterly. That article points out a transcription error by Rebecca Lee McMurry in a publication issued by Robert Eyler Coates.

Oddly enough, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (which counted Coates among its founders) hasn’t made a big deal about that error, issuing multiple essays and listserv postings castigating the transcriber and publisher. Mr. Corneliussen follows the same playbook, but pleads ignorance of this error and therefore ignorance of one of the important studies of the Jefferson-Hemings issue.

Or perhaps this is just another example of Mr. Corneliussen’s selective sight and shifting standards. He insists on being able to dictate what I should have written about a part of a document that I didn’t quote or discuss, yet insists that we should give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that, contrary to all his known public statements, he’s been interested in historical evidence all along and remains “agnostic.”

Once again, I find Mr. Corneliussen’s claim of objectivity to be sometimes laughable, sometimes pitiable, but never believable.

Anonymous said...

Here's a list of loaded, and worse, phrases from Mr. Bell's latest comment: "ludicrous," "increasingly pathetic," "dishonest to himself and to the world," "pops out of his hole," and "sometimes laughable, sometimes pitiable, but never believable." It was obviously a mistake for me to hope for a civil discussion. Also:
* It's true that I haven't read Leary or the McMurrys.
* The researcher who summarized my July 11, 2002, Nature letter has it not simply distorted, but completely wrong. She or he may well be limited to an either-or outlook -- either you're sure of the paternity or you're sure it never happened. (I'm guessing that such an outlook might at least help to explain Mr. Bell's responses to my Boston 1775 postings.) In fact my letter criticized Nature, which had been the original 1998 source of misunderstanding of the important but limited molecular findings, for renewing Hemings-TJ misreporting in a news article that spring. Thanks.
Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

If Steven T. Corneliussen were honestly interested in “a civil discussion,” he would have paid attention to the topics I set out to discuss in my recent posts: what Thomas Jefferson Randolph told his sister Ellen (“T. J. Randolph Talks Freely to His Sister”), and what all of Randolph’s statements together tell us about his reliability (“Assessing T. J. Randolph as a Source”).

If Mr. Corneliussen were honestly interested in “a civil discussion,” he would have recognized that I accurately quoted Ellen Coolidge’s statements about what her brother had told her, and linked to the only page on the internet today that contains that passage.

If Mr. Corneliussen were honestly interested in a “civil discussion,” he would have discussed the points in those postings. But it’s obvious that wasn’t what Mr. Corneliussen was interested in.

Instead, he was looking for an excuse to complain about these postings—obviously their implications discomfit him. In his strain for something to quibble about, Mr. Corneliussen ignored the clearly stated topics of my postings and their accuracy, and instead wrote that I should have pointed out an error in a passage that had no bearing on what I had chosen to write about.

If Mr. Corneliussen wants to complain about the Frontline webpage, then he should contact Frontline. If he thinks it valuable for people to see a complete transcription of Ellen Coolidge’s letter on the web, then he can obtain permission to put it up on his own site and folks can link to that. If he thinks the transcription error in Annette Gordon-Reed’s book casts doubt on any part of her argument, then he can show how on his site.

But instead Mr. Corneliussen came to Boston 1775 and behaved rudely, and not for the first time. He complained because I wrote about the topic I stated, and not about something else he wanted people to know. In doing so, he tripped over his claims to be neutral, interested only in the science of this historical question, and eager for “civil discussion.” Mr. Corneliussen’s true inclinations and hypocrisy are increasingly apparent—though, as the response to his 2002 letter showed, they’ve been apparent to some people for years.

Naturally, Mr. Corneliussen clings to his self-image; in his eyes, it’s not him who’s at fault, it’s everyone else. He’s tried to claim the role of a “ref,” but a better analogue would be that fellow who used to show up at football games wearing a rainbow wig and waving a sign with a Biblical citation. Imagine that guy complaining that the players had run a play on a different part of the field and not helped him get his message on television. People would recognize that action as illogical, egocentric, and rude. And that’s precisely how Mr Corneliussen behaved in his comments on this posting.