The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


The Jefferson-Hemings Circumstantial Evidence (Cont'd)


The Circumstantial Evidence

It is important to remember that these allegations about Jefferson fathering Sally's children first came to the general public's attention through the accusations of James Callender in 1802. Callender accused Jefferson of being the father of Tom Hemings, who later took the name of Woodson, and who was then twelve years old. It is also important to bear in mind that these accusations have been demonstrated to be false by the recent DNA test results. Tom Woodson grew up, married, and had two sons. Those two sons, and their later progeny have been demonstrated to be all descended from the same father (except for one intrusion of illegitimacy, occurring after the fourth generation), and the Y chromosomes of that father are decidedly different from those of the Jefferson clan. Each of Tom Woodson's sons had lines of descent that were all matched in their Y chromosomes (except for the later illegitimate intrusion in one). Thomas Jefferson, in other words, was not the father of Tom Woodson. Callender was wrong, and this fact has important implications for much of the circumstantial evidence.

The following are nine of the most important pieces of circumstantial evidence that were presented by Ms. Gordon-Reed.

    1. Statement by Madison Hemings

In 1873, there appeared a statement by one of Sally's children in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican. This is reprinted in full in Appendix B of Ms. Gordon-Reed's book, from which the following excerpt is taken. Note that the excerpt is presented as is, in the original, though it is interspersed with comments here. The whole statement is a brief description of Madison's life and contains numerous factual errors, such as the statement that Thomas Jefferson had two daughters when he went to France, when in fact he had three, one of which died while he was abroad. Madison also states that Sally accompanied Jefferson's daughter Maria to Europe and stayed "about eighteen months," when in fact it was about twenty-six months. Such errors are insignificant, but are only mentioned to demonstrate that this statement, like much of oral tradition anywhere, tends to have a number of factual errors, and cannot be relied upon 100%. Here follows the most significant part of Madison's statement as it relates to Jefferson's supposed paternity:

    But during that time [i.e., when Sally was in France] my mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente [pregnant] by him.

These statements are directly contradicted by the recent DNA evidence: the child was not fathered by Jefferson. It is well to note that these events happened before Madison Hemings was born, and he could know about them only from his mother. That she would have named Jefferson as the father of her son, instead of some man she met in France, is perfectly understandable. Most mothers do not brag about the number of different men they've been to bed with -- not to their children, anyway.

We might also note Madison's use of the French word, enciente, for pregnant. Obviously, Sally relayed that word to him, which suggests that she had picked up a considerable bit of the French language during her twenty-six month stay. And that further suggests that she had contacts with persons living there, giving further credence to the results of the DNA tests that reveal that the father of her firstborn son was a man living in France, not Jefferson.

    He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him.

This refusal would be strange if she and Jefferson were actually having a love affair, though not at all unusual if she were having an affair with someone she had met in France. Although her brother had accompanied Jefferson to France also, and Gordon-Reed assumes they both refused to return (though the statement doesn't say that), nevertheless, it might seem strange that a woman, being pregnant, with no means of support, other than possibly her brother, would want to stay behind and not return to America and be with the rest of her family, receive care and support in childbirth, etc., unless there was someone in France who might take care of her and upon whom she could depend.

    To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.

It is reasonable to think that Jefferson may have made some kind of promises to get Sally to return to America, even though they were not having an affair. The statement sounds suspicious, since there is a promise to free "her children," which seems like an anachronism, since Sally had no "children" at that time, but was only pregnant with her first child. Thus, this sounds like a later elaboration of the agreement that was made. Gordon-Reed goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this promise was fulfilled, thus attempting to give credence to there being a promise that was, in fact, made. But whether there was a promise or not has little significance, since the DNA indicates the child was not Jefferson's. If Jefferson made the promise, it was just to convince her to return and in no way implied they were having an affair. In fact, if the child were Jefferson's and Sally wanted to stay in France, he could as easily have given his permission for her to stay, and thus avoid the embarrassment to himself of returning with a slave pregnant with his own child. This alternative explanation is ignored by Gordon-Reed, of course, in her relentless drive to present a one-sided view of possibilities.

    Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time.

