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, August 24, 2008

Monticello’s “Most Likely” Boys?

Before temporarily leaving the subject of Edmund Bacon’s comments about life at Monticello and what they say about Sally Hemings’s children, I’ll note how one writer on that topic used the same comments I’ve been analyzing.

After Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and the chromosome study led by Dr. Eugene Foster, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which runs Monticello, created a committee of its paid staff and volunteers to review the evidence on the Hemings children. In January 2000, that committee released a report which concluded that:

The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records.
(The six children don’t include a child conceived in France; some sources reported such a child, but there’s no contemporaneous documentation for one.)

One member of the Monticello committee, Dr. White McKenzie (Ken) Wallenborn, dissented and insisted that his “minority report” be appended to the main report. Wallenborn described himself as “Former Clinical Professor, University of Virginia School of Medicine” and “Former Historical Interpreter, Monticello.” (Over the following months there were, in turn, a response to his minority report from historian Lucia Stanton, whom I quoted on Bacon earlier, and his reply to her response. Rather like blog comments.)

Wallenborn made a number of arguments against the the committee members’ conclusion. Among other things, he wrote:
[Edmund Bacon] also commented on William C. Rives, a youngster, who would stay and play at Monticello with the other boys (most likely the Randolphs, Carrs, and Maria’s son, Francis)...Willie would stay with Mr. Bacon rather than at the house (Monticello) because the other boys were too intimate with the negro women to suit him.
I just analyzed the passage containing Rives’s complaint about his schoolmates getting too “intimate” with enslaved women. It offered no names, but I deduced that Thomas Jefferson Randolph had to be involved, and noted that Vaul W. Southall had been another of the gang on earlier visits. On what evidence did Wallenborn write otherwise that the Randolphs, Carrs, and Francis Eppes were “most likely” among the boys Bacon recalled?

In fact, how likely were those other males to be playing with Willie Rives and visiting the women enslaved at the mansion around 1806?
  • Peter and Samuel Carr were born in 1770 and 1771, respectively. (Another brother, the younger Dabney Carr, was born in 1773.) By the time Bacon saw Rives visiting Monticello, the Carrs were in their thirties, married, fathers, and running estates of their own. They were no longer “boys.” Bacon’s reminiscences in Jefferson at Monticello name the three Carr brothers only once, saying they often praised a certain traveling Baptist preacher.
  • Maria Jefferson Eppes’s son Francis was born in 1801. It’s quite unlikely he was being “intimate with the negro women” in the next few years unless they were his wet-nurses.
  • The Randolph boys were the sons of Thomas Jefferson’s other daughter, Martha. Besides Jeff Randolph, there were four—all born between 1808 and 1818. In other words, those four weren’t even alive at the time Bacon indicated.
With the one exception of Jeff Randolph, Wallenborn’s list doesn’t appear to name the “most likely” boys to have visited Monticello’s captive women as Bacon described. In fact, most of them seem to be among the least likely candidates in the extended family. The list appears to be a collection of any and all young males known to have lived at or near Monticello at any time in the early 1800s.

In his next paragraph, Wallenborn wrote:
Mr. Bacon recalled that he went to live with Mr. Jefferson on Dec. 27, 1800 and was with him precisely twenty years but Mr. Jefferson recorded his employment as overseer for sixteen years. Possibly Mr. Bacon had started working as early as age sixteen [which would have been in 1801] but was not hired as overseer until age twenty [which would have been in 1805—but we know from Jefferson’s papers that he gave Bacon that job in September 1806] and if so would have been working at Monticello when Harriet Hemings was conceived and born.
I, too, suspect that Bacon started working for Jefferson in his teens, coming to Monticello in 1802. But even if we accept the earliest suggested date of December 1800, that means Bacon could not have been “working at Monticello when Harriet Hemings was conceived.” Harriet Hemings was born in May 1801, a fact stated in the Monticello report. One doesn’t need a medical degree to count back nine months and identify September 1800 as the conception period for that child.

These passages from the “minority report” seem to use Bacon’s remarks a springboard to point at any other males in the Monticello area as possible sexual partners for Sally Hemings, and to fill in holes or ambiguities in the historical evidence by suggesting any alternative scenarios, including those contradicted by documents and biology. They don’t seem to have arisen from examining all the evidence we have, assessing it by uniform standards, and deciding on the most likely explanation for it.

Later in 2000, Dr. Wallenborn helped to found the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society as a reaction to the Monticello report and to the new scholarly and public consensus it echoed. He is now that society’s president.


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of points. First, Martha Jefferson Randolph was Thomas Jefferson's oldest daughter, not his youngest. Next you have written "Harriet Hemings was born in May 1781". I think that's a typo, because Harriet was born May 1801 (That is, the Harriet who survived to adulthood was born in 1801; Sally Hemings had another daughter named Harriet, born in 1795 and died in 1797.)

J. L. Bell said...

Right on both counts, and now corrected with your help.