The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


The Jefferson-Hemings Circumstantial Evidence

By Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.    

Annette Gordon-Reed's book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) is primarily a criticism of the ways in which historians have been influenced by racial prejudices in their treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings question. Secondarily, the author examines the circumstantial evidence surrounding the alleged 38-year sexual involvement of Thomas Jefferson with his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings. Ms. Gordon-Reed not only presents what she calls "overwhelming circumstantial evidence," but she shows how that evidence was ignored or dismissed, based mainly on judgments founded in the race and status of those who provided the evidence. She claims that her book gives the evidence a "fair hearing," but that is hardly the result. The book is a one-sided, tendentious view of the evidence, omitting whatever does not fit her theory, and giving a decided slant to whatever does.

The only way a study of such a mass of contradictory circumstantial evidence could be conducted fairly would be to take each piece of evidence and present the arguments for and against its acceptance, with a final summary of the best arguments for each separate piece. Ideally, this might be done by two persons, one arguing for and one against. A totally disinterested person might, with considerable effort, fill both roles. But that level of impartiality when dealing with such highly charged issues is almost humanly impossible.

Ms Gordon-Reed doesn't come anywhere close to such a fair appraisal. At no time is each piece of the circumstantial evidence set forth and then explored for the many possible interpretations, with those possible interpretations then evaluated even-handedly. Rather, the evidence is presented, but it is almost always considered from a single point of view in support of a single theory. Most fair minded persons should feel offended by this sort of presentation on its very face. Moreover, Ms. Gordon-Reed provides little or no new evidence as a result of her "research" into Jefferson and Hemings. It is basically an examination of the work done by other historians, and a reinterpretation of evidence already known. If anything, much of the important known evidence is culled, so that what is presented is a one-sided case. Significant pieces of evidence, much of it described below, are omitted entirely.

This review of Ms. Gordon-Reed's book is little concerned with the biases and prejudices of historians. We are willing to concede that point, entertaining little doubt that historians always have, and likely always will, inject more of their own biases into the telling of history than offer truly objective reporting, if such a thing is really possible. Every historian gives a different reading of history, and each seems to feel compelled to put a new twist on old history. The result is, a popular topic like Thomas Jefferson is reinterpreted anew with every new generation of historians, with each trying to distinguish itself from past generations. And all too often, this creates some unusual interpretations as a result of the endless search for a novel approach. We are also willing to concede that the persons presenting most of the oral tradition evidence are, for the most part, reporting what they honestly believe to be the truth concerning the situation in question, and should not be completely ignored. These two issues, which occupy a great part of Ms. Gordon-Reed's meticulous efforts, will, for the most part, be unexamined here.

Our chief concern is with the evidence itself and the criteria by which Ms. Gordon-Reed selects and trims the evidence to serve the purposes for which she writes. While criticizing many noted scholars for their "glaring inconsistencies" in evaluating evidence from the various sources, and for their omission of much of it that is valuable, Ms. Gordon-Reed herself blithely skips over evidence that does not fit the scenario that she is attempting to outline, ignores the glaringly obvious implications of some of the very data for which she contends, and establishes criteria for considering evidence that have no proper foundation in any kind of scholarly research. Amazingly enough, this book has received wide acclaim, being described as "brilliant" and "scholarly." Many reputable Jefferson historians have meekly accepted as valid this distortion of historical research, which seeks to incorporate a kind of legal "political correctness" into the methodology of research itself.

These are harsh charges, and the remainder of this essay will be devoted to substantiating them and examining this so-called "overwhelming circumstantial evidence," especially with reference to the recent DNA findings.

Annette Gordon-Reed is not a historian, but an Associate Professor of Law at New York Law School. This fact is highly significant, because she introduces into the debate, a lawyer-like assessment of the evidence involved. Offhand, this may sound like a reasonable approach: a way to introduce the precision of legal thinking into the evaluation of historical data in order to eliminate the individual biases of historians, and to use objective criteria for judging similar kinds of evidence.

