If I asked the average educated American to list three things about Thomas Jefferson, they would probably tell me that he was President of the United States, that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that he fathered children with a slave woman named Sally Hemings. It's disappointing to me that so few would recognize his role in establishing freedom of religion and public education in America, as well as helping to enact judicial and currency reforms that impact us to this day. It bothers me that so many would overlook the fact that he was a brilliant architect, gardener, scientist, inventor, musician, wine connoisseur, pioneer archaeologist, and linguist as well as a statesman, More than anything else, though, it bothers me that the third "fact" most Americans would "know" about Thomas Jefferson is probably not true at all.
Here is the torrid Jefferson-Hemings story. It starts in 1802, with disreputable muckraker named James Callendar, who had previously been a Jefferson ally but had become deeply embittered when Jefferson had turned him down for a postmaster job in Richmond. He published a diatribe against Jefferson in which accused the President of having fathered a child with his slave Sally. This was the first public mention of the controversy. Although the Federalist press repeated the claims (journalism was no more polite then than it is today), no one seems to have taken it very seriously. Callendar was known to be an unstable alcoholic and it was clearly a case of personal retaliation by Callendar against Jefferson. Even fierce political enemies like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Lee, who were always willing to believe the worst about Jefferson, dismissed the charges as baseless. So did John Adams. Discussion of the Callendar accusations basically ceased after Jefferson retired from the Presidency.
Decades later, in 1873, a man named Madison Hemings gave an interview to an anti-slavery newspaperman named S. F. Wetmore in which he claimed to be the son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He told quite a story, alleging that when Sally was in France during Jefferson's tenure there as a diplomat in the 1780s (she had been brought as a companion for Jefferson's daughter Maria), Jefferson had initiated a sexual relationship with her and she had become pregnant. Madison Hemings claimed that, though she could have remained in France as a free woman, Sally choose to return to Virginia with the promise from Jefferson that her children would be freed at a later date. During this time, Sally would have been a teenager and Jefferson would have been in his forties. The story is frankly preposterous and is dismissed even by many who believe Jefferson to be the father of the Hemings children. Interestingly, much of the text in Wetmore story is lifted directly from Callendar's 1802 story, with many names incorrectly spelled in the same manner in both pieces, and much if not most of the Hemings testimony seems to have been written by Wetmore than quoted from Hemings. The story contains many obvious falsehoods, such as claiming that Dolly Madison was present at Madison Hemings's birth (the historical evidence conclusively shows that she was in Washington D.C. on the day in question). It's worth pointing out that Wetmore was abolitionist and Unionist who despised Jefferson for his connection to slavery and for advocating the states' rights positions that inspired the Confederacy. He had strong personal motives for wanting to chip away at Jefferson's reputation, rather in the same way that modern liberals like to chip away at Ronald Reagan and modern conservatives like to chip away at Franklin Roosevelt.
Throughout the 20th Century, few historians paid much attention to the Jefferson-Hemings story, deeming the evidence so slender as to not be worth bothering with. Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, perhaps the two greatest Jeffersonian scholars who ever lived, both dismissed the story as a myth akin to George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It was only with the publication of Fawn Brodie's confusing and muddled "psychological biography" of Jefferson in the 1970s, in which she asserted that a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship did exist, that interest in the story revived. She provided no new evidence or, for that matter, any real evidence at all. Brodie, among other things, believed that Jefferson's comments of the color of dirt in the Rhine Valley, made while studying agricultural practices, revealed hidden details of his secret affair with Hemings. This is, to put it bluntly, so nonsensical that it's astonishing anyone might take it seriously. It should also be pointed out that Brodie wrote her book shortly after discovering that her husband was having an extramarital affair.
The biggest change in popular and academic perception of the Jefferson-Hemings story came in November of 1998, with the publication of a DNA study in the scientific journal Nature. It demonstrated a link through Y-chromosomal samples between a descendant of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's uncle) and a descendant of Eston Hemings, one of Sally's children. This proved conclusively that Eston's father was a member of the Jefferson family. The media had a field day, partially because of the then-ongoing sensational story of President Bill Clinton's infidelity, but also because the press loves any hint of a sex scandal and it has become fashionable to diminish the stature of America's Founding Fathers. Newspapers and television news programs ran stories asserting that the DNA study settled the question for all time. The public, and much of academia, swallowed of all of this hook, line, and sinker. Today, it seems to be a commonly accepted truth that Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, the father of all the Hemings children.
