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Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings (Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, circa 1773 – Charlottesville, Virginia, 1835) was an American slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. She is said to have been the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Jefferson was alleged during his administration to have fathered several children with slaves; more recently DNA tests indicate that a male in Jefferson's line, possibly Thomas Jefferson himself, was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings's children.

Biography

Hemings's mother, Betty Hemings, was the daughter of the English Captain Hemings and an enslaved African woman. Along with other members of her family, she was owned by Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles, who died in 1773, leaving nearly all members of the Hemings family to his daughter Martha Jefferson. Several sources assert that Martha and Sally were half-sisters, both fathered by John Wayles, which is generally accepted, but not undisputed. The Hemings family was at the top of the slave "hierarchy" at Monticello.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson took up residence in Paris as the American envoy to France. In 1787, Jefferson sent for his daughter, nine-year-old Maria (Polly) Jefferson, to come live with him. He asked that Isabel, an older woman, be sent as a companion for Polly, but because Isabel had recently given birth, the teen-aged Sally Hemings accompanied her instead. Polly and Hemings were met in London by John and Abigail Adams. Abigail described Sally as a "Girl about 15 or 16" and as "quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of opinion will be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him." She added that Sally "seems fond of [Polly] and appears good-natured. Ten days later she wrote that after five weeks at sea Polly had become "rough as a little sailor" but after two days had been restored to amiability; Sally, however, she said, "wants more care than the child, and is wholly incapable of looking properly after her, without some superior to direct her.

Sally remained in France for twenty-six months. Also present was her brother, James, who had accompanied Jefferson to France in 1784, and was learning to be a chef. Both Sally and James received wages while in France, and towards the end of their stay, James used them to pay a French tutor. There is no record of where Sally stayed. She could have stayed with Jefferson and her brother at the Hotel de Langoque or at the convent where Maria and Martha were schooled; in either case, Jefferson and his retinue spent weekends together at his villa. The convent's bills do not seem to have included a boarding charge for Sally. The only clear documentation shows that Jefferson purchased clothing for her, probably because she needed to accompany Martha to formal events.

Under French law, both Sally and James could have petitioned for their freedom. According to her son, Madison, Sally was learning French, and was aware that she could be free in France. He claimed that she became pregnant by Jefferson and refused to return to the United States unless Jefferson agreed to free her children, and that Jefferson agreed.

Hemings returned to the United States with Jefferson in 1789. While evidence is scarce, she seems to have lived the rest of her life at Monticello or in nearby Charlottesville, where she moved after Jefferson's death. According to Jefferson's records, she had six children:

  • Harriet Hemings (I) (October 5, 1795 - December 7, 1797)
  • Beverly Hemings (possibly born William Beverly Hemings) (April 1, 1798 - after 1873)
  • unnamed daughter (possibly named Thenia after Hemings's sister Thenia) (born in 1799 and died in infancy)
  • Harriet Hemings (II) (May 22, 1801 - after 1863)
  • Madison Hemings (possibly born James Madison Hemings) (January 19, 1805 - 1877)
  • Eston Hemings (possibly born Thomas Eston Hemings) (May 21, 1808 - 1856)

According to the 1873 recollections of her son Madison, she also bore a child in 1790, who died soon after. According to controversial newspaper accounts and the oral tradition of the descendants of former slave Thomas Woodson, a son named Thomas was born in 1790. Jefferson recorded slave births in his Farm Book. Some observers have noted inconsistencies in the records: there are erasures in the birth entry columns for 1790 and other years on page 31; usually Jefferson crossed out entries of those who died. Also, Jefferson did not take note of the father's name for Sally's children, although for some slaves' births he did note the father..

Sally Hemings' duties included being a nursemaid-companion, lady's maid, chambermaid and seamstress. It is not known whether she was literate, and she left no known writings. Hemings almost looked white in appearance and had "straight hair down her back." Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, described her as "light colored and decidedly good looking." As an adult she may have lived in a room in Monticello's "South Dependencies," a wing of the mansion which was accessible to the main house through a covered passageway.

Sally never married. (As a slave, no marriage of hers would have been recognized under Virginia law anyway.) While Sally Hemings worked at Monticello, she was able to have her children nearby. According to her son Madison, they "were permitted to stay about the 'great house,' and only required to do such light work as going on errands." Madison said that Thomas Jefferson was a kind man, but was "not in the habit" of showing fatherly affection to him and his siblings. At age 14 they began their training, the brothers in carpentry and Harriet as a spinner and weaver. Beverly, Madison and Eston all learned to play the fiddle. In 1819 or 1820, a Jefferson granddaughter invited a friend to come to Monticello to "dance after Beverley's music" at the South Pavilion. Beverly "ran away" in 1822 and was not pursued. Harriet followed in the same year. According to the overseer Edmund Bacon, he gave her $50 and put her on a stagecoach, presumably to join her brother or another relative.