All evidence indicates the child did not die. This was the child that was at the center of the Callender accusations. Also, all these events occurred long before Madison was born. So, we could safely assume he was just mistaken in his facts. Madison was born in 1805, and Tom was sent to live with the Woodson's shortly after the time of the Callender accusations in 1802. So, Madison would never have known Tom Woodson, and probably would have assumed that the child died since he was no longer around the Monticello plantation.

    She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston -- three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. We all married and have raised families.

Again, it must be remembered that Eston was born when Madison was three, so he had no possibility of knowing from his own knowledge who the father of Sally's last child was, much less any of those born earlier. Also, Sally in fact gave birth to six other children, not four, but two died in infancy. Again, he would not be likely to know about the children that did not survive. He was relaying hearsay, not accurate family history.

From this statement, riddled with errors of fact and proved mistaken in many respects by other sources as well as by the DNA results, we get a partial picture that can easily be understood for what it is worth: a mixture of truth and fiction concerning Sally's children.

    2. Statement by Israel Jefferson

Later in that same year, 1873, Israel Jefferson gave a statement to the same newspaper, and this is included in its entirety in Gordon-Reed's book as Appendix C. Israel was not a house servant, and most of his knowledge of what was going on there was no doubt gained from others. He was a friend of Madison Hemings, and was probably prompted by the interviewer when giving his statement, the significant part of which is as follows:

    I also know that his servant, Sally Hemings, (mother to my old friend and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemings,) was employed as his chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine. This I know from my intimacy with both parties, and when Madison Hemings declares that he is a natural son of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that his brothers Beverly and Eston and sister Harriet are of the same parentage, I can as conscientiously confirm his statement as any other fact which I believe from circumstances but do not positively know.

Here again, we have someone "testifying" to something of which he does not have first hand knowledge, or, as he says himself, "but do not positively know." Although Sally may have been Jefferson's chambermaid, we know that his personal servant was a male -- Burwell Colbert, whom Jefferson also freed in his will. It would be quite surprising if Israel would know that Sally was Jefferson's concubine, and Jefferson's own family, with whom he lived on a daily basis, did not know this. Therefore, Israel's knowledge no doubt came from hearsay that had its origin with Sally.

    3. Favored Treatment of Hemings Family

The fact that the Hemings family were freed from slavery, either during Jefferson's lifetime or in his will, is taken as confirming the agreement Madison said was made in Paris, and is supposed to suggest that Sally was his concubine. But since we have firm evidence that Jefferson was not the father of the child conceived in Paris, that fact derived from the DNA evidence lends support to an alternative explanation for this special treatment: that the Hemings were house servants, had always received favored treatment, that Sally was Jefferson's wife's half-sister, and it would be perfectly natural for Jefferson to show deference to them all. This would be perfectly normal in the absence of a reputed "love affair." Most parents, employers, supervisors, etc., play favorites, and Jefferson had plenty of reasons, other than an affair, for doing so with the Hemings. After all, he took James Hemings to France to receive training as a cook, and this was years before Sally appeared on the scene. As Herb Barger pointed out in his excellent article, The Truth About The Thomas Jefferson DNA Study, Jefferson in his last years permitted Sally to be "hired out" as a servant to other persons, and it is highly unlikely he would have done this if Sally had been his “long time lover” and had actually been the mother of some of Mr. Jefferson’s children.

Gordon-Reed goes into great detail examining how two of Sally's children were "allowed" to run away, and to use that "fact" as evidence to support the "concubinage agreement" made in Paris. But since we know that the Paris-conceived child was not Jefferson's, we feel safe in assuming that all of that "evidence" is meaningless. Jefferson simply showed them favor for other reasons, and such favor cannot be interpreted as meaning that Jefferson fathered Sally's children.

    4. Jefferson at Monticello When Sally Conceived

The fact that Jefferson was always at Monticello when Sally became pregnant proves nothing. Jefferson was usually at Monticello at different times in every year. He was there for extended periods during which Sally had no pregnancies. After he retired from public life in 1809, and remained at Monticello permanently, Sally had no more children. Since his brother or one of his cousins, all with the Jeffersonian Y chromosome, would be more likely to visit Monticello when Jefferson was there, not when he was away, Jefferson's being there did not necessarily mean that he fathered Sally's children. It could as easily mean that his presence attracted the person to Monticello who was the father. And since he was not the father of Sally's first son when he could have had Sally all to himself in Paris, it seems doubtful that he would take up with her when he was surrounded by his own family who might easily discover what was going on.