But that suggestion is a deceptive fraud. Normal evaluative criteria are here replaced by a theory that is designed to trick us into believing that "all evidence is created equal," and to cower us into thinking that if we don't agree, we are racially motivated. Prosecutorial techniques, common to the courtroom, are presented in this book in the guise of a "fair hearing," when we know that a fair hearing in a courtroom, as explained in the previous essay, Jefferson's DNA and Sally Hemings, demands the active participation of a defense attorney, not just a prosecutor, in order to challenge the theories of the prosecutor, as well as the participation of an impartial, disinterested jury that will judge how believable the evidence happens to be. Gordon-Reed writes regarding the evidence:

    The only way to ensure fairness is to assess each party's items of evidence according to a consistent standard.

To say that if one side introduces oral tradition as evidence, the other side must be able to introduce the same kinds of evidence, is obviously true. But to conclude that one side's oral evidence is therefore just as valid as the other side's, is just as obviously false. This is what we have judges and juries for: to determine, not just the admissibility, but also the credibility of the evidence as compared to other contradictory evidence. To have all of those determinations made by the prosecutor is hardly a way to insure fairness; rather, it converts the hearing into a kangaroo court. This is especially true when the prosecutors have a specific theory they are trying to support, as all prosecutors have in a legal setting, and as Ms. Gordon-Reed obviously has in this one.

    Kinds of Evidence

Understanding how this trickery slipped into the debate requires a discussion of the various types of evidence, and how it is used to establish "proof."

Historical evidence is probably the most elastic kind of evidence there is. Historians search for whatever kinds of information they can find that will illuminate a particular historical event. Anything and everything goes into the mix, and they do their darnest to make reasonable sense of it all. If they receive contradictory oral history data, for example, they must determine which is the most reliable. Even if the data is not contradicted, they must still determine if it has any great probability of being true. Is it in agreement with common sense and human experience? Does the source have any likely motivation to distort the data? Is the source intelligent enough to report reliably on something that may be highly technical? Is the source just reporting what they saw with their own eyes, or merely second or third-handed hearsay? Compared to the lawyer, the historian is compelled to be judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney all at the same time. With all those functions placed upon him, there is little wonder that his own biases will sometimes sneak into his assessment of the data. Historians are never able to consider all evidence as equally believable. But, for the most part, if they are any good, they avoid as much as possible putting their own spin on the data, or selecting only that which fits a preformed theory or agenda. In fact, their ability to overcome bias, to evaluate data impartially -- to, in a word, be fair -- is the measure of their worth as historians. Nevertheless, every telling of history reads differently from every other, if only because each one has a different point of view, a different emphasis, which is not necessarily false when compared to another. It is often like ordinary individuals relating the story of an event, where no two persons witnessing an event will report it in exactly the same way.

Legal evidence, on the other hand, has consequences, and demands a higher degree of accuracy, an effort to determine what is "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is carefully pursued. But here is one fundamental fact about legal evidence that Ms. Gordon-Reed either deliberately or unintentionally overlooked: The principles of legal evidence have developed over years in a specific kind of adversarial forum. There are a vast number of rules for the admissibility of evidence. There is a judge to determine if those rules are being followed properly. There are two sides arguing for their view of the evidence, cross-examining witnesses, constantly comparing, contrasting, and analyzing every piece of evidence. And most importantly, there is a Jury of mature, impartial persons who decide whether admissible evidence is indeed believable. Only with such a complex, involved process are legal standards applicable in the presentation of evidence. In the absence of all the forensic elements, any attempt to use "legal standards" to ascertain the value and correctness of historical data, any use of this adversarial approach in presenting only one side of an argument, is nothing more than a farce.

But it is this kind of farce that Ms. Gordon-Reed offers us. She confuses, either deliberately or unintentionally, the admissibility of evidence with its believability. She proposes that if you accept oral history from one side of the issue, you must accept it from the other also. And this is correct -- for its admissibility. But that is not the final criteria. Once this kind of evidence is admitted, it is placed before a judge or jury, it is cross-examined, the judge or jury observes the demeanor of the witnesses and judges whether they think the witnesses are lying or not. The opposing attorney places the evidence in context, and it goes back and forth, with a judgment being made on the validity of the facts as presented. Without that legal process, no argument can be made that if one kind of evidence is considered in historical research, other similar evidence must be considered equally. That is nonsense. And that is why a historian may indeed dismiss some of one kind of evidence, and accept some other of the same kind. He has no choice. Evidence is NOT all equal. It must be evaluated objectively, and never with a purpose to support a preformed opinion. To do so is the very definition of bias and prejudice. The result is not history, but propaganda.