There is nothing in Jefferson's references to Hemings in his records that distinguishes her as receiving special treatment, but her extended family did. Out of the hundreds of slaves he owned, Jefferson freed only two slaves in his lifetime, and five in his will - all from the Hemings family. Additionally, he allowed Harriet and Beverly to "escape" with his tacit consent. He also successfully petitioned the Virginia legislature to allow her sons Eston and Madison to remain in Virginia after they were free, as Virginia law held that freed slaves must leave within a year. Sally Hemings was never officially freed, an act - if Jefferson had ever considered it - which would have certainly drawn scrutiny. When appraisers arrived at Monticello after Jefferson's death to evaluate his estate, they described 56-year-old Hemings as "an old woman worth $50." Jefferson's daughter, Martha Randolph, then apparently gave Hemings her "time", a type of informal freedom which would allow her to continue to live in Virginia, and Hemings lived out the rest of her life in Charlottesville, with her sons. Researchers believe she was buried at a site in downtown Charlottesville, which now lies beneath a parking lot.

Controversy over Sally Hemings's children

Press reports and rumors

Prior to 1802, vague insinuations had been published in the Washington Federalist newspaper regarding Jefferson's alleged involvement with slaves. In 1802, James T. Callender, a muckraking political journalist and former supporter of Thomas Jefferson, published a claim in the Richmond Recorder newspaper that Jefferson was the father of five children by Sally Hemings, including a son, Tom. By that time, according to various written sources, Hemings had borne as many as five children, but three had died, and there is no contemporary record of a son named "Tom" - Thomas Eston was born later - other than in Callender's articles or accounts derived from them. Callender called the child "President Tom," saying that he closely resembled the President and had been born upon Jefferson and Hemings' return from Paris. Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph later admitted that Sally's children resembled Jefferson "so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins," attributing the resemblance to paternity by a Jefferson relative. Despite that admission, Callender had never visited Monticello and relied on second-hand information and speculation for his stories. Although he made an effort to correct factual errors in his account, and he was correct in reporting the existence of Sally, her presence in France, and the resemblance of her children to Jefferson, his basic assertion that "President Tom" existed has never been proven.

Today Callender is remembered as a mere "scandalmonger," but Jefferson, prior to meeting him, had concluded that Callender was "A man of genius" and "a man of science fled from persecution" - based on his knowledge of Callender's previous work criticizing politics in Great Britain, work which had necessitated his flight to the United States. Jefferson sought to make use of him against John Adams after Callender's success in scandalizing Alexander Hamilton. Subsequent to meeting him, Jefferson paid him, over time, two hundred dollars. He also reviewed and provided feedback on early proofs of Callender's anti-Federalist pamphlet The Prospect Before Us. In 1800, consequent to the publication of The Prospect Before Us, Callender was incarcerated by President John Adams under the Sedition Act. After Callender was released and Jefferson was elected president, Callender was retroactively pardoned by Jefferson. He then asked Jefferson to appoint him Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, warning that if he did not there would be consequences. Callender believed erroneously that Jefferson was conspiring to deprive him of money owed to him by the government after the pardon. Jefferson refused to make the appointment. Subsequently, Callender published claims that Jefferson had funded his prior journalistic activities. After denials were issued, he also published Jefferson's letters to him to prove the relationship. Later, angered by the response of Jefferson supporters, which included the smear that Callender had abandoned his wife, leaving her to die of a venereal disease, Callender wrote in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children "by this wench Sally."

The Hemings allegations resurfaced in the press in 1805, as a footnote to a different controversy (also initiated by Callender before his death in 1803) involving Jefferson's attempted affair with a married neighbor decades earlier. A private letter from a "Thomas Turner" was reprinted in a Boston newspaper, asserting the Hemings allegation was "unquestionably true." Unlike Callender, Turner correctly identified Hemings's eldest son as Beverly, and introduced to the public (but did not invent) the claim that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife.