It has been suggested that because there is no known evidence that some member of the Jefferson clan other that Thomas was at Monticello when Sally conceived Eston, therefore "the inescapable conclusion is that Eston was Jefferson's son," and that the case for someone else in the Jefferson clan being the father is "pure speculation." But this is a fallacy. These other individuals are not hypothetical persons. They are not fantasies dreamed up in order to explain away substantial evidence. They are real people who visited Monticello frequently, and no doubt knew Sally. In fact, as pointed out in the previous article, Thomas's brother, Randolph, was invited to Monticello sufficiently before Sally's time of conception to be the father of Eston. This brother had the Jefferson Y chromosomes, and was as capable of being the father of Eston as was Thomas Jefferson himself, perhaps even moreso, since he was twelve years younger than Thomas, who was 65 at the time of Eston's birth.

It is important to remember that Thomas Jefferson was a public figure, and his life has been studied meticulously for two centuries. Someone has even mapped out his whereabouts on every day of his adult life. His brother and his cousins were not public figures, and very little is known about them. To say that because we don't have as complete information about TJ's relatives as we have about him, we must declare TJ the father, can only be compared to the man who was searching for a lost key under a street light, not because he lost it there, but because the light was better. Sure: the information concerning Thomas Jefferson's whereabouts is better known than any information we have on the other possible perpetrators. But you cannot make a circumstantial case based on the absence of evidence, when that absence can be attributed to mere ignorance, i.e., not knowing the whereabouts of other persons to whom the DNA evidence points with equal certainty. That puts the supposed perpetrator in the position of having to prove that he is not guilty.

Similarly, the fact that no contemporary sources mention that one of Jefferson's brother or cousins was rumored to have been the father of Eston means absolutely nothing. It is the nature of DNA evidence that it often establishes -- or disestablishes -- relationships that were previously assumed to be other than what the DNA says they are. Dozens of men have sat on Death Row awaiting execution under convictions which had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, only to have their convictions overturned simply because the DNA tests revealed that someone else, often someone whose guilt was not indicated by any other evidence, was the real perpetrator. And even more often than murder, sexual encounters are acted out in secret, and every effort is made to conceal their existence from other persons. It would be perfectly consonant with the nature of such an encounter if other family members did not know about it, especially if it were not a part of a long standing affair.

    5. Rumor and Gossip

Obviously, the rumors and gossip started when Jefferson returned from France with a pregnant servant. Offhand, anyone hearing that and knowing nothing more would immediately suspect the worst. I did myself. But then, when a person learns that Sally did not want to come back home in spite of her pregnancy, and when we learn now that the DNA tests show that Jefferson was not the father of the Paris-conceived child, we are left with an entirely different picture. People in that day, however, did not know what we know now, so it is natural that his return with a pregnant slave would start the rumor mill going. On top of that, Jefferson was never one to respond to such calumnies. And, of course, no one had the effrontery to confront him personally and ask him if he had gotten Sally pregnant. So the rumors just continued to brew, even though they were completely unjustified.

    6. Callender's Accusations

Callender had no way of knowing whether Jefferson was having an affair with Sally Hemings. All he could do is gather up the rumors and gossip from others. And since the DNA shows that Jefferson was not the father of Tom Woodson -- the supposed son that Jefferson was accused of fathering by Callender -- it is clear that Callender was completely wrong. It was all a lie.

    7. Jefferson Family Denials

If anyone should have known of an affair, Jefferson's own family who lived with him day in and day out surely should have. They, however, believed that one of the Carr brothers, Peter or Samuel, was the father of Sally's children. And well both of them might have been of some of Sally's children, though the DNA tests demonstrate that neither was of Eston. The tests show beyond a reasonable doubt that Sally had already had a sexual liaison with someone in France. If she had additional children, that indicates at least two men by whom she had children. Why not three or four?

