Jefferson's DNA and Sally Hemings
by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.
Recent news reports have stated that DNA testing has provided "strong evidence" suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was "the likely biological father" of at least one of the male children (Eston Hemings) of Sally Hemings, a slave member of Jefferson's household, and herself the natural daughter of Jefferson's wife's father. Accusations of such a relationship arose during Jefferson's lifetime, promoted by James Thomas Callender, who became a bitter enemy when Jefferson refused to appoint him as postmaster at Richmond, and who then launched attacks on President Jefferson and other members of his administration. Described as "one of the most notorious scandalmongers and character assassins in American history" by Dumas Malone, Callender died in 1803, a possible suicide. A lengthy description of the Callender accusations and the events surrounding them is included in Dumas Malone's, Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 4, pg. 212 ff.
Since Jefferson had no male descendants, the recent DNA testing was done by comparing the DNA of the male descendants of the sons of Sally Hemings to that of the male descendants of the brother of Thomas Jefferson's father (TJ's uncle). Because the DNA evidence is not derived in such a way as to exclude any descendants but those of Thomas Jefferson, this means that, from a scientific and technical standpoint, any male of the Jefferson family descended from Jefferson's grandfather and living at that time could have been the father of Sally Hemings' son, Eston. One of the sons of Sally Hemings, allegedly also fathered by Thomas Jefferson, was demonstrated by this testing not to have the Jefferson Y chromosome. Thus, even if we accept this DNA evidence as proving Jefferson's possible paternity, we must also accept the fact that at least some of the claims of his fathering Sally's children apparently were false.No Affair in Paris
This last result of the DNA tests has devastating results for those who claim that Thomas Jefferson began a 38-year affair with Sally Hemings in 1787 when Sally accompanied his daughter to Paris. According to Annette Gordon-Reed in her recent book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Sally was pregnant with her son, Thomas (Hemings) Woodson, when she returned with Jefferson and his daughters in 1789, and the child was born shortly after her arrival back in the States. But the DNA tests prove conclusively that this child was NOT fathered by Jefferson! Moreover, according to Ms. Gordon-Reed, Sally did not want to leave Paris and return to the U. S. with Jefferson!
In the article reporting on the DNA test results from the Nov. 5 issue of the journal Nature, page 27, is the following statement:
"Four of the five male-line descendants of Thomas Woodson shared a haplotype (with one MSY1 variant) that was not similar to the Y chromosome of Field Jefferson but was characteristic of Europeans. The fifth Woodson descendant had an entirely different haplotype, most often seen in sub-Saharan Africans, which indicates illegitimacy in the line after individual W42 [i.e., after the 4th generation]."
Therefore, the DNA tests do indeed prove conclusively that Jefferson did NOT father Sally's child born after her return from France, and that this child's Y chromosome was unquestionably of the EUROPEAN, not the African variety. In fact, the DNA tests prove this more surely than they do that Sally's son, Eston, was fathered by Thomas Jefferson, since any of about twelve or more descendants of Field Jefferson could have been the father and have provided Eston with the Jeffersonian Y chromosome.
It takes very little insight to figure out from these facts what was actually going on. Having a child by another man, and resisting the return to the U.S. with one's reputed "lover," is hardly suggestive of the beginning of a love affair. Rather, it is reasonable to infer from this evidence that Sally had an affair in France, but not with Thomas Jefferson. She had an affair with someone who lived there, and she wanted to stay there with her new-found lover.
It should also be noted that after Sally returned to Monticello and gave birth to her first child, there was a period of more than five years before she gave birth to her second child. If, indeed, she and Thomas Jefferson were having a love affair that began in France, this absence of births at the beginning of the alleged affair, and a recommencement at a much later date, would be quite puzzling and without explanation. Rather than an affair with Jefferson, it suggests that the affair was with someone in France that Sally had left behind when she returned to the United States, and that the absence of births was because her lover was no longer present.
According to Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson was only able to persuade Sally to return with him by promising her that her child would be granted freedom when the child reached age twenty-one. This evidence, and its clear implications that there was no "affair" between Sally and TJ, has been completely ignored. William Safire even made the ridiculous statement in a syndicated column that the much maligned James Callender, the muck-raker who started the accusations in 1802, was wrong then, but was actually right, because DNA indicates Jefferson was the father of a child born six years later!
