What Sally Hemings tells us about our times.
Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
In Defense of Thomas Jefferson
The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal
Since the hack journalist and thwarted office-seeker James Callender first published his scurrilities, the Jefferson/Hemings controversy has had a run of nearly two centuries. And the longer it continues, the more it carries the marks of a kulturkampf: a culture war.
We’re dealing here, after all, with the world-historical figure of Thomas Jefferson, prince of the Enlightenment, apostle of government by consent and religious tolerance, as well as with the discordant ghost of human slavery. Few could now be unaware of the core charges: that, as American minister to France (1784-89), the widowed Jefferson took as his mistress a teenaged slave girl, Sally Hemings, reputedly the half-sister of his late wife, and led with her a long dalliance resulting in an uncertain number of children of mixed race.
That there is slight evidence of this alleged liaison, and much negative evidence, seems to make little or no difference. The pseudo-historical drama is now deeply inscribed in public consciousness by movies, televised “docudrama,” sloppy journalism, and historical polemics. It conforms to a mythic pattern, and such patterns are in their nature resistant to prosaic facts, especially when tinged by romance.
William Hyland Jr., as a practicing lawyer, frames his contribution to the controversy with courtroom rules. He summons virtual witnesses, testimony, and evidence in