Ms. Gordon-Reed dismisses the possibility of the Carr brothers being the father of any of Sally's children, because she finds the stories contradictory. One of the Carr's was observed to laugh when telling how he was making it with Sally and Thomas Jefferson was being blamed for it. And then at another time he was observed to weep when showed a newspaper that accused Jefferson of being the father, when, as he reportedly stated, it was himself that was to blame. Gordon-Reed says that the contradiction in the two stories doesn't make sense. But this could easily be understood as being a kind of bragging in one case, and then a real sense of guilt upon seeing Thomas Jefferson accused and vilified in a public newspaper. The circumstances are entirely different, and would entirely account for the different reactions.

    8. Statement by Edmund Bacon

This statement provides a good example of how Ms. Gordon-Reed latches on to parts of evidence that supports her case, and disregards those parts that would undermine her case. Bacon was an overseer for Jefferson, and related the following about Jefferson:

    He freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ________'s daughter. I know that I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a morning, when I went up to Monticello very early.

He then relates how he paid the girl's stage fare to Philadelphia at Mr. Jefferson's direction. Gordon-Reed uses these statements as evidence that Jefferson fulfilled the agreement made to Sally in Paris, which we considered above, but she completely dismisses as evidence Bacon's statement that Jefferson was not the girl's father. The reason why she does this is that Bacon was not working for Mr. Jefferson when the young girl was born, so how could he know who the father was?

But this is a disingenuous disregard of significant evidence. Bacon is not trying to say that he has absolute proof that the unnamed individual was the father of the girl. No one has that kind of proof, except, perhaps, the participants in the sexual act themselves. And there are many married men who are not certain that they are the father of their wife's child. What he is saying is that Sally was in the habit of sleeping with another man, who was not Thomas Jefferson. Even if the man coming out of Sally's room was not the actual father, this account provides evidence that Sally was sleeping with different men, any of whom could have been the father of her children, and that she was not having a "life-long affair" with Thomas Jefferson. And unlike most of Ms. Gordon-Reed's evidence, this is an eye-witness account, not information gained second or third hand, like Madison's statements above. This is a statement from someone who saw with his own eyes the kind of woman Sally was, and it should not be dismissed out of hand so readily. You can bet if he had seen Mr. Jefferson coming out of Sally's room, it would never have been discarded just because Bacon was not employed there when the child was born. But that is Ms. Gordon-Reed's idea of a "fair hearing" of the evidence. Madison Hemings' account is accepted, even though he could not possibly have known the truth of his assertions, whereas Bacon's account of what he saw with his own eyes is dismissed without determining just what it is he was testifying to.

When reviewing circumstantial evidence, it is necessary to consider the real source, the motives of the person providing the evidence, and whether the facts are contradicted by other hard evidence or not. There was no suggestion that the statements of Madison Hemings be discarded, just because he was not present at the time, or because he made numerous factual mistakes. It is often necessary to give a fair and reasonable consideration to the evidence, and to salvage whatever can be saved, rather than taking what suits a person's purposes, and then finding excuses to disregard what doesn't.

    9. Sally's Children Resembled Jefferson

This was said especially about Eston, Sally's last child. But if Eston's father was a member of the Jefferson clan, as the DNA test results indicate, then it should come as no surprise that he resembled Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson's brother and male cousins, in a direct line from his paternal grandfather, obviously had many of the same genes as Mr. Jefferson himself. And since the evidence indicates that Sally had other men who could as easily have been the father of her other children, and these men, the Carr brothers, were sons of Thomas Jefferson's sister, the family resemblance could have come from that set of genes also. None of this necessitates Thomas Jefferson being the father of any of Sally's children.


In reviewing this evidence, we find ourselves presented with a labyrinth of conflicting possibilities, probabilities, and certainties bearing on the paternity of Sally's children. It would help in sorting these things out to establish a rational basis for differentiating them in a case, such as this, where there is a large amount of contradictory evidence.

    1. A CERTAINTY is a scientific finding or other fact that is established and confirmed with no serious contradiction. It is entirely unreasonable to disagree with it or to doubt it. The exact results obtained from a DNA test can be considered a certainty. What those results indicate or imply, however, is not necessarily a certainty.

    2. A PROBABILITY is an assertion for which there is no known reason to entertain doubts, or the person providing the information has no compelling reason to lie. Something will be probable if it is not contradicted by any certainties or by any other high probability, and if there is not another reasonable alternative explanation. If there are multiple reasonable explanations, then the evidence cannot be considered probable.
        Since we are trying to discover the one truth behind the issue in question, the probabilities should all agree. If one probability is contradicted by another probability, then the two must be evaluated as to which is the greater probability.