While the rumors promoted by Callender were unable to defeat Jefferson politically, they were a lasting source of concern in posterity, and for his friends and family, some of whom believed the rumors and some not. His friend, Abigail Adams, in a letter of July 1, 1804, chastised Jefferson: "The serpent you cherished and warmed bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth. In a later letter she characterized herself as a former friend and said Jefferson's explanation of his involvement with Callender was at variance with what she - and everyone she had ever discussed the matter with - believed. John Adams, in a statement that historians have variously characterized as supporting or as rejecting Callender's claims, wrote "Callender and Sally will be remembered as long as Jefferson, as blots in his character. The story of the latter is a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul Contagion in the human Character, Negro Slavery..."

Madison Hemings's memoir

Madison Hemings, one of Sally's sons, claimed in an 1873 memoir (edited by Samuel Wetmore, publisher of the Ohio newspaper The Pike County Republican) that Thomas Jefferson was his father and the father of all of Sally's children. He revealed that his brothers and sister had passed into white society, concealing their slave origin. Hemings's account does not mention the "President Tom" of Callender's claims, but instead asserts that Sally Hemings's first child was conceived in France, and was born and died soon after her return to Virginia.

Despite that discrepancy, some propose that the 1873 memoir was based on Callender's articles, with both including the same misspelling of the name of Martha Jefferson's father, John Wayles. However the phonetic mistranscription of "Wayles" to "Wales" may be an error that is easily reproduced independently.

It is also alleged that there is no evidence of any oral tradition predating the 1873 memoir, by other descendants of Monticello slaves or within the Hemings family; however, oral traditions, by their very nature of being oral, tend not to leave evidence until they are written down. Since a large number of Hemings descendants were "passing for white," and Beverly and Harriet Hemings's legal status was as runaway slaves until 1865, there was a strong imperative to leave no record. In any case, a newspaper reminiscence published in 1902 by a non-relative claimed that it was widely accepted as true by their neighbors in Chillicothe, Ohio in the 1840s that Eston and Madison were Jefferson's sons.

Factual errors regarding the length of Sally Hemings's stay in France and the terms of Jefferson's will, and Madison's claim to have been named by Dolley Madison have also contributed to skepticism towards the account. Another source of incredulity is Madison's claim that Jefferson had little taste for agriculture and favored "mechanics"; this perhaps can be explained by noting that Madison came of age in a period of great construction at Monticello, late in Jefferson's life, and Madison was trained as a carpenter.

A second Monticello slave account in the same newspaper supported Madison Hemings's story, which prompted Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph to respond at length in an unpublished letter regarding alleged chronological and factual errors in that story.

Some skeptics have asserted that Madison's memoir exhibits a vocabulary unlikely to be used by a former slave, betraying the hand of the editor Samuel Wetmore - a Republican partisan and abolitionist. Wetmore's other accounts in the same series, however, do not exhibit the same degree of stylistic peculiarities. Madison, as a member of the privileged Hemings family, did grow up in proximity to the polymath Jefferson and his children, and according to his own account, was tutored by Jefferson's grandchildren, subsequently pursuing literacy on his own, and it has been noted that modern preconceptions of what an ex-slave "should" sound like have influenced the memoir's reception.

Finally, Madison's claim of paternity by Thomas Jefferson has been portrayed as wishful thinking. Shortly after its publication, a rival newspaper wrote "We have no doubt but there are at least fifty negroes in this county who lay claim to illustrious parentage. This is a well known peculiarity of the colored race. More recently, David Mayer, a participant in the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society's "Scholar's Commission" report issued in 2001, wrote that treating Madison's memoir as "history" instead of "myth" would be akin to "saying that a famous tribal leader among the Pacific Northwest First Peoples really was descended from a raven bird, because his family myth says so..." Annette Gordon-Reed, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, notes that Hemings was vilified and ridiculed after the memoir was released, and after his memoir was forgotten and rediscovered, he was vilified and ridiculed again, "as if nothing had happened in America between 1873 and the 1990s."

Eston Hemings family oral tradition

When author Fawn Brodie encountered descendants of Eston Hemings in the 1970s, she discovered that they had been unaware of their relation to Sally Hemings - Eston had changed his surname to Jefferson after he moved to Wisconsin - and of their African ancestry, and had been told that they were distant relations of Jefferson's "uncle" (Jefferson's uncles died long before the Hemings children were born). Since then, skeptics have seized upon this to refute the Thomas Jefferson paternity claim, speculating that "uncle" actually referred to Jefferson's brother, Randolph. However, Eston's descendants subsequently revealed that the "uncle" story had been fabricated by male family members in the 1940s out of concern over racial discrimination; the purpose of the change was to mask their descent from African slaves, not merely Thomas Jefferson, a descent from whom there could be no other explanation. The existence of a previous oral tradition claiming descent from Jefferson himself is supported by a letter to the Chicago Tribune after the death of Eston's son Beverly in 1908, from Beverly's friend, author and publisher Augustus J. Munson, which stated Beverly was a grandson of Thomas Jefferson. It is also supported by a 1902 Scioto Gazette story about Eston and his reputation as Jefferson's son. The connection to the Hemings family and to Monticello was obscured by the change in the story in the 1940s, rather than to the Jefferson family: the changes included the omission of the 15 years the family had lived in the African American community in Chillicothe, Ohio; the altering of the spelling of "Eston" to "Estis"; and the relocation of the family's origin from Albemarle County to Fairfax County.