Without a doubt, Thomas Jefferson returning from France with a young slave girl who was pregnant, raised a lot of eyebrows. And, no doubt, these suspicions and the gossip they generated were the source of the Callender accusations. But the recent DNA evidence has demonstrated that these accusations were false. Jefferson, however, did not have the benefit of DNA tests, and almost never attempted to defend himself against gossip at any time -- certainly not in the public press. As a result, the accusations gained some level of currency, and have persisted to this day.
To further complicate matters, it must be pointed out that, theoretically, IF Thomas Jefferson were the father of all of Sally's children, it is possible that an illegitimate strain of Y chromosomes could have intruded over the nearly 200 years that have elapsed and thus render the DNA test inconclusive. Similarly, it is possible that TJ was the father of NONE of Sally's children, and that the Jefferson Y chromosome entered the line of descendants through illegitimate means later on. Both of these possibilities are proven not true in the case of Sally's first child, Thomas Woodson, however, because there were five independent lines of descendants, and only one of the five was shown to be illegitimate, and that only after the fourth generation. Tom Woodson had two sons, and those two plus all their descendants, up to the sole illegitimate one, were shown to have the very same Y-chromosomes, which were not from the Jefferson clan.
All of this suggests that Sally undoubtedly had children by at least two different men, and possibly more, but she was not truthful in identifying who the fathers were. And this suggests further that no reliance can be put on whoever she did identify as the father of them all, especially since she would have strong motives to name the greatest man around rather than someone of lesser stature. She would not be likely to admit to her own children that she had an affair in France that resulted in a child. Also, it must be recognized that whatever oral tradition her children received had to come from one source only, namely Sally herself; the children had no direct means of determining who their father was.
Another suggestion that Sally had children by several different men arises from the fact that Madison Hemings had dark coloring and lived his entire life as a black man after leaving Monticello. There are no living direct-line male descendants from Madison, and therefore none of his descendants were a part of the DNA tests. But it seems unlikely that the mating of Sally, who was a quadroon (i.e., one-quarter Negro), with a white man would produce a child that would be dark enough to identify him as a Negro. Such a reversion is not impossible, of course, but it does leave open the possibility that Madison's father was a Negro, and that Sally had her children by at least three different men.
At best, the results of the DNA testing on the descendants of Eston Hemings that make positive association with the Jefferson Y chromosome and are so remotely associated with Thomas Jefferson himself, are suggestive only, and should not be used to form definite conclusions regarding Thomas Jefferson's paternity of Sally's children. It has long been rumored that some other member of the Jefferson household was the father of Sally's children. Using the DNA evidence and other historical evidence, the most the researchers can claim at this time is that Eston was not the son of one of the Carr brothers (they lacked the identifying Y chromosome), but that there is strong evidence that some member of the Jefferson clan was almost certainly the father of Eston, and that this member of the clan could have been Thomas Jefferson himself.
But "could have been" is a hedge term, and is equivalent to admitting that the evidence is not conclusive with respect to Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, there is not (and apparently cannot be) any definite evidence that Thomas Jefferson himself had the peculiar Y chromosome that the researchers identified; it is only extremely probable that he did. Occasionally, mutations creep into even a legitimate male line, and it is not absolutely certain that Thomas Jefferson's Y chromosome is precisely identical to that of the remainder of the Jefferson clan. Thus, there is no vital, incontrovertible link between the so-called "proof" of paternity and Thomas Jefferson; there is only a link to some male in the Jefferson family. This does not rule out the possibility that it was Thomas Jefferson, of course; but it also does not have that degree of exclusive certainty that one might wish in a case like this. But add to this the strong desire on the part of investigators to produce positive results, and this frail evidence is presented as near certainty. For many reasons, however, it is not nearly as certain as it is made to appear.Proving a Negative
It is often difficult or impossible to prove a negative, i.e., to show that accusations are NOT so. That is one reason why our law requires that a person be considered innocent until proved guilty. As Jefferson himself wrote,
"The proof of a negative can only be presumptive." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:206
In this case, it is apparently impossible to prove conclusively that the accusations ARE true either. Certainly, it is doubtful they would stand up in a court of law without very strong, specific corroborative evidence. Everything corroborative in this instance, however, is circumstantial, hearsay, speculation, and little more than mere gossip. And we have already seen that the gossip that started the accusations was based on false premises.
