Founding Father Thomas Jefferson has had a significant impact on America, American government, and American culture. His words have helped shape policies on everything from the relationship between church and state to the scope and limits of the federal government. Yet, notwithstanding this extensive influence, a cloud hangs over Jefferson’s reputation–his alleged affair with Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings was a young slave girl who served Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha, at the Jefferson home, Monticello. When Jefferson was sent as an American diplomat to Paris in 1787, he took with him his youngest daughter, nine year-old Polly, and the thirteen year-old Sally Hemings as a companion for Polly. Critics charge that while in Paris, Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Hemings (nearly thirty years his younger) which produced some or all of her children (of which four lived).
These Jefferson-Hemings charges have been repeated for over two centuries and, despite the fact that many Jefferson scholars have long rejected these claims, today much of the nation accepts them as true. The projection of Jefferson’s allegedly tainted character is reinforced through media presentations such as CBS’s “Sally Hemings” and the feature movie, “Jefferson in Paris.” Yet, was Thomas Jefferson really guilty of the sexual misbehavior with which he has been charged? What is the evidence against him?
The evidence against Jefferson stems from three primary sources:
- The recent DNA testing which was reputed to provide proof that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’s children.
- Oral tradition, the strongest of which comes from Thomas Woodson. Two centuries ago, Woodson claimed (and others repeated) that Sally Hemings was his mother and Jefferson his father, and it was thus speculated that Sally had named the child “Thomas” because he had been fathered by Jefferson.
- The published newspaper reports from Jefferson’s day charging him with fathering Hemings’s children.
On its face, such evidence against Jefferson appears almost conclusive. Yet, if the evidence is as unequivocal and overwhelming as the critics make it seem, why, then, have most of the prize-winning Jefferson historians long rejected the charges leveled against him? On what basis do they reach their conclusions in the face of such apparently incriminating evidence? What is the truth?
Three legal principles should guide the search for truth.
- First, an individual is innocent until proven guilty.
- Second, there must be opportunity for cross-examination so that the other side of the story may be offered. (According to the following proverb, presenting the other side of a story is vital: “He who states his case first seems right until his rival comes and cross-examines him.” PROVERBS 18:17 AMPLIFIED BIBLE; “Any story sounds true until someone tells the other side and sets the record straight.” PROVERBS 18:17 LIVING BIBLE)
- Third, guilt must be based on a preponderance of the evidence–that is, after hearing all of the evidence, there should be no reasonable doubt that the accused individual is guilty of the charge. If a different view can be presented which raises a legitimate doubt and offers a rational alternative explanation, then the individual cannot be presumed to be guilty of the charges leveled against him.
Using these guidelines, examine the three sources of evidence against Jefferson. Consider first the most recent evidence–the scientific testing.
In late 1998, the prestigious scientific journal Nature announced that it had conducted DNA testings which proved that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with Sally Hemings. According to Nature:
Almost two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.1
Following the release of this story, writers and columnists across the nation spread the report.2 In fact, within only a few days, Jefferson had become a sexual predator, 3 and several reports made him into a child molester. 4
These authors, however, deliberately ignored the non-paternity results of the DNA testing. In fact, the original Nature article had reported that Thomas Woodson–the child that oral traditions claim was born of Sally when she was fifteen or so–the child born shortly after her return from France–was not sired by Jefferson:
President Jefferson was accused of having fathered a child, Tom, by Sally Hemings. Tom was said to have been born in 1790, soon after Jefferson and Sally Hemings returned from France where he had been minister. Present-day members of the African-American Woodson family believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson, whose name comes from his later owner. No known documents support this view. 5
This finding was significant, for it repudiated the strongest of the oral traditions against Jefferson that many long had accepted as fact. A few–but only a very few–even bothered to report this non-paternity aspect of the DNA findings.6
Nature, however, after exonerating Jefferson in the birth of Thomas Woodson, claimed that the DNA evidence proved that Eston Hemings–the youngest of Sally’s children–was fathered by Thomas Jefferson. It was this story which swept the nation.
Yet, only eight weeks after releasing this story, Nature issued a retraction, admitting, “The title assigned to our study was misleading.”7 Why? Because after proving that Jefferson had not fathered Woodson, it was revealed that their paternity conclusions about Jefferson fathering Eston were based on inaccurate and incomplete information, both scientifically and historically.