Woodson family oral tradition

Descendants of Thomas Woodson, a "free colored" man first recorded as living in West Virginia, have published claims that he was Sally Hemings's son by Thomas Jefferson, conceived in France and born at Monticello in 1790, the "President Tom" of Callender's articles. The first known documentary evidence regarding Woodson's life shows that he was a farmer in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, in 1807. DNA testing of five descendants of Woodson showed no relation to Jefferson. The report filed in the year 2000 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the non-profit organization which maintains Monticello, found that Woodson's claims were improbable, despite being corroborated by Callender's original story and by the Woodson family oral tradition: "If Thomas C. Woodson was Sally Hemings’s son born in 1790, he would have been a father at sixteen and a landowner at seventeen; his wife would have been eight years older than he. While this is not necessarily impossible, it would have been highly unusual." In 2001, the National Genealogical Quarterly placed his birth date circa 1784-85, based on census data.

Jefferson's comments

Thomas Jefferson himself never commented publicly on the issue, though some of his remarks have been interpreted as indirect denials.

In a private letter he expressed his fear about the effect the social relations supporting slavery would have on those who would suddenly find themselves free: "For men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast... Their amalgamation with the other color, produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent. Some take this as expressing an unqualified opposition to racial mixing. In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson confessed to a physical aversion towards dark-skinned Africans; however, according to the pseudo-scientific calculus of race to which he subscribed, the children of Sally Hemings, who was three-quarters white, would be both legally and by "blood," white.

In a private letter, Jefferson bewailed his small number of progeny. On June 25, 1804, Jefferson wrote to Governor John Page on the occasion of his daughter Mary Jefferson Eppes' death. "Having lost even the half of all I had, my evening prospects now hang on the slender thread of a single life [his daughter Martha Randolph]. Perhaps I may be destined to see even this last chord of parental affection broken!"

In another private letter to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith dated July 1, 1805, Jefferson denied all "charges" made against him, except for one, that he had attempted to seduce his married neighbor, Betsey Walker, saying the accusation was "the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me." There is disagreement on whether this is a denial of the several charges the Walkers made, or of all charges the Federalists made, including the Hemings allegations.

Later, in 1816, Jefferson wrote to George Logan that to deny something publicly increases the attention given to it. "I should have fancied myself half guilty, had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn them respect by any notice from myself."

In 1826, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee, "There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.

According to biographer Henry S. Randall, Jefferson's daughter Martha, roused to indignation by Irish poet Thomas Moore's couplet linking her father with a slave, thrust the offending poem in front of him one day at Monticello. Jefferson's only response was a 'hearty, clear laugh.'"

Other claims

An overseer at Monticello, Edmund Bacon, whose recollections were transcribed by Rev. Hamilton Wilcox Pierson in 1862 in the book The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson, said that Sally Hemings' daughter, presumably Harriet, was not Jefferson's; however, Pierson censored the name of the father: "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. Skeptics of Bacon's testimony point out that Bacon's employment at Monticello commenced in 1806, five years after the birth of Harriet, and that he did not live at the "big house."

Two of Jefferson's grandchildren claimed the Hemings children had been fathered by either Samuel or Peter Carr, who had been raised at Monticello, and were the sons of Jefferson's sister Martha. One grandchild insisted all of the Hemings children were Samuel's; the other said they were Peter's. Grandson Jeff Randolph said that Sally Hemings's children were Peter's, and her sister Betsey Hemings's were Samuel's; according to biographer Henry S. Randall, he said the Carr brothers had confessed this to him. His sister Ellen Randolph Coolidge said that Hemings's children were Samuel's.

Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote in a letter now at the University of Virginia archives of her grandfather:

"His apartments had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze.

Coolidge's recollection is factually incorrect. In 1802-3, when Coolidge was six years old and living elsewhere, two hidden entrances to Jefferson's suite were built: an underground passageway used primarily by slaves, and two "porticles" which were built to screen from public view two exterior entrances to Jefferson's study. Anyone using these entrances could not be viewed from the parlor, the sitting room, dining room, and both first floor entrances.