While the evidence is not conclusive, those writing about it draw definite conclusions nevertheless, and speak as though the "facts" have finally been proved, the rumors proved true. Even though it is only "strong evidence" and Jefferson is described as being "likely" the father, nevertheless in other parts of the same articles presenting this frail evidence, it is proclaimed in headlines in definite terms that "Jefferson Fathered Slave Son." In Salon Magazine articles by Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Shea (11/18/98), the results are described in these terms:
"Seldom are historical controversies resolved so abruptly and decisively as when DNA testing proved that Thomas Jefferson had lustful assignations with his slave Sally Hemings, the "Dusky Sally" of historical debate and popular rumor-mongering."
"Now that the historical question has been resolved..."
But a careful examination of this evidence shows that nothing whatsoever has been resolved either abruptly or decisively. This is all journalistic hype. In fact, the only thing that has been resolved decisively is that Thomas Jefferson did NOT father Sally's first child, the one that was born shortly after her return from France.
The possibility that some other member of the extended Jefferson side of the family could have fathered Sally's son is not even considered by proponents, because, they say, there is no existing evidence to support that possibility. Such a possibility, it is said, will not be considered unless evidence arises indicating that someone in the Jefferson family other than Thomas fathered the children. Apparently, the words of Thomas Jefferson and the explanation offered by his family is not considered sufficient evidence. Thus the order of proof is reversed: instead of accusers proving that ONLY Thomas Jefferson could have fathered Sally's son, they demand that proof must be offered that someone else did it before declaring the Thomas Jefferson was not the father. They say that evidence exists placing Thomas Jefferson at Monticello when Sally conceived, but no evidence exists placing any other members of the Jefferson clan there at that time. This ignores the fact, however, that Jefferson's life has been meticulously researched because he is a famous Founder of our nation, whereas little has been done to trace the steps of his younger brother, much less his cousins. Moreover, this lack of evidence that some other member of the Jefferson clan was not present at the time of conception derives not from their not being there, but from simple ignorance of their whereabouts at all. It is the equivalent of saying, We have plenty evidence concerning Thomas Jefferson, but little or none concerning the other Jeffersons, therefore we will not take the others into consideration.
But the truth is, there is very good evidence that another Jefferson male was at Monticello when Sally conceived Eston. Thomas' younger brother, Randolph, was invited to Monticello in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Randolph of Aug 12, 1807 (see Thomas Jefferson and His Unknown Brother, pg. 21 ), a little over 9 months before Eston Hemings was born on May 21, 1808. Randolph had become a widower the year before and did not remarry until 1809, and so was susceptible to a sexual liaison. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his brother in these words:
"Our sister Marks [Randolph's twin sister, Mrs. Hastings Marks] arrived here last night and we shall be happy to see you also."
This twin sister was at Monticello at the time of the writing, and this suggests that Randolph would not be likely to delay the visit to see his sister, in order to arrive before she departed from her visit. It should be noted also that the trip to Monticello from Randolph's home could easily be done in a day. That would almost certainly put Randolph at Monticello at the correct time to be the father of Eston. And since Randolph had the same Y chromosome as Thomas, he would be completely capable of supplying that chromosome to Sally's son, Eston.
Moreover, Randolph was known to socialize with the black slaves at Monticello when he visited there. Isaac Jefferson, in his "Memoirs of a Monticello Slave," as dictated to Charles Campbell, (included in Jefferson at Monticello, edited by James A. Bear, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967) made the following statement:
"Old Master's brother, Mass Randall, was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn't much more sense than Isaac." (pg. 22)
Apparently, there was nothing unusual about white men on a plantation that included a number of black slaves having social relationships with those slaves, and apparently these relationships sometimes went beyond fiddling and dancing. Edmund Bacon, as related in Jefferson at Monticello (pg. 88), tells of occasions when Thomas Jefferson Randolph (TJ's grandson) and some of his school mates would spend weekends at Monticello in the absence of Thomas Jefferson himself, and how some of the boys would be "too intimate with the Negro women to suit" William C. Rives, who was one of the more modest members of the group. In later life, T. J. Randolph denied such activities, and this may or may not be so. But it seems safe to say that this sort of thing was probably quite common. And since Isaac mentions similar social activities involving Thomas' brother, Randoloph, it suggests that such social interrelationships between whites and blacks did indeed very likely happen at Monticello.