    Introducing Bias

Examples of bias are obvious on the face of some of the evidence presented by Ms. Gordon-Reed. Immediately following the Preface are Genealogical Tables which are noted "Relevant Connections Only." Relevant to what? Relevant to Ms. Gordon-Reed's theory, of course. That portion of the Jefferson family tree represented by Field Jefferson (TJ's uncle) and his descendants is totally absent. Evidence is ignored that is related to Jefferson's brother, Randolph, who was almost certainly at Monticello when Sally conceived Eston. Even Sally's first-born son, Tom Woodson, about whom the controversy began, is not listed as a child of Sally in these tables (though arguments are made that he was her first child in later portions of the book). Similarly, the list of Important Names (Appendix A) does not include the names of TJ's Uncle Field and that uncle's descendants, though it does include Tom Woodson.

Every piece of evidence throughout the book is "interpreted" with endless speculations and insinuations in the form of "must have been," "could have," "may have," "as likely as not," all aiming to support the Gordon-Reed theory. Eventually, one rebels from the speculative overload and longs for a simple setting forth of the evidence with an unbiased listing of what that evidence could and could not mean, and without constantly reading motives into every action wherever it can be shaped to fit the preformed theory. The reader is never given a chance to decide these questions for himself, as he would if he were sitting on a jury. Rather, he is guided to every conclusion by Ms. Gordon-Reed's obviously biased hand.

This bias is never so clear as when Ms. Gordon-Reed discusses Tom Woodson. She displays an alternating view of the existence of Tom Woodson, sometimes affirming it, and sometimes seeming to be in doubt. The recent DNA findings, made since this book was published, show beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom Woodson was NOT the son of Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, Ms. Gordon-Reed pulls out all her stops in telling this story, listing all the "must have been" and "could have been" interpretations, when, as we now know, it was all pure invention. And the same kind of treatment is given to every other piece of evidence. For example, Ms. Gordon-Reed suggests that Thomas Jefferson may have been attracted to Sally because she was his wife's half-sister; whereas a reasonable person could just as easily think that Jefferson would show more consideration and respect for her, and not attempt to take advantage of her in a sexual relationship, simply because she was his wife's half-sister. But Ms. Gordon-Reed almost never presents such alternative possibilities in her relentless drive to slant the evidence.

    Reliable Sources

In judging the oral tradition related to Sally and her children's paternity, it must be remembered that it all derives from a single source, namely Sally herself. Ms. Gordon-Reed never explores the possibility of Sally lying, and what her motive might be for doing so, though she does devote a section of one chapter to the question, Did Thomas Jefferson Lie? She ridicules the idea he did not, equating it to the level of her third grade history reader. But as we know, no third party can be sure of the sexual liaisons of other persons, unless the others are caught in the act. Therefore, all the oral tradition identifying Thomas Jefferson as the father of all of Sally's children could only come from one source: Sally herself. Needless to say, this obvious fact goes unmentioned by Ms. Gordon-Reed.

Would Sally lie by telling her children that Thomas Jefferson was the father of her children when he was not? Would she be more apt to tell them that she had an affair with another man while in France? The more likely answer to those questions are aptly suggested in "The Memoirs of Israel Jefferson," included as Appendix C in Ms. Gordon-Reed's book. When Israel Jefferson went to the Charlottesville Court House for his "free papers," the clerk asked him what surname he would take.

    "I hesitated, and he suggested that it should be Jefferson, because I was born at Monticello and had been a good and faithful servant to Thomas Jefferson. Besides, he said, it would give me more dignity to be called after so eminent a man."

There is no question that being associated with the name of Thomas Jefferson was something to be embraced by those slaves who lived at Monticello, regardless of the repugnance to the idea that modern-day "presentists" may have. The dignity associated with "so eminent a man" is something anyone at that time, white or black, would gladly attach themselves to.

The result is, Jefferson's motives for lying are examined carefully, while Sally's motives for lying go unmentioned.