Jefferson's daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, according to one of her children's recollection, as told to biographer Henry Randall, had said that "Mr. Jefferson and Sally Hemings could not have met — were far distant from each other — for fifteen months prior to the birth" of the child who most resembled Jefferson. No documentary evidence supports the assertion that either Jefferson or Hemings were absent from Monticello in the relevant period.

Former slave Isaac Jefferson related in his memoirs that Jefferson's brother Randolph "was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night." This is often cited as evidence supporting paternity by Randolph. Isaac left Monticello in 1797, and his account most likely refers to events of the early 1780s when Randolph was a young man.

Arguments for and against Thomas Jefferson paternity

Arguments advanced in support of the paternity claims have included (1) Hemings's children were all conceived while Jefferson was present either in Paris or at Monticello, and none were conceived during his periods of absence; (2) statements made by Madison Hemings and by another former slave from Monticello who corroborated Madison's account; (3) claims that Hemings's children strongly resembled Jefferson physically; and (4) the fact that Hemings's children were either manumitted or allowed to slip away from Monticello by Jefferson's descendants.

Counter-arguments to the above are (1) many times Jefferson was at Monticello and Hemings did not become pregnant, and when Jefferson was there, his male relatives were more likely to be there as well; (2) the strength of an oral tradition is not necessarily a gauge of its truth, and can be contradicted by other traditions and accounts; (3) the Hemings children could have been fathered by another member of Jefferson's family and thus would have resembled him without him actually being their father; and (4) a few other members of the Hemings family who were not Sally's children had been freed. In 1781, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had advocated freeing the children of slaves after they had learned a trade in order to sustain themselves as free persons. However, there is no record of him freeing anyone other than members of the Hemings family.

Academic debate

Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, biographers of Thomas Jefferson dismissed suggestions that he had fathered children with a slave, if they mentioned the issue at all. They generally called Callender's charges too politically motivated to be worth examining and derided Madison Hemings's published memoir as an attempt to puff up his status by claiming a famous father.

In his monumental history of early American race relations, White Over Black (1968), Winthrop Jordan treated the Hemings-Jefferson link as plausible and worth consideration, noting that Jefferson was at Monticello every time Sally Hemings became pregnant. Fawn M. Brodie's 1974 biography of Jefferson assembled additional evidence about the Hemings family and the timing of Hemings's pregnancies; but some critics strongly objected to Brodie's psychoanalytic approach to Jefferson. Dumas Malone, Douglass Adair, Virginius Dabney, and other authors produced rebuttals to Brodie's argument, pointing to the Jefferson family's statements about the Carr brothers. While fictional portrayals of the relationship such as the novels Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud and Arc d'X by Steve Erickson and the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris reached large audiences and persuaded many, most mainstream historians continued to assert that Jefferson was unlikely to have had a sexual relationship with any slave.

In 1997, however, law professor Annette Gordon-Reed published an examination of the arguments and available evidence, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She pointed out how most historians had used double standards to evaluate the evidence for and against the statement of Madison Hemings. For example, Hemings's statement about his father was labeled unreliable "oral history" while the tales passed down in the Jefferson family were treated as trustworthy even though they contradicted each other and the documentary record. Historians accepted statements about Sally's father being John Wayles based on little concrete evidence, but insisted on much more proof about Sally's children.

Gordon-Reed did not argue that documentary records proved Madison Hemings's claim, only that authors had unfairly dismissed it. As to the Hemings children's paternity, she wrote, the answer might lie in developing more evidence through DNA analysis.

DNA testing

The November 5, 1998, issue of the British scientific journal Nature contained a study on the available DNA evidence from a team led by Eugene A. Foster. The study compared the Y chromosomal haplotypes of four groups of men: descendants of Thomas Jefferson's grandfather; of Thomas Woodson; of Madison Hemings's brother Eston Hemings (who later took the name Eston Jefferson); and of John Carr, grandfather of the Carr brothers.

In each case, the men had to be patrilineal descendants: sons of sons of sons. Only in those lines did the original Y chromosomes survive. As a result, no direct descendants of Thomas and Martha Jefferson could be included in the study, nor descendants of Madison Hemings. No patrilineal descendants in those lines could be identified.