Needless to say, there is no indication that Thomas Jefferson himself engaged in such casual association with the slave members of his household, and it is obviously more likely that a consensual sexual liaison between Randolph and one of the house servants could develop out of such a friendly association than out of the more detached relationship maintained by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's moral character has been questioned and vilified from the very beginning of his presidency. This is not a recent phenomenon. According to Dumas Malone,
"A few years after Jefferson's death, Mrs. Trollope wrote that he [Jefferson] was said 'to have been the father of children by almost all his numerous gang of female slaves,' and to have taken particular pleasure in being waited upon by them at table." --Jefferson and His Time, vol. 4, pg. 213.
Apparently, there were as many wild accusations thrown around then as now. The difference is, those accusations were not paid serious attention by reputable news media as they are now.
According to a news reports from ABCNEWS.com, Jefferson "never denied" fathering Sally's children. But this omission proves nothing. Moreover, it is not entirely true. Jefferson never denied these accusations publicly, but he did indirectly deny them in private correspondence. Jefferson made it a practice to ignore all the many scurrilous accusations made against him publicly. He wrote,
"I had laid it down as a law to myself to take no notice of the thousand calumnies issued against me, but to trust my character to my own conduct and the good sense and candor of my fellow citizens." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1809. ME 12:288
But he did deny all the accusations made against him, except for the singular one related to a Mrs. Walker, in private correspondence to his Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith. This was after the accusations by Callender, and he wrote:
"You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknowledge its incorrectness. It is the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Smith, July 1, 1805.
Notice that he acknowledged the truth of the charges related to Mrs. Walker concerning an incident that occurred when he was a young man, and before he had married. The letter to Smith was written well after Callender's charges with respect to his reputed fathering of children by his slave, and Jefferson's response was that the charge related to Mrs. Walker was "the only one founded in truth." That response leaves no doubt whatever that he was denying the charges that he had children by any of his slaves.
But rather than having to prove his accusers' charges false, it is -- and should be -- incumbent upon THEM to prove their accusations true beyond a reasonable doubt. And why a reasonable doubt, and not just the preponderance of evidence?
Both of these standards are analogies to legal standards, in which there are contesting parties and a court must make a reasonable settlement for or against, awarding damages or some other corrective ruling; not to decide is not an option for the court. But this is not a court case, and Mr. Jefferson is not here to defend himself. Since he is not here, it surely would seem proper to require a higher standard of proof than would obtain if he were here. The analogy to a case in law, therefore, fails on that count, and on several others which are peculiar to a courtroom trial, such as no judge to decide on the admissibility of evidence, no cross-examination of the evidence, no presentation in the same forum of the other side, no jury to determine the credibility of the evidence presented, etc. Moreover, this matter is more analogous to a criminal trial, where the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, than a civil trial, where the standard is preponderance of the evidence. No one is seeking damages for injury; rather the plaintiff/accusers are seeking to destroy the image of Thomas Jefferson in the American mind, and to depict him as a liar and a hypocrite. To have a prosecutor present one side of a case consisting entirely of circumstantial evidence, plus one item of indeterminate hard evidence (i.e., DNA), in an attempt to destroy the reputation of a great man, and in the absence of any restraints whatsoever can hardly be likened to a fair trial. If they wish to make these charges, let them prove their case irrefutably. Otherwise, Jefferson surely deserves the benefit of the doubt.
In the matter under question, we are trying to establish a FACT from which conclusions proceed, and the scientific standard for establishing a fact is that there is no reasonable alternative explanation, or no reasonable doubt concerning the fact. If there is evidence that does seem to contradict the established fact, then it must be explainable within the theory surrounding the fact. But if all we have is a preponderance of the evidence, without eliminating alternative explanations, then all we have is a THEORY, not a fact, and that theory may or may not stand up, depending on whether there emerges a better explanation or better evidence supporting it. But it is never accepted as a fact until there is NO reasonable alternative explanation. This is the kind of standard that should be applied to the question of Jefferson's paternity.Evidence
It is said that the children of Sally Hemings were apparently conceived only when Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello, and that is presented as "evidence" that he was the father. But there is a reasonable alternative explanation for that. The fact that Sally got pregnant only when Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello does not necessarily mean that he was the father, even if he were there every time she got pregnant. It is an error to assume that because one event precedes another, the first is a cause of the second. This is "the rooster crowing makes the sun rise" kind of argument. It is often the case that the first event is accompanied by associated conditions that are the real cause of the second event. In other words, if it can be shown that Thomas Jefferson's presence at Monticello was likely accompanied by the presence of someone else that might have impregnated Sally Hemings, then Jefferson's presence at Monticello when Sally got pregnant cannot be positively related to the cause of the pregnancy. If some other possible father would go to Monticello only when Jefferson was there, then Jefferson's being there means nothing. It means only that his presence attracted the real cause.