    3. A POSSIBILITY may be anything that is not made impossible by the physical laws of nature. It could or could not be true, but there is no probable or certain evidence determining one way or the other. There could be any number of reasonable explanations for whatever is asserted. The person making the assertion could have a substantial reason for lying. There is no known evidence for whatever is asserted, but it is a something that could occur in the course of existence on this planet.

Although a person may not agree with the definition of those categories, and may not agree with their application in particular instances, they at least provide a matrix upon which an assortment of evidences can be arranged and viewed in heirarchial order. They enable the observer to better compare and judge the individual pieces of evidence. Having sorted out the individual pieces, the observer is then in a better position to form a judgment on the whole.

We will now examine the evidence relative to the paternity of Sally's children, and determine the value of each major piece of evidence. We shall be trying to identify the certainties, and especially to separate the probabilities from the possibilities, considering the former as establishing the probable truth, and the latter as at best supporting the probabilities, but otherwise being of minimal value in determining anything about paternity.

    The DNA Evidence. It is certain that the living male descendants of Field Jefferson all have the Jefferson Y chromosome. It is highly probable that Thomas Jefferson also had this Y chromosome, and would convey it to any son he fathered. It is certain that the living male descendant of Eston Hemings has the Jefferson Y chromosome. It is highly probable that Eston Hemings himself also had that chromosome. It is possible that someone with the Jefferson Y chromosome intruded it into the line of descent after Eston, but that is highly improbable. Therefore, it is highly probable that someone of the Jefferson clan with the Jefferson Y chromosome was the father of Eston Hemings. It is possible but not necessarily probable that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston. Because there were multiple persons with the required chromosome living in or near Monticello who could have been the father of Eston, it cannot be said that TJ's paternity is probable. Other evidence is needed to establish probability. On the DNA evidence alone, there is only a possibility, and that would apply to any male member of the Jefferson clan living at that time. Access to Eston's mother is a separate piece of evidence.

It is certain that the living male descendants of Thomas Woodson do not have the Jefferson Y chromosome. It is certain that all the descendants of Tom Woodson did not have the Jefferson Y chromosome, and it is therefore probable that Tom Woodson did not have it either. It is possible that Thomas Jefferson (or any other male) could have been the father of Tom Woodson, and that a lone other man fathered both sons of Tom W., but it is highly unlikely that one outside man might father both sons of a married man. Therefore, it is highly probable that Tom Woodson was not the son of Thomas Jefferson or any Jefferson male.

It is interesting to note that IF -- IF -- Tom Woodson's male descendants had the Jefferson Y chromosome, that would provide near absolute certain proof that Thomas Jefferson, and no other person on earth, fathered Sally's first child, because he was the only Jefferson in France that could have done so. In that case, the only possibility that it could be otherwise would be if a member of the Jefferson clan fathered both sons of Tom Woodson, which is ridiculously improbable. It is also interesting to note that this one test that might have established Thomas Jefferson's paternity with near absolute certainty, utterly fails to do so.

    1. Oral Tradition. It is near certain that the Hemings family oral tradition that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of Sally's children originated with Sally Hemings herself and no one else. But it is only possible that the story is true, because it is contradicted in part by the highly probable evidence that Tom Woodson is not Jefferson's son, and it is also undermined by Sally having a compelling reason to identify Thomas Jefferson, and not two or more other persons as the father of her children. It is possible that the charges raised by James Callender might have influenced Sally in creating this story as a good explanation for her children's paternity.

    2. Special Treatment of the Hemings Family. That the Hemings family got special treatment opens up the possibility only that it was done because of a relationship between Sally and Thomas Jefferson. But it is not a probability, because there is no necessary link between the treatment and the existence of an affair. There are any number of possible explanations that would explain the special treatment, and that reduces it to a possibility at most.

    3. Jefferson at Monticello When Sally Conceived. This evidence establishes a possibility only, since, as with the special treatment, there is no necessary link between his presence and a sexual encounter. There are any number of other possible explanations. If Sally had conceived when Jefferson was not at Monticello, then obviously that would create a very high probability that Jefferson was not the father. But the reverse creates no necessity, because it still leaves open multiple explanations, and therefore only establishes a possibility.