I disagree. The "evidence" for Jefferson's paternity is persuasive only to those who, for whatever reason, are already inclined to believe the story. If one adopts a rigorously rational attitude in approaching this question, it quickly becomes clear that the issue is, at the very least, far from settled. Personally, I would argue that the weight of the evidence is actually against the idea of Thomas Jefferson being the father of any of the Hemings children.
All of the solid information historians can amass about Sally Hemings can be written down on a postcard. We know how old she was, we know that she went to France with Jefferson's daughter, and we know that she had six children and when they were born. Abigail Adams met her in England while she and Jefferson's daughter were on their way to Paris and thought she was good-natured but childish and irresponsible. Many books have been written about Sally, fiction and nonfiction alike, but next to nothing is actually known about her. We don't know if she was literate, we don't know where she was on any given date, or anything else. We have no idea whether all of her children had the same father. All this is very important to keep in mind as we go forward in examining the question of Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children.
Thomas Jefferson himself never publicly responded to James Callendar's claim that he had fathered a child with Hemings. Some people assert that the absence of a public denial was a tacit admission of guilt. But it was always Jefferson's policy to meet gossipy slanders from his political opponents with silence, believing that any response would be beneath his dignity. Moreover, in private correspondence, as in a July 1, 1805, letter to his friend and colleague Robert Smith, he did deny the story. He spoke of the various gossip being spread about him over the past few years and admitted that one story (that he had attempted to seduce his friend's wife when he was a young man) was true but that all the other stories were lies. He didn't mention Sally Hemings specifically, perhaps because he felt that the story was so absurd as to not be worth mentioning. It is quite clear that Jefferson himself considered the story preposterous.
Jefferson's family members and friends strongly rejected the claims. Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello and probably the person best positioned to know the truth, strongly refuted the idea of Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children; he said he knew who the father was and refused to divulge his identity, except to stress that it was not Thomas Jefferson. Several of Jefferson's grandchildren denied the charges and pointed out that it would have been impossible for such an affair to remain concealed in Monticello, which was usually crowded with people. With the single exception of Madison Hemings, none of the Hemings children themselves said a word about their father being Thomas Jefferson. The slave Isaac Jefferson, who is an invaluable source of information about slave life at Monticello, mentions the Hemings family in his memoirs but makes no suggestion at all that the father of the children was Thomas Jefferson.
Now, a person might immediately object to the credibility of the denials by Jefferson family members, as they would have had a vested interest in protecting the reputation of their distinguished patriarch. But an equally valid objection can be raised to the oral history testimony of Madison Hemings (even if we accept that Wetmore's account of the interview was an honest one). I myself have met several people over the course of my life who assert dubious claims to be descended from prominent historical figures. Even assuming that Madison Hemings was who he claimed to be, which is far from certain, how do we know that Madison Hemings didn't simply want to make people think he was the son of Thomas Jefferson, rather than an undistinguished former slave like any other?
Because of the white complexion of the Hemings children, most people close to Jefferson assumed that their father or fathers were white men. Sally herself seems to have been at least partly white (it is often asserted that she was the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law, and therefore the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, but there is no conclusive evidence of this). We know that some of the Hemings children lived without difficulty as members of the white community in Virginia after Jefferson's death, so it certainly seems likely that their father (or fathers) was (or were) white. Most members of Jefferson's family suspected that one of Jefferson's nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, was the culprit. Both had a reputation for inappropriate intimacy with slave women and both were frequently at Monticello throughout Jefferson's life. Written evidence solidly places them at Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of three of the six Hemings children. Most importantly, some of Jefferson's grandchildren related that the Carr brothers admitted sleeping with Sally Hemings.
This is where the 1998 DNA test comes in. The Carr nephews were the children of one of Jefferson's sisters, not a brother. They would not have the same y-chromosonal DNA a Jefferson, so there is no way that either of them could have been the father of Eston Hemings. There is no evidence which rules out either of the Carr nephews as being the father of the other five Hemings children, but the identify of the father of Eston Hemings has to be a Jefferson.
Not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, though. There were a great many men within close proximity to Monticello who were directly related to Thomas Jefferson and carried the same Y-chromosonal DNA. They include Thomas Jefferson's brother Randolph and his five sons, Thomas Jefferson's first cousin John and his six sons, the seven sons of Thomas Jefferson's first cousin Peter, and the five sons of Thomas Jefferson's first cousin George. That's twenty-two people other than Thomas Jefferson whose paternity of Eston Hemings would have been consistent with the 1998 DNA test. There may be others who are unknown to historians. But of them all, the most important is Randolph Jefferson.