Consider this possible scenario: If Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, were your cousin, and you, a male relative descended from the President's uncle, were going to go visit Cousin Thomas at Monticello, when would you go? When he was there at Monticello, or when he was in Washington? The answer to that is sufficiently obvious. And when he was there, would not Monticello be a continuous beehive of activity, with the President surrounded by political big-wigs and hangers on, with food and drink, guests, servants, other relatives, etc. etc. Wouldn't this be the most exciting, the most interesting and the most likely time to visit for a country gentleman? Wouldn't it be a time when all kinds of acquaintances were renewed and new contacts made, contacts that could help in furthering one's career? And while the great man is tied up from morning to night with guests and business and whatever, you, his cousin, spy a gorgeous near-white slave girl who smiles shyly when she sees you staring at her. And so, you pursue it, never dreaming that the great man himself, now in a mellowed old age and under constant scrutiny, would eventually be blamed for your dalliance! And the fact that you, in this case, would have the same Y chromosome that Cousin Thomas has, casts serious doubt on the whole theory of TJ's paternity. That is what is called a reasonable alternative explanation.
Another and much more likely alternative is that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph, who visited Monticello occasionally, could have been the father, since, as we have shown, he was invited to visit Monticello in time to have been the father of Eston, the only child of Sally that is linked to the Jefferson clan through DNA. An invitation to the brother to visit Monticello, sent before Sally became pregnant, is pretty good evidence that he would have been there in the proper time frame. Even so, it is the responsibility of the accuser to prove the charge, not of the accused to prove his innocence. If one is asked to prove a negative, they should at least be allowed to show that a reasonably possible alternative explanation is available and, if true, destroys any affirmative assumption that ignores that alternative. It is the responsibility of those making the accusation to demonstrate that the reasonable alternative could not have happened.
We must remember also that the relatives in the above examples were not hypothetical. Jefferson indeed had cousins descended from his father's brother, and they lived a relatively short distance from Monticello. We are only trying to show that just because Sally got pregnant only when Jefferson was at Monticello, and just because she apparently had a son with the same Y chromosome as Jefferson, his brother, and his cousins, does not necessarily mean that Jefferson was responsible for the pregnancy. Although concubinage was widely practiced in the ante-bellum South, this does not mean that every time a slave got pregnant out of wedlock, it was the head of the household who made her so. In fact, it is more likely that hot-blooded youths within the household indulged in that sort of thing rather than elderly men.
According to the Washington Post, "No other Jefferson males were known to have spent substantial time at the estate," therefore, "the inescapable conclusion is that Eston was Jefferson's son." The fact that others who could have transmitted the Jefferson Y chromosome did not spend "substantial time" at Monticello, does not lead to an inescapable conclusion; it implies they did indeed spend some time there, and it doesn't take much knowledge of the birds and the bees to understand that "substantial" time is not necessary to produce a pregnancy. It could happen as the result of a single sexual encounter.
When examined carefully, all the accusations to date have been based on the flimsiest of grounds: hearsay, innuendo, suppositions, questions, speculations, but never any real, substantial evidence linking Thomas Jefferson as the father of Eston. Much of it reads like the work of unemployed conspiracy theorists, as evidence to support the theory is carefully extracted from the mass of data. One problem is, the theory of Thomas Jefferson's paternity requires calling Jefferson a liar and a hypocrite. In other words, a part of the evidence against the theory that TJ was the father must be dismissed, claiming that Jefferson lied when he indirectly denied an affair with Sally, and that he was a hypocrite when he spoke out against miscegenation. There is something unfair about calling Jefferson a liar when the circumstantial evidence against him is capable of various interpretations, when the DNA evidence is not conclusive, and when there are interpretations of all that evidence that do not necessitate saying Jefferson is a liar.