    The DNA Test Results

Before examining the specific items of circumstantial evidence, we should review the results of the DNA tests, and what bearing those results have on understanding the circumstantial evidence that is to follow. Although these DNA test results are touted as "proving once and for all" that Jefferson was the father of Sally's children, the truth is, the results don't prove that at all. Instead, the results demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Jefferson was NOT the father of Sally's first child. And as we shall see, that blows a pretty big hole in a large portion of the circumstantial evidence. The press, however, has chosen to focus on the possibility that Jefferson could be linked as the father of Sally's last child, and so they emphasize that remote connection and ignore the more important finding.

The test results demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt two conclusions only:

    1. That Thomas Jefferson was NOT the father of Tom Woodson, the first son of Sally Hemings that was born shortly after she returned from France in 1790.
    2. That some male member of the Jefferson family in a direct male descent from Thomas Jefferson's grandfather (out of about twelve or more possible candidates) was the father of Sally's last son, Eston, born in 1808.

This is all that was demonstrated, though for certain of the accusations, it is quite enough. It totally undermines the allegations made by James Callender in 1802. But all claims and headlines stating as a proven fact that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally's last child are complete exaggerations. The truth is, there were many Jefferson males living at the time who could have been the father of Eston, and the DNA evidence alone does not limit the possible father to Thomas Jefferson; that is done by some persons through their interpretation which they give to the circumstantial evidence.

    Occam's Razor

Many have proposed that Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities, should apply to the question of who fathered Eston, and that this would make Thomas Jefferson the father. But it would be a perversion of Occam's Razor if this were used to limit one's research to only incomplete data. It would be foolish to use this rule to put a cap on the amount of inconclusive information one obtains, and then rush to judgment based on such limited findings. Occam's Razor is not a guide to gathering information, but a guide to forming a theory once the information has been gathered. Moreover, it is a guide, not an absolute principle for determining truth. The simplest of competing theories should be preferred out of those that adequately explain all the data. And one tries first to find an explanation using known data, rather than postulating imaginary possibilities that would explain the question being investigated.

With the problem at hand, we are faced with a huge amount of absent information, such as the whereabouts of Jefferson's brother or cousins (all of whom had the required Y chromosome) when Sally conceived Eston. These relatives are not imaginary creatures, invented to explain away facts, but real flesh and blood human beings who visited Monticello frequently. One of them being the father of Eston is just as simple and reasonable a possibility as is Thomas Jefferson himself being the father. It would be a gross travesty if Occam's Razor were used to limit the extent of one's consideration of evidence, and a gross injustice if that same rule were used to identify someone as the father of Sally's children based on such truncated evidence.

It is the imaginary scenarios and persons to which Occam's Razor rightly applies: things and persons for which there are no indications. Indeed, much imagination is employed by proponents to explain how Jefferson could have fathered Thomas Woodson, with Woodson's sons being fathered by another man. A man who slept with Tom Woodson's wife and fathered both of the sons attributed to Tom Woodson, is one such fiction, although even that should not be used to limit research. Nothing should arbitrarily limit research. If authentic letters or diaries were discovered that revealed an on-going affair by the wife of Tom Woodson with another man while she was married, then that would be a significant piece of evidence. But the mere attempt to propose such an extra-marital affair just to lend support to a theory of Jefferson's paternity is nothing more than a desperate attempt to discredit the evidence.

But the brother and cousins of Thomas Jefferson are not such imaginary creatures. They are real persons who were alive at that time, and who had the opportunity to father Sally's son, Eston. The objection to this possibility is not that there is no evidence of their existence; rather, it is that we have no evidence placing them at Monticello at the proper time. We also have no evidence placing them away from Monticello at that time either. This is a matter of insufficient evidence, not of the creation of an imaginary possibility. If we were all-knowing, the matter would be settled at once. Since we do not have the necessary knowledge, it would be an injustice to assume that what we have is "good enough," and therefore refuse to consider what is just as valid a possibility as the one we assume. In fact, however, as explained in the previous essay, Jefferson's DNA and Sally Hemings, there is very good evidence that shows that Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph, indeed almost certainly was at Monticello when Eston was conceived. And there is good evidence that suggests he might easily have been inclined to have such a sexual encounter. All of this is totally ignored by Ms Gordon-Reed, however. Randolph is not even mentioned in her book.


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