While the researchers did find Jefferson genes present in the descendants of Eston Hemings, the researchers could not say that they were the genes of Thomas Jefferson, for they had not tested the DNA of any of Thomas’ descendants. They tested only the genes of the descendants of Thomas’ uncle, Field Jefferson, and of his nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr! Significantly, there were twenty-six Jefferson males living in the central Virginia vicinity at that time. Quite simply, the researchers failed to eliminate the other lines. As one report accurately observed, “Experts have noted the total absence of accurate Jefferson ancestry charts in the study.”8
However, of the twenty-six Jefferson males living around Monticello, eighteen lived over one hundred miles away and seem unlikely suspects, therefore leaving eight remaining. Herbert Barger, the Jefferson family historian and genealogist who assisted in the original DNA study for Nature (and who strenuously objected to the conclusions published in the original story) explained:
My study indicates to me that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Eston or any other Hemings child. The study indicates that Randolph [Thomas’ younger brother] is possibly the father of Eston and the others. Randolph, named for his maternal Randolph family, was a widower and between wives when, shortly after his wife’s death, Sally became pregnant with her first child. . . . She continued having children until 1808 when Eston was born. Randolph Jefferson would marry his second wife the next year, 1809. . . . [Significantly, t]hree of Sally Hemings’ children, Harriet, Beverly and Eston (the latter two not common names), were given names of the Randolph family.9
Interestingly, in its retraction even Nature ruefully conceded:
It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson’s family could have fathered Sally Hemings’ later children. 10
Although Nature’s retraction and modification of its initial announcement was far more significant than its release, the retraction received little notice. The result is that the reputation of Jefferson has been permanently tarnished by “scientific evidence” which actually did not prove that Thomas Jefferson fathered any illegitimate child. But, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “Of course, the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson.”11 The effect has been unfortunate, for as one reporter who covered the DNA story accurately noted, “Defective scholarship is difficult to recall.” 12
Yet, the contemporary “scientific” testing was only investigating the published charges made against Jefferson two centuries ago–the third and remaining source of evidence against Jefferson. Those charges originated in newspaper articles written from 1801-1803 by Scottish emigrant James T. Callender.
James T. Callender (1758-1803) first came to attention in 1792 in Scotland when he authored The Political Progress of Great Britain. That work, highly critical of the British government, led to his indictment for sedition. After being “oftimes called in court, he did not appear and was pronounced a fugitive and an outlaw.”13 Following that pronouncement, Callender, with his family of young children, fled to America for refuge and arrived here in 1793, having no prospect of a job or means of support. Many American patriots, learning of Callender’s plight, embraced him as a man suffering British persecution; and many, including Jefferson, personally provided charitable contributions to help relieve Callender.
In 1796, after three years in America, Callender found a job with an Anti-Federalist (pro-Jefferson) newspaper in Philadelphia. Promising his readers “a tornado as no government ever got before,”14 Callender resumed his defamatory writing style which had landed him in trouble in Great Britain, only this time it was against prominent Federalist Americans like Alexander Hamilton.
Fearing legal punishment as a result of his writings, in 1799 Callender fled Philadelphia and went to Richmond, Virginia. He took a job with another newspaper where he continued his attacks on the Federalists. (By attacking the Federalists, Callender considered himself as the mouthpiece for Jefferson’s Anti-Federalist party and believed that he was rendering it a valuable service.) Because of his vicious writings, in 1800, Callender was tried under the federal Sedition Law, fined $200, and imprisoned for nine months. Yet he did not relent; while in prison he authored two more attack pieces.
Throughout this period, Callender wrote Jefferson several letters–most of which Jefferson declined to answer or even acknowledge. In fact, because of Jefferson’s lack of response, Callender once told James Madison that he “might as well addressed a letter to Lot’s wife.”15 While Jefferson generally avoided direct contact with Callender, he continued his occasional charitable gifts for the support of Callender’s young children.
When Jefferson became President in 1801, he declared the Sedition Law to be unconstitutional and pardoned those who had been imprisoned under it–including Callender. Jefferson also ordered the $200 fine to be returned to Callender by the same Federalist sheriff who had collected it. That sheriff, however, refused, and even ignored direct orders from Secretary of State James Madison
to refund the fine. Callender, unaware of the difficulty with the sheriff regarding the return of his fine, wrongly thought that Jefferson was personally at fault and became irritated with the delay.
Believing that Jefferson’s party owed him something for all of his “service” in their behalf, Callender demanded a presidential appointment as the U. S. Postmaster for Richmond–a post which both President Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison properly refused him.
