Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: The Search for Truth

 

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.” 7Why?
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.”
11The 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.” 13Following 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,” 14Callender
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,” 16he
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.

Endnotes:

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.

16. Id.

17. Id.

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.

27. Id.

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.

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