Apparently, the oral tradition of Jefferson's paternity has been handed down by Sally's descendants. But who wouldn't like to claim Jefferson as an ancestor? That is not scientific evidence. Certainly, family oral history may be useful in a scientific investigation to suggest lines of inquiry, or to support other, more substantial evidence. But when there is good motivation to "adjust" the facts, it should not be accepted as gospel either. After all, the DNA tests indicated that Sally was not truthful about the paternity of at least one of her children, telling them Thomas Jefferson was their father when the DNA evidence has shown that no one with the Jefferson male Y chromosome could have been the father. It is easy to believe that she may have stretched the truth, and elevated her other children's father from a President's brother or cousin to the President himself.
Even the DNA evidence, while definitely scientific, is not at all conclusive, since it does not specifically identify only Thomas Jefferson as the possible father. The attitude of the investigators seems to be, 'this DNA from a more distant relative is the only DNA evidence available to us.' Well, if the only evidence is not good enough, then the case fails. We aren't justified in making assumptions just because this is the best we have been able to find. All of this is tabloid journalism, not real scientific investigation. It may be useful for selling books, and the more daring and outrageous the accusations, the greater the character of the man being assailed, the more notoriety gained and the more books sold. But drawing conclusions from the evidence in a case like this require more than mere possibilities to be believable.Jefferson's Character
As for Mr. Jefferson's character and integrity where it really counts, a careful study of his writings reveals that his positions on every facet of politics and government were absolutely pure. There is no fudging, no duplicity, and not the slightest hint of self-serving evasion. Here is a man who served his country brilliantly, and without a single regard to his own interests. He wrote,
"Conscious that there was not a truth on earth which I feared should be known, I have lent myself willingly as the subject of a great experiment, which was to prove that an administration, conducting itself with integrity and common understanding, cannot be battered down even by the falsehoods of a licentious press, and consequently still less by the press as restrained within the legal and wholesome limits of truth." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807. ME 11:155
This was written five years after the Callender accusations. Of course, those who are bent on making Jefferson a liar will say that if he told one lie, he would tell another to cover it. Nevertheless, it would seem that a man of proven character should at least be taken at his word, unless he is proven a liar by irrefutable evidence.
Admittedly, we know from our own experience and from examining our own selves that such evidences of character in one part of an ordinary person's life is no guarantee about another part of the same person's life, and this is particularly true in matters related to a person's sex life. But even if we choose to disregard evidences of his public integrity, the most we can conclude is that, in spite of the hoopla and "possible evidence," the matter is still not settled. We now know with reasonable certainty that someone in the Jefferson family fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children, but that is hardly more than we knew before this investigation was undertaken.
One could go into more detail on the accusations to show their absurdity: besides the miscegenation, Jefferson is accused of carnal knowledge and of having TWO love affairs at the same time in France: Sally Hemings and Maria Cosway, because it is quite certain that he was having an affair with Maria Cosway when Sally, who was 14 years of age, accompanied his daughter to Paris. It was to Maria Cosway, and in this very same time period, that he wrote his famous "head and heart" letter, and his sentiments are documented in several other letters. After his return from Paris, it is difficult to believe that Jefferson could carry on an affair with Sally in a house swarming with family, visitors and servants without anyone in the household knowing about it. All of these facts demonstrate that there are just too many loose ends, too many contradictions, for a person to reach a final conclusion in these matters.Scholarly Deception
When we examine the tactics that have been employed by those promoting the idea that Jefferson fathered Sally Heming's children, we are compelled to raise questions. Genuine scholarly research always involves a certain level of detachment. The scholar is engaged in a quest for truth, not in an attempt to manipulate the data in order to reach a preordained conclusion. Any signs that the latter is his purpose makes all his findings suspect.
And what are the signs that a researcher is manipulating the data? Certainly any obvious and deliberate distortions of the data is one. Certainly any deliberate omissions of relevant data that might cast doubt upon his findings is another. Certainly any deliberate exclusions of the findings of other researchers that would suggest different conclusions than those proposed by the manipulator is yet another. The published findings of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA studies reveal all of the above attempts at data manipulation.
The article reporting on the DNA test results in the Nov. 5 issue of the journal Nature, page 27, is titled "Jefferson fathered slave's last child." That is an eye-catching title, but it is completely misleading. When one examines the body of the article, it is clear that such a definite conclusion is not supported by the actual findings, since the DNA tests were performed on the descendants of Thomas Jefferson's uncle, not on those of Thomas Jefferson himself (Thomas Jefferson had no male-line descendants), and any of a large number of persons living at the time could have supplied the DNA to Sally. It is surprising to see in a scientific journal with as great a reputation as Nature, an article reporting scientific results, but with a title stating a conclusion that in no way accurately reflects the scientific results. Any intelligent observer cannot avoid wondering, What is going on? Why the disparity?