Obtaining neither the postal appointment nor his $200, Callender became enraged against Jefferson. After complaining, “Mr. Jefferson has not returned one shilling of my fine. I now begin to know what ingratitude is,” 16 he issued an ominous warning- that he was no man “to be oppressed or plundered with impunity.” 17 The disgruntled Callender, who had previously written only for Anti-Federalist newspapers, sought a job with a Federalist newspaper in Richmond highly critical of President Jefferson.
Callender there proceeded to launch a series of virulent attacks against Jefferson in articles written throughout 1801, 1802, and 1803. He accused Jefferson, among other things, of “dishonesty, cowardice, and gross personal immorality,”18 and even charged Jefferson with fathering several children by Sally Hemings.
Callender died less than a year after publishing his charges against Jefferson, and during that time Callender was constantly intoxicated. In fact, after threatening suicide on several occasions, he eventually drowned in three feet of water in the James River (a coroner’s jury ruled his death accidental, due to intoxication). Significantly, however, before his death, Callender acknowledged that his attacks against Jefferson had been motivated by his belief that Jefferson had refused to repay his $200 fine.19
Even though Jefferson could have taken the libelous Callender to court, he refused to lower himself to that level. Instead, he turned him over to the Judge of the Universe to whom he would eventually answer. As Jefferson explained:
I know that I might have filled the courts of the United States with actions for these slanders, and have ruined perhaps many persons who are not innocent. But this would be no equivalent to the loss of [my own] character [by retaliating against them]. I leave them, therefore, to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will yet come a day when the false witness will meet a Judge who has not slept over his slanders.20
He later told Abigail Adams that he did not fear a blemish on his reputation from Callender’s charges because, as he explained:
I am not afraid to appeal to the nation at large, to posterity, and still less to that Being Who sees Himself our motives, Who will judge us from His own knowledge of them. 21
Confident of his own innocence, and confident that God knew the truth, Jefferson was not afraid to appeal to God as his judge regarding the veracity of Callender’s charges.
Not surprisingly, then, given the scurrilous motives behind Callender’s publications of his accusations against Jefferson, and with such a proven record of inaccuracies, eminent historians both then and now have dismissed Callender’s charges as frivolous. For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Truslow Adams said that:
Almost every scandalous story about Jefferson which is still whispered or believed can be traced to the lies in Callender’s [writings].22
Others, including Merrill Peterson, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, hold the same opinion.23
John C. Miller, a Stanford University historian, describes Callender as “the most unscrupulous scandalmonger of the day . . . a journalist who stopped at nothing and stooped to anything.” 24 He explains:
Callender made his charges against Jefferson without fear and without research. He had never visited Monticello; he had never spoken to Sally Hemings; he had never made the slightest effort to verify the “facts” he so stridently proclaimed. It was “journalism” at its most reckless, wildly irresponsible, and scurrilous. Callender was not an investigative journalist; he never bothered to investigate anything. For him, the story, especially if it reeked of scandal, was everything; truth, if it stood in his way, was summarily mowed down.25
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dumas Malone, after describing Callender as “one of the most notorious scandalmongers and character assassins in American history,”26 accurately observed of Callender that “The evil that he did was not buried with him: some of it has lasted through the generations.”27 And even historian Benjamin Ellis Martin–a hardened and ardent nineteenth-century critic of Jefferson who therefore could easily have accepted Callender’s charges–found no basis for believing Callender’s claims. In fact, Martin described Callender as a writer who did “effective scavenger work” in “scandal, slanders, lies, libels, scurrility” and one who excelled in “blackguardism” (unprincipled, vile writing).28 Martin concluded:
I am unable to find one good word to speak of this man. . . . He was a journalistic janizary, his pen always for sale on any side, a hardened and habitual liar, a traitorous and truculent scoundrel; and the world went better when he sank out of sight beneath the waters of the James River. 29
Significantly, history has proved many of Callender’s charges in his articles. against Jefferson to be completely fallacious. In fact, the charges Callender similarly made against George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison were largely ignored by the citizens of that day. And Callender’s charges against Jefferson probably would have completely died away had it not been for three feminist writers (Fawn Brodie, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Annette Gordon-Reed) who in recent years, citing Callender’s charges, have written books accusing Jefferson of an affair with Hemings. As eminent Jeffersonian historian Virginius Dabney observed, “Had it not been for Callender, recently revived charges to the same effect probably would never have come to national attention.”30
The conclusion of all of this is very simple: neither the movies shown about Jefferson on CBS and in the theaters, nor the recent “scientific” charges of Jefferson’s illicit paternity, nor the oral traditions of two centuries ago, nor the tabloid “journalism” of Jefferson’s day or of today, in any manner demonstrates–much less proves–that Thomas Jefferson had any illicit relationship with Sally Hemings. If Thomas Jefferson is guilty of the charges against him, it will take much better evidence to prove his guilt than what has been presented to date.