Randolph lived within an easy day's ride of Monticello and visited his brother often. According to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote on August 12, 1807, Randolph was expected to arrive for a visit to Monticello at any moment. This was approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, the only Hemings child with a known DNA link to the Jefferson family. In other words, the available evidence places Randolph Jefferson at Monticello at precisely the time when the only Hemings child known to have been fathered by a Jefferson was conceived.
Why should we believe that Randolph Jefferson was more likely to be the father of Eston than Thomas Jefferson? Take a look at the two different personalities, as revealed by the comments of those who knew them. Randolph Jefferson had a reputation for excessive drinking and, according to the slave Isaac, liked to dance and play the fiddle in the slave quarters during his visits to Monticello. He was known to have fathered children with his own slaves on his own plantation. All this is in stark contrast to his brother Thomas, who rarely ventured into the slave quarters, never socialized with slaves with such familiarity, and whose writings express distaste at the blending of white and black races. Which of the two seems more likely to sleep with a slave?
Interestingly, the oral history of the descendants of Eston Hemings long asserted that Eston was not fathered by Thomas Jefferson but rather by one of Jefferson's relatives. In this, they were most likely correct. It was only with the publication of Fawn Brodie's book in the 1970s, and direct efforts at persuasion by Ms. Brodie herself, that the descendants of Eston Hemings began claiming that Eston's father was Thomas Jefferson.
There is something to be said about the dates of the births of all the Hemings children. All of Sally Hemings children were born between 1795 and 1808. This was between the death of Randolph's first wife Anne and his marriage to his second wife Mitchie, meaning that he was single when all of the Hemings children were conceived and born. This was also true of Thomas Jefferson, who lost his wife in 1782 and never remarried, but there is another element to that story. Two of the Hemings children, Madison and Eston, were conceived and born after Callendar had published the story and while Jefferson was serving as President. It is inconceivable to imagine that a man as emotionally controlled and careful of his reputation as Thomas Jefferson would have continued sleeping with Sally Hemings under such circumstances.
To me, it seems far more likely that Randolph Jefferson, and not Thomas Jefferson, was the father of Eston Hemings. As for the other children, who knows? Maybe Randolph was the father of them all. Perhaps the others were fathered by either of the Carr nephews. Perhaps they were fathered by a man historians have never heard of. Since we're talking about several different children, it could be some combination of all of the above. But the assertion that all of the Hemings children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson is not only dubious, but so unlikely as to be unthinkable.
In the popular media and in various reference sources, when the subject of Thomas Jefferson comes up, his paternity of the Hemings children is often stated as a confirmed fact, which it obviously is not. Alternatively, it is said that the Jefferson paternity of the Hemings children is the opinion of the majority of historians. I know of no poll of American historians undertaken to determine whether or not this is true. To date, there has only been one panel of genuine academic historians, the so-called Scholars Commission convened by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Foundation, who have systematically investigated the claims. It included such luminaries as Dr. Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky, Dr. Alf Mapp of Old Dominion University, and Dr. Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama, among many other distinguished historians. Its conclusion is that Randolph Jefferson is more likely to be the father of Eston Hemings than Thomas Jefferson, that there is no reason to believe Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of the Hemings children, and that "Sally Hemings appears to have been a very minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life."
For further information, I would encourage all readers of this blog to study the Scholars Commission's report (the executive summary of the report can be found here). Other books I would recommend would be In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal by William Hyland, Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings by M. Andrew Holowchak, and Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Geneological Search by Cynthia Burton. (Whatever you do, though, don't read the book on Jefferson by David Barton. Although he agrees that Jefferson was not the father of the Hemings children, the rest of the book is pseudohistorical nonsense. In fact, don't read any books by Barton at all, period.)
The idea that Thomas Jefferson was the father of the children of Sally Hemings is the product of two things, a media which loves a scandalous story and a cohort of misguided academics who are more interested in grinding their own cultural and political axes than they are in pursuing the truth. Such a conclusion cannot be reached through a dispassionate examination of the available evidence. Is it possible that Thomas Jefferson was the father of the Hemings children? From a purely logical point of view, obviously it is technically possible. But is it likely?
No, it's not.