Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: one of history's myths?(Read article summary)
New research being published in "The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy" disputes claims that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings.
Did he or didnâ€™t he?
That, in short, is the issue in question in a new book coming out Thursday that strongly challenges the widely accepted view that Thomas Jefferson sired offspring with one of his slaves.
The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, is a new look at a very old dispute, except this time the dozen scholars behind the book are disrupting yearsâ€™ worth of research that suggests that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.
The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that seeks to defend Jeffersonâ€™s image, is behind the book, which documents the results of a yearlong research
inquiry by a dozen scholars across the nation working without compensation for the Heritage Society. Carolina Academic Press will release the 400-page book Thursday.
Ever since a 1998 DNA test was performed on Sallyâ€™s youngest child, Eston, scholars have thought for years that a Jefferson male, assumed to be Thomas
Jefferson, fathered the boy. But those tests didnâ€™t even involve DNA from Thomas Jefferson and only established that Eston was probably fathered by any one of more than two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time, â€śThe Jefferson-Hemings Controversyâ€ť asserts. In fact, the scholars point to Jeffersonâ€™s brother, Randolph, as the likely father of Hemingsâ€™ son.
The book also disputes accounts that Hemingsâ€™ children received special treatment from Jefferson, evidence some have used to suggest that the third president had a special relationship with Hemings. Neither Hemings nor her children received unusual privileges at Monticello, the scholars argue in the book. In fact, all of Hemingsâ€™ relations were not, in fact, given freedom at age 21, as is commonly believed.
â€śIt is true that Sallyâ€™s sons Madison and Eston were freed in Jeffersonâ€™s will, but so were all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sallyâ€™s mother Betty Hemings who still belonged to Thomas Jefferson at the time of his death. Sallyâ€™s sons received by far the least favorable treatment of those freed in Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s will,â€ť Robert F. Turner, a former professor at the University of Virginia who served as chairman of the commission, told The Washington Times.
According to the Washington Times, the scholars cite the following evidence in the Heritage Society commission report:
â€˘ Arguments that the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson started in Paris are unlikely because she was living with his daughters at their boarding school
across the city at the time.
â€˘ The â€śJefferson familyâ€ť DNA used in the 1998 test came from descendants of Jefferson's uncle, which the scholars said means any one of two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time Eston was conceived could have been the father.
â€˘ Oral tradition from Eston Hemingsâ€™ family initially said he was not the son of the president, but rather of an â€śuncleâ€ť â€“ which the scholars think is a reference
to Randolph Jefferson, the presidentâ€™s brother, who would have been referred to as â€śuncleâ€ť by Jeffersonâ€™s daughters.
Ultimately, there is no way to completely prove or disprove the claims that Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings.
But â€śThe Jefferson-Hemings Controversyâ€ť questions years of accepted wisdom on the matter; pokes holes at the paradox of the freedom-touting third president
owning and sleeping with his slaves; and brings to light serious questions about slavery and race in America.
Did he or didnâ€™t he? Weâ€™ll never know. But weâ€™re glad the debate is getting Americans talking about important â€“ albeit often uncomfortable â€“ issues in our countryâ€™s history.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.