As Herbert Barger revealed in his article, "The Truth About The Thomas Jefferson DNA Study," he supplied Eugene A. Foster, one of the authors of the Nature article, with information about Thomas Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, who lived nearby Monticello, and who could have been the father of Eston Hemings as easily as Thomas. This information was accepted, acknowledged, and then completely ignored in writing the Nature article. Mr. Barger also suggested meeting with Dr. Foster after the DNA results were returned in order to reach a proper explanation of the DNA findings, but this suggestion was likewise ignored. Mr. Barger reports that "Due to complaints to Nature by myself and others, Dr. Foster issued another story in the January 7, 1999, issue of Nature stating that it was true that men of Randolph Jefferson's family could have fathered Sally Heming's later children." This admission has been little noted in the news media, however, which continues to suggest that the DNA results settled the matter beyond question. The Ombudsman at the Washington Post has presented a fair assessment of the reporting of this story in her article, Reporting on Jefferson (May 30, 1999), but that was one of the few balanced reviews that has appeared in the press covering this issue and the one-sided manner in which it has been reported.
Even in the Nature article itself, the authors acknowledge that the results showing that Eston's descendants had the Jefferson Y chromosome could be explained by "illegitimacy in various lines of descent" -- an extremely improbable eventuality. At the same time, they completely ignored the much more likely possibility that some other Jefferson besides Thomas, living near Monticello, having the required Y chromosome, could as likely -- if not more likely! -- have been the father of Eston.
At a forum conducted at a well known college where the panel consisted of Dr. Foster, Annette Gordon-Reed, Ms. Swann-Wright and others, a media director inquired if any members from the other side of the issue, i.e., those who disagreed with the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children, would be present on the panel. The response was, "If you are planning a trip around the world, you would not invite someone from the Flat Earth Society." That is a clever reply, of course; but a careful review of the evidence shows that such a level of certainty is entirely uncalled for. Rather, it is a purposeful attempt to suppress information that any disinterested investigator would diligently seek.
Is this honest scholarship? Is this a scientific inquiry? Or is this a propaganda campaign to demean and discredit one of our nation's Founding Fathers and one of the great minds of the millennium?
Anyone inclined to dismiss out of hand the possibility of a propaganda campaign should read the book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44, by Thomas E. Mahl (Washington: Brassey's, 1998). Mr. Mahl demonstrates that the effort to involve the United States in World War II appeared at the time and on the surface like a simultaneous sentiment that arose within the principle newsmedia, with certain key newspaper columnists, and with certain well-respected Congressmen and Senators. Yet clear evidence demonstrates that the whole thing was carefully orchestrated by a central British agency, and the efforts of all those players were carefully coordinated by a single agency. Certainly, the British were desperate in the early years of the war, and we might have difficulty finding persons who are that desperate to destroy Thomas Jefferson today. But the ease with which those efforts were coordinated and kept completely out of public view makes one realize how easily any group could employ deception and influence public opinion in this country today, if that is what they set out to do. When we see the evidences of deception, when we observe the efforts to distort, conceal and suppress, we quite naturally wonder just what is going on. This is not ordinary scholarly investigation. This is an obvious attempt to manipulate and deceive.
As the Mahl book demonstrates, the source that promotes these coordinated attempts to manipulate and deceive through the news media are almost impossible to identify at the time the deception occurs. Even the willing participants are not aware that they are a part of an orchestrated plan. Not until access to top secret documents is obtained, often decades after the event, if then, can the plan be clearly perceived. This is all intentional, of course. The purpose would be completely undermined if the mechanics of manipulation were known to the public.
In the present attempt at media manipulation, we are only left with questions and can only speculate on the reasons for the deception. Why were the DNA tests performed in a British lab and the results published in a British journal? Why was it necessary to go outside this country to pursue this? Would this be more likely to produce disinterested results? We know that the British have never been disinterested where Thomas Jefferson is concerned. The original accusations against Thomas Jefferson, begun by James Calender (and now proved to be utterly false) were promoted by two British writers, Mrs. Frances Trollope and Capt. Frederick Marryat. The former wrote in her book, Domestic Manners of Americans, that Jefferson "fathered children by almost all his gang of numerous female slaves." The latter wrote that "a considerable portion of Mr. Jefferson's slaves were in fact his own children." Now we know that these accusations were false.