The study's major findings were that the Y chromosome of the Jefferson family matched that of Eston Hemings's family, while the Y chromosomes of the Woodson and Carr families were each different. The implications for the paternity question were not conclusive about whether Jefferson was the father, but were more clear in the cases of the other families tested. The Jefferson grandchildren's contention that Sally Hemings's children had been fathered by one or the other Carr brother was not tenable unless the children had multiple fathers and the Carrs fathered the other children besides Eston, or if the Carrs in some way did not possess the same Y chromosome as their grandfather (possibly through illegitimacy) and had been somehow fathered by a Jefferson. The Woodson family's claim to have been descended from Jefferson was also disproven-- five Woodson descendants were tested to ensure accuracy. On the other hand, Eston Hemings was undoubtedly the son of "a" Jefferson.

Of all the accounts of the Hemings children published before 1998, Madison Hemings's was the most prominent to appear consistent with the DNA tests. Nature therefore headlined the study "Jefferson fathered slave’s last child." The title of the article was described as "incorrect" by its authors.

It has been pointed out that although the DNA tests effectively ruled out the Carr brothers from paternity of Eston, and any Jefferson from fathering Thomas Woodson, it did not conclusively prove that Jefferson or any other member of his family was the father of all the Hemings children. Jefferson had a brother, Randolph, who had five sons. One possibility put forward in Nature later was that one of Jefferson's paternal line relatives such as his father or grandfather had fathered a child or children with slaves and that slave, or a descendant of that slave, became the father of Hemings's children. Dr. Foster agreed that none of these possibilities could be genetically ruled out, but a preponderance of historical evidence currently cites Jefferson as the father.

The Foundation and Commission reports

Following the Nature article, the controversy continued to grow, and in 2000 and 2001 two major studies of the Jefferson-Hemings allegations were released. Both studies drew from a range of sources, including both scientific and historical, to arrive at their conclusions.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation report

In January 2000, a group of specialists from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, published a study on the controversy initiated soon after the Nature paper. Their near-unanimous report stated that "although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.

The report also cited a probabilistic analysis published in the William & Mary Quarterly conducted by one of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation's committee members, Frasier Nieman, regarding the timing of Jefferson's visits to Monticello and Hemings's pregnancies which concluded that it was highly likely that the two series of events were related.

The committee noted that "Randolph Jefferson and his sons are not known to have been at Monticello at the time of Eston Hemings’s conception," and although it is possible two of Randolph's sons could have visited during the conception time period of Harriet and Eston, "convincing evidence does not exist for the hypothesis that another male Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children."

The Monticello Foundation found no written evidence that the relationship began in Paris or of a deceased child born upon their return in 1790.

Criticisms of the Foundation's report

One member of the committee, White Wallenborn, dissented, noting that "the historical evidence is not substantial enough to confirm nor for that matter to refute his paternity of any of the children of Sally Hemings." He asserted that the Committee "had already reached their conclusions" before they began looking at the evidence and that the chair of the committee did not show Wallenborn's dissent to the other members.

The Foundation's report has been criticized for not including enough evidence that contradicts the Jefferson-Hemings theory, and for not mentioning within the main report that one of its members dissented from its conclusions. Concurrent work on an oral history project by committee members has been alleged as a conflict of interest, prejudicing the committee's valuation of oral history (although it did discount the Woodson family's oral history).

It is alleged the committee did not weigh all oral history assertions fairly, specifically the competing claims of Israel Jefferson, the slave who corroborated Madison Hemings' account, versus Monticello slave overseer Edmund Bacon's assertions that Jefferson did not father Harriet and he knew who did.

Nieman's William & Mary Quarterly probabilistic analysis is questioned as assuming on scant evidence all of Hemings' children had the same father.

Scholars Commission report

Later in 2000, the newly-formed Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, whose stated purpose is to "further the honor and integrity of Thomas Jefferson," created a "Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission" composed of thirteen noted conservative scholars to examine the paternity question. On April 12, 2001, they issued a report which concluded that "the Jefferson-Hemings allegation is by no means proven;" members' individual conclusions ranged from "serious skepticism about the charge" to "a conviction that it is almost certainly false. The majority suggested the most likely alternative is that Randolph Jefferson, Thomas's younger brother, was the father of Eston. Twenty-five possible male Jeffersons lived in Virginia at the time, and eight of those lived close to or at Monticello.

Some participants in the Scholar's Commission framed their participation in terms of a culture war, characterizing positive speculation about the Hemings matter as an "assault" on Jefferson, and those who credit the Hemings story as adherents of political correctness, multiculturalism and postmodernism. Historian Robert Turner, who chaired the commission and was the sole author of the bulk of the report, suggested that evidence for a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings had been "rushed to press" because of the political climate surrounding the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Other participants have said they were motivated by a concern with Jefferson's reputation.