    4. James Callender, Rumor and Gossip. Obviously, the opinions of persons who have no access to direct knowledge creates hardly a mere possibility that the story is true. Whatever the gossip, there are multiple explanations available. It is the weakest and least valuable of all evidence.

    5. Confessions of the Carr Brothers. This has a probability of being true, because any confession is against self-interest, and will therefore be considered probable unless contradicted by other certain or highly probable evidence. It is almost certain, of course, that Peter Carr was not the father of Eston Hemings; that would require a Jefferson male intruding in the line of descent after Peter fathered Eston, which is highly improbable (though, of course, "possible"). But Peter Carr fathering the other children of Sally is a possibility that is raised to a probability, since it is not contradicted by any other certainty or probability. In fact, it is supported by the testimony of Edmund Bacon. It is not uncommon for unmarried women with children to have each of their children by a different father.

    6. Statement by Edmund Bacon. Bacon's statement of seeing someone (possibly Peter Carr; the exact identity has been lost) leaving Sally's room on several occasions in the early morning must be taken as probable evidence. Although Ms. Gordon-Reed thinks he would lie to protect the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, his former employer, that seems only a weak possibility. A person under such circumstances would be much more likely to make a simple denial, not invent a complete story of someone else being seen leaving Sally's room on numerous occasions. Bacon's story is also supported by other probable evidence (the confessions), and his statement does not contradict any of the certainties or other high probabilities. It suggests that Sally was seeing a variety of men, which is substantiated by the DNA tests, showing at least two different fathers for her children.

    7. Resemblance of Children to Jefferson. This could only rank as a possibility, since the only other candidates for the father of Sally's children are all related to Jefferson by blood. It would be expected that there would be substantial family resemblances. Even Sally herself was a blood relative of Jefferson's daughters (through their mother). The surprise would be if there were NO family resemblances. Therefore, because there are multiple possible explanations, this evidence can only be considered a possibility.

    8. Is There a Cumulation of Evidence? Do different pieces of evidence combine with one another and reinforce the meaning and significance of each, or do they stand alone as separate, unrelated allegations? Gordon-Reed tried to make this kind of connection between the agreement that brought Sally back from France, and the special treatment that the Hemings received, with the idea that each reinforced the other, and supported the idea that there was a relationship between Sally and Jefferson; but that connection failed when it was shown that Jefferson was not the father of Tom Woodson. There are several possible cumulations of evidence that are worth considering:

    1. The confessions of the Carr brothers, plus the Edmund Bacon's eyewitness account of seeing someone (not TJ) leaving Sally's room, plus the different fathers for Sally's children, all strongly reinforce the idea that Sally had multiple sexual partners.

    2. The fact that Sally returned from France pregnant, plus the gossip that was generated, both strongly reinforce the charges made by James Callender, but these were disproved by the DNA tests showing the child, Tom Woodson, was not fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

    3. The family oral tradition that Jefferson was the father of all of Sally's children, plus the DNA results showing the two surviving lines of descent from Sally's sons Tom and Eston had different fathers, both strongly reinforce the idea that Sally did not tell the truth about her children's paternity.

The pieces of evidence related specifically to Thomas Jefferson contain no reinforcement of one another. These include (1)Jefferson at Monticello each time Sally got pregnant, plus (2) one son shown to have the Jefferson clan Y chromosome, plus (3) the resemblance of Sally's children to Jefferson, all provide weak support for the idea that Thomas Jefferson was the father. These are all possibilities only, with other possible explanations; they do not combine together to identify Thomas Jefferson exclusively as the father, although they do, of course, combine to support the idea that some member of the Jefferson clan was the father. Jefferson at Monticello would naturally attract other members of the clan; any member of the clan could have imparted the Jefferson Y chromosome; the resemblance of the child to Jefferson would be a natural characteristic of any clan member. All of these factors would just as easily support the idea that some member of the clan other than Thomas Jefferson was the father, and their combination does not alter that possibility.

There are other possible cumulations, such as the statement of Israel Jefferson confirming the statement of Madison Hemings. But that is a false cumulation, since neither was asserting of his own knowledge the paternity of Sally's children. They could only be relying on Sally's own statements.