More recently, we were presented with the 1995 movie, "Jefferson in Paris," produced by Merchant-Ivory, most of whose beautifully done and critically acclaimed films are related to British subjects. This film, however, was a failure. The actors were competent, and the sets and other technical aspects were great, but the story-line provided no heroic dimensions to any of the characters. As one of the principal founders of a new nation, one would naturally expect the character of Thomas Jefferson to be strong and forceful. But instead, he was presented as a man confused and uncertain in his principles, rather weak and ineffectual. This, in turn, weakened the dramatic impact of the movie, and was likely one of the principle reasons for its failure. The film assumes Jefferson had carnal knowledge of Sally Hemings, and it generally discredits Jefferson's character and integrity. Anyone who has studied the Jefferson revealed in his writings knows that this movie provides an image completed opposite to the real Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was the foremost spokesman for the principles of the American Revolution, and was at the forefront of the revolutionary movement. This was one reason why the founders assigned to him the task of writing the Declaration of Independence. Depicting such a man as of uncertain principle not only does injustice to him, but contradicts and undermines the principles of the new American nation.
Why these attempts to portray one of our greatest Founding Fathers as a confused weakling? Why these deliberate distortions, omissions and exclusions of evidence? Was the disparity between the Nature headline and the actual findings merely an attempt to sensationalize the findings? Was it an attempt to grab wide media attention by exaggerating the facts? Did the story serve some kind of political purpose? Clearly, there had to be some reason why cold, scientific facts were treated in such an unscientific way. We are only left to wonder what is behind it all. We do not, and probably cannot, know what is going on, but we know something is going on, because we see the evidences of it. A concerted attempt is being made to destroy the reputation of Thomas Jefferson and his image in the American mind, and in the consciousness of the world. And presumably the next step in this agenda will be to introduce the supposed Jefferson-Hemings affair into the history text-books, so that our school children will be indoctrinated with the discrediting of Thomas Jefferson as the intellectual father of American democracy.
Denigrating the Founders
We therefore feel compelled to ask, What is the purpose of these scurrilous attacks on a truly great man, based on the flimsiest of evidence? Why do so many feel compelled to expend so much time and energy in such a frenzy to trash the reputation of our Founding Fathers? It has become unfashionable to speak of one's love of country, and more fashionable to trash it and everything noble about it. Even if these highly doubtful accusations were true, Thomas Jefferson would still be one of the great political minds of this millennium, and the chief intellectual founder of American self-government. We seem to live in an age pervaded by a self-destructive tabloid mentality which has taken over, not just newspapers seeking any kind of sensationalism, but even highly trained academics. Every effort is made to discredit the character of the Founding Fathers, and to tear down the position they hold in the American mind. Is this our way of feeling good about ourselves by saying that these national heroes were no better than we are? The Declaration of Independence, the greatest document in the history of human liberty, is itself denigrated in an effort to show it was nothing special and should not be accorded the reverence in which we have held it. Even the New Orleans School Board voted to remove the name of George Washington, our first president, from one of its schools because he was once a slave-holder, ignoring the fact that he helped establish a nation built on principles of human freedom that blacks were eventually able to enjoy also. We can only hope that, while tearing down the character and reputations of those men who established this great nation, we do not also destroy their ideas and the principles which are the foundation of the nation's greatness. But that, too, is apparently part of the agenda. The basic principles of democracy, of majority rule, of self-government, are also under attack. None of this bodes well for a nation founded on principles. Shall we replace those principles with trash ideas based on deceit and deception also? Those of us who love this country and the principles of human freedom it has stood for, and which it has constantly moved towards, should resist these efforts to undermine and destroy the foundations laid in the past for our heritage of freedom.
A penetrating analysis of
The Circumstantial Evidence
More on the Jefferson-Hemings Controversy
- The Jefferson-Hemings Circumstantial Evidence
An analysis and review of the book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, by Annette Gordon-Reed, with special consideration of how the circumstantial evidence relates to the new DNA evidence.
- The Monticello Association
This is the official website of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson
- Proponents of the Jefferson-Hemings Affair
A review of some on the materials available on the internet that support the idea that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings did have an affair.
- The Truth About The Thomas Jefferson DNA Study
A statement made by Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian, regarding the facts and the fictions of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy.
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