Dissenting from the majority opinion, Paul Rahe wrote that he considered "it somewhat more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and added "there is ... one thing that we do know, and it is damning enough. Despite the distaste he expressed for the propensity of slaveholders and their relatives to abuse their power, Jefferson either engaged in such abuse himself or tolerated it on the part of one or more members of his extended family."

Criticisms of the Scholars Commission report

Alexander Boulton, a historian writing in the William and Mary Quarterly, asserts that the scholars, unable to undermine the evidence against Jefferson, resorted to a "Plan B" in which "Past defenses of Jefferson having proven inadequate, the TJHS advocates have pieced together an alternative case that preserves the conclusions of earlier champions but introduces new "evidence" to support them. Randolph Jefferson, for example, had never seriously been considered as a possible partner of Sally Hemings until the DNA evidence indicated that a Jefferson was unquestionably the father of Eston."

Skeptics have noted that the Randolph Jefferson paternity theory had not been raised by Jefferson's grandchildren or anyone else in the 19th century. The first person to publicly link Randolph Jefferson to Sally Hemings was playwright Karyn Traut in 1988; her husband, biologist Thomas Traut, became a member of the Scholars Commission.

The National Genealogical Society Quarterly of September 2001 examined the controversy from the perspectives of several professionally accredited genealogists. Its articles were explicitly critical of the Scholars Commission report for failing to adhere to the standards of genealogical research, which the NGS authors characterized as more stringent than the legalistic paradigm adopted by the commission. Specifically, according to one article, the Scholars Commission's failings included: overreliance on derivative sources, biased assessment of data, distortion of evidence, deficient context, confounding the issue with irrelevant matters, and ignoring the weight of the body of evidence. Genealogist Helen Leary concluded that "the chain of evidence securely fastens Sally Hemings's children to their father, Thomas Jefferson.

In 2003, a team of genealogical researchers, after examining primary source documents including census, tax, land, and marriage records, as well as the letters of Jefferson and his contemporaries, concluded that Randolph Jefferson's sons were most likely too young to have fathered Sally's children, and that there was no evidence they were raised or educated at Monticello prior to 1813. They also concluded that Randolph Jefferson was an infrequent and reluctant visitor to Monticello.

Reactions

The Woodson family continues to press their case in the book A President in the Family. In this book, they argue that: (1) there was an erasure in Jefferson's farm book in the section on slaves born in 1790; (2) Thomas Jefferson's record of gifts in the years 1800 and 1801 indicates that gifts were given to a 'servant' named Thomas (Callender's "Tom" would have been 10 years old at the time of the gifts); (3) historian Joseph Ellis's early entry into the reporting process was open to criticism because Dr. Foster (the DNA test organizer) had promised the DNA test participants that historians would not be involved with the test or the reporting, but lost control of the process.

The current consensus among American historians appears to have undergone a sea-change. Once, most scholars dismissed the idea that Jefferson fathered Hemings's children without examining the evidence closely. Now most historians agree that the story is more likely than not, again without necessarily having read the full record. Scholars remain open to more evidence, but it is unclear where it might be found.

Among the public, the question of Thomas Jefferson's and Sally Hemings's relationship remains controversial. Members of the Monticello Association, who claim descent from Jefferson through his eldest daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph, have voted not to admit Hemings's descendants. Nevertheless, through the quirks of history and biology, only one set of Americans can show both that their ancestors were born at Monticello and that they share a Y chromosome with the Jefferson family: the patrilineal male descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings's youngest son.

Future testing

Prospects have been raised of further DNA testing by possibly exhuming the body of William Hemings, Madison Hemings's son. Since only the paternal line of Eston was tested through DNA, further testing of William Hemings in comparison to the Jefferson and Carr DNA could reveal whether a Jefferson fathered more than one of Hemings's children or whether Jefferson's grandchildren were correct that the Carrs fathered some of the Hemings children. William Hemings is buried in Leavenworth National Cemetery in Leavenworth, Kansas. However, the childless William Hemings left no descendants authorized to permit his exhumation, and if it were possible, some family members are reluctant to permit the disturbance.

Descendants

Little is known of Sally Hemings's life; even less is known of her two children William Beverly and Harriet; however, a good deal more is known of the lives of her sons Madison and Eston, and of their descendants.