Upon reviewing all the most important evidence available, we come to one startling conclusion: THERE ARE NO PROBABILITIES LINKING THOMAS JEFFERSON TO THE PATERNITY OF SALLY HEMINGS' CHILDREN! There are only possibilities, and possibilities are of little or no value in trying to determine what is the true. Almost anything is "possible." In addition, the cumulations of evidence tend to support the idea that Jefferson was not the father in three cases. Those cumulations related more specifically to Thomas Jefferson himself do not narrow the field of possibility.


Of one thing we can be reasonably certain: there was no thirty-eight year liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, because there was no affair that began in Paris. Another man was almost surely the father of the child that was conceived in Paris, and it was someone without the Jefferson Y chromosome; there is no probability that it was Jefferson. And the fact that Jefferson did not take advantage of Sally when they both were in Paris suggests that this is something he would not be likely to do at a later date either. All the other circumstantial evidence that occurred later suggesting Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally's children consists solely of "possibilities" and is either bogus gossip or is easily subject to a more ordinary explanation.

The case for Jefferson's paternity of Sally's children is a thin tissue of hearsay, gossip, and insinuation. It is not at all "overwhelming," because it rests on "possibilities" only, and not on substantial probabilities. There is no justification for calling a truly great man a liar and a hypocrite on that basis. Why, then, has Jefferson been so maligned? Why has a man of impeccable integrity been made to appear to be the most deceptive and hypocritical of all the Founding Fathers? The answer is, the very flimsy nature of the case for his paternity is itself the reason why Thomas Jefferson must be characterized as a liar and a hypocrite by those who say he was the father of Sally's children.

There were many slave owners who had children by their female slaves in the early days of our republic. In general, this was known, and there was no big deal made of it. The attitude was more or less, "So what?" That, apparently, was the situation with the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife. Sally Hemings was the child of the mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings, who was the concubine of John Wales, who was also the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife. This is not disputed. If the relationship that Thomas Jefferson supposedly had with Sally Hemings was of a similar, undisputed nature, there would be no problem with it at all. Why should Jefferson be criticized for doing something that was no worse than what his wife's father did, no worse than what many slave owners of the time did? These were rough times, and people were not so fastidious about such things. After all, Aaron Burr, the Vice-President during Jefferson's first term, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. And, indeed, Jefferson was accused by his enemies of fathering slave children, but the accusations had no effect. Jefferson was loved and respected, and was elected overwhelmingly for a second term, even though he did not even bother to defend himself publicly against these accusations. So, if the accusations were true, there is no doubt they would not have been considered of any great significance.

But the problem is, these accusations are completely out of character for Thomas Jefferson, and there is no substantial evidence that such a relationship existed. Rather, Jefferson's expressed political beliefs and his whole apparent position was that there was no relationship between him and Sally. Moreover, as explained in detail in the accompanying article, "Jefferson's DNA and Sally Hemings," Jefferson indirectly, but unmistakably, denied that there was such a relationship. Therefore, in order to make a case that the relationship did in fact exist, the proponents of that idea are forced to make Thomas Jefferson into a liar and a hypocrite, a duplicitous and deceptive person, unworthy of our respect. That is the only way they can account for the contradiction and the lack of solid evidence in support of such a relationship. Because there is so little to go on, they are forced to suppose that Mr. Jefferson was engaged in an enormous operation of concealment and cover-up, and that he was one of the biggest hypocrites of his time. Behind such an outcome, however, is a series of accusations that have no solid foundation, and it is this discrediting of the character of Thomas Jefferson that opponents of these accusations find so reprehensible, not the possibility that he might have had a relationship with a part-negro woman.

If historians have found the case against Jefferson "impossible to believe," it is because their study of Jefferson and their familiarity with his character suggests that it is inconsistent with what they know about the whole man. It is contradicted by Jefferson's expressed statements and positions, which themselves should be considered as evidence at least equal to the vagaries of oral tradition. There is no substantial evidence to support the allegations because the affair almost certainly never happened. It is on this basis that most historians reject an interpretation of the circumstantial evidence that seems unnecessarily slanted towards such a life-long sexual liaison. And that, it appears, is an entirely reasonable judgment.

More on the Jefferson-Hemings Controversy

E-mail the Editor.

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Front Page | Table of Contents

© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.