Since this article was written, the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission released a 565 page report on the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings controversy. The Executive Summary of that report states:
The question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings is an issue about which honorable people can and do disagree. After a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation is by no means proven; and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people. With the exception of one member, whose views are set forth both below and in his more detailed appended dissent, our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.
The Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission was made up of eminent historians and scholars; they released their report on April 12, 2001.
1. Eric S. Lander and Joseph J. Ellis, “Founding Father,” Nature, November 5, 1998.
2. Dinitia Smith and Nicholas Wade, “DNA Tests Offer Evidence that Jefferson Fathered A Child With His Slave,” New York Times on the Web, November 1, 1998; see also Barbra Murray and Brian Duffy, “Jefferson’s Secret Life,” U.S. News & World Report, November 9, 1998; see also Dennis Cauchon, “Jefferson Affair No Longer Rumor,” USA Today, November 2, 1998; see also Malcolm Ritter, “Was It Thomas Jefferson?” Buffalo News, November 1, 1998; see also Lucian K. Truscott, IV, “Time for Monticello to Open the Gate and Stop Making Excuses,” San Jose Mercury News, November 8, 1998; see also Donna Britt, “A Slaveholder’s Hypocrisy was Inevitable,” Washington Post, November 6, 1998.
3. Christopher Hitchens, “Jefferson-Clinton,” Nation, November 30, 1998.
4. Richard Cohen, “Grand Illusion,” Washington Post, December 13, 1998; see also Clarence Page, “New Disclosure Shows Two Thomas Jeffersons,” Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1998; see also Dinitia Smith and Nicholas Wade, “DNA Tests Offer Evidence that Jefferson Fathered a Child With His Slave,” New York Times on the Web, November 1, 1998.
5. Dr. Eugene A Foster, et al, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” Nature November 5, 1998.
6. Gene Edward Veith, “Founder’s DNA revisited,” World, February 20, 1999; see also Dinitia Smith and Nicholas Wade, “DNA
Tests Offer Evidence that Jefferson Fathered A Child With His Slave,” New York Times on the Web, November 1, 1998.
7. Dr. Eugene A Foster, et al, “The Thomas Jefferson Paternity Case,” Nature, January 7, 1999.
8. Press release by Jefferson family historian and genealogist, Herbert Barger, on January 2, 1999.
9. The Truth about the Thomas Jefferson DNA Study as told by Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian, February 12, 1999.
10. Dr. Eugene A. Foster, et al, “The Thomas Jefferson paternity case,” Nature, January 7, 1999.
11. “Founding Fatherhood,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 1999, sec. W, p. 15.
12. Gene Edward Veith, “Founder’s DNA revisited,” World, February 20, 1999.
13. Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. “Callender, James Thomson.”
14. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), p. 469 (Volume III of a six volume series Jefferson and His Time), in a letter from James Callender to Thomas Jefferson on November 19, 1798.
15. Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President, First Term, 1801-1805 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 209 (Volume IV of a six volume series Jefferson and His Time), in a letter from James Callender to James Madison on April 27, 1801 after Jefferson failed to respond to a Callender letter of April 12, 1801.
18. Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. “Callender, James Thomson.”
19.Malone, Jefferson the President, First Term, p. 208, quoting the Richmond Recorder, May 28, 1803.
20. Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. X, p. 171, to Uriah McGregory on August 13, 1800.
21. Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XI, p. 44, to Abigail Adams on July 22, 1804.
22. James Truslow Adams, The Living Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), p. 315.
23. Virginus Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1981), p. 15.
24. John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: The Free Press, 1977), p. 153.
25. Miller, p. 154.
26. Malone, Jefferson the President, First Term, p. 212.
28. Benjamin Ellis Martin, “Transition Period of the American Press,” Magazine of American History, Vol. XVII, No. 4, April 1887, published in Vol. XVII of Magazine of American History, Martha J. Lamb, editor (New York City: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1887), p. 285.
29. Martin, pp. 285-286.
30. Dabney, p. 6.