A New Scholarly Report Questions Whether Jefferson Had Children By Sally Hemings

The Jefferson-Hemings liason: Is it a myth of history?

The question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings is one of the most controversial and often

salacious
questions seriously considered by scholars and historians. Long a topic for
serious consideration since Fawn Brodie’s  Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History forced historians to
examine the benefits (as well as the obvious biases) of psychohistory, Jefferson
scholars interested in the “private Jefferson” have made the case that he had a
28-year affair with Hemings and almost certainly had at least one child by her.  Although significant Jefferson scholars such
as Merrill Peterson flatly rejected this thesis, the belief that the man who
penned the phrase “all men are created equal” kept a slave as a concubine
became a settled fact of Jefferson biography during at least the last 20 years.
The smoking gun is DNA evidence
considered irrefutable proof that ancestors of the Hemings children have the
same genetic markers has Thomas Jefferson.

Or do they? Recent news reports about The Jefferson-Hemings
Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission
suggest that what has been
treated as conventional wisdom is about to receive a serious debunking.  Funded by the right-of-center Heritage
Foundation, it might be easy to dismiss the report as an ideological effort to
protect the sullied reputation of a Founding Father.  However, the committee wields hard-to-ignore
academic weight, offering a 400-page report loaded with footnotes. What’s more,
the committee is eager to debate the question with Jefferson biographers who
stand by the theory that Jefferson and Hemings had sexual relations and
conceived children.

“The reason that this book is important is that it does
address these, we might call them, reasons why Jefferson could have been the
father, in a detailed manner, and shows the fallacies in these reasons, and
should bring the reader back to a point where the issue is not proven,” said Richard
Dixon
, who edits the newsletter for the Jefferson Heritage Society that
assembled the historians who studied the question.

As for me, I have never been disturbed by the idea that
Thomas Jefferson was the father of children by slaves. That behavior was so
common in the slave-owning culture of Virginia it would have been a rare man
who did not have some kind of liaison with his slaves. What matters to me is
whether the conclusions made about a purported Jefferson-Hemings affair are
good history – in other words, a conclusion based on sound research and solid historical
reasoning.  Brodie’s work did not achieve that standard. Others
such a Lucia Stanton have done superb work that added detail and humanity to
the “family” of free whites and slaves Jefferson created at Monticello. However, the
question of whether Jefferson the Father of American Liberty was also the
father of enslaved children remains open. Based on what I read in the news articles,
I look forward to reading the report and observing the undoubtedly
lively debate that will follow.

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