Three of Hemings's children chose to pass as white. Two of them managed to effectively disappear from the historical record; one of these, Harriet, was said by a Monticello overseer to be "nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful" and married a white man after she left Monticello. In 1961, Pearl M. Graham published research indicating she believed she had discovered and spoken with Harriet's descendants. However, Fawn Brodie conjectured that these were actually the descendants of Sally's brother John Hemings. Beverly also married a white woman of good circumstances, according to his brother Madison. Beverly's exit from history was as complete as Harriet's; the only post-slavery record of his activities is an enigmatic reference to him in former slave Isaac Jefferson's memoirs as launching a hot air balloon in Petersburg, Virginia.

Eston moved to Ohio where, according to census records, he lived as a "mulatto," then moved to Wisconsin, changed his name to "Eston H. Jefferson" and lived as a white man. Madison Hemings, who also moved to Ohio, was the only child who did not choose to live as a white person.

Comparatively, a good deal is known about Madison's and Eston's families. Madison followed his brother Eston to Ohio. Both achieved some success in life, were respected by their contemporaries, and had children who repeated their success. They worked as carpenters, and Madison had a small farm. Eston became a professional musician and bandleader, "a master of the violin, and an accomplished 'caller' of dances," who "always officiated at the 'swell' entertainments of Chillicothe," and was in demand all across southern Ohio. A neighbor described him as "Quiet, unobtrusive, polite and decidedly intelligent, he was soon very well and favorably known to all classes of our citizens, for his personal appearance and gentlemanly manners attracted everybody's attention to him."

Sons of both Madison and Eston served in the American Civil War. Madison's son Thomas Eston Hemings spent time at the Andersonville POW camp, and later died in a camp in Meridian, Mississippi. According to a Hemings descendant, his brother James attempted to cross Union lines and enlist in the Confederate army to rescue him. Later, James was rumored to have moved to Colorado; like others in the family, the rest of his biography remains unknown.

Eston's son John Wayles Jefferson wrote frequently for newspapers and published letters about his war experiences. He was proprietor of a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. Ultimately he became a wealthy cotton broker in Tennessee.

Eston's son Beverly Jefferson was, according to his 1908 obituary, "a likeable character at the Wisconsin capital, and a familiar of statesmen for half a century". He had operated a hotel with his brother, then built a successful horse-drawn "omnibus" business. His friend Augustus J. Munson wrote "Beverly Jefferson['s] death deserves more than a passing notice, as he was a grandson of Thomas Jefferson... [He] was one of God's noblemen - gentle, kind, courteous, charitable." His great-grandson, John Jefferson, was the Hemings descendant whose DNA test showed a relation to Thomas Jefferson's family.

Some of Madison Hemings's children and grandchildren who remained in Ohio suffered from the limited opportunities for blacks at that time, working as laborers, servants or small farmers. William Hemings, Madison's last known male-line descendant, died in 1910, unmarried, in a veteran's hospital. Frederick Madison Roberts (1879-1952) - Sally Hemings's great-grandson/Madison's grandson/Ellen Hemings's son - was the first person of known African American ancestry elected to public office on the West Coast: he served in the California State Assembly from 1919 to 1934.

As of 2007 there are known male-line descendants of the youngest brother Eston Hemings, and female-line descendants of Madison Hemings's three daughters, Sarah, Harriet, and Ellen.

Descendants of Thomas Woodson long claimed that he was the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. The claim that Woodson was descended from Jefferson was cast into doubt by DNA testing in 1998.

Films

Further reading

  • Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy: Annette Gordon-Reed (University Press of Virginia, 1997)
  • The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family: Annette Gordon-Reed (W. W. Norton, 2008)
  • Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions In the Hemings Genealogical Search: Cynthia H. Burton (self-published, 2005)
  • A President in the Family: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson: Byron W. Woodson, Sr. (Praeger, 2001)
  • The Jefferson-Hemings Myth, An American Travesty: Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. (Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001)
  • "Anatomy of a Scandal, Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story": Rebecca L. and James F. McMurry, Jr. (Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2002) and
  • "Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission Report" (Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001)
  • Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History: Fawn M. Brodie (W. W. Norton, 1974)
  • Six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson: Dumas Malone (Little, Brown, 1948-1981)
  • Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family: Jane Feldman, Shannon Lanier (Random House, 2001)
  • Monticello account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
  • Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
  • The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson: Sam Sloan (Kiseido, 1992) ISBN 1-881373-02-9
  • Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book: Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2002) ISBN 1-882886-10-0
  • The Farm Book by Thomas Jefferson ISBN 0-923891-80-3
  • Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture: Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf, editors (University Press of Virginia, 1999)
  • Farm Book, 1774-1824, by Thomas Jefferson (electronic edition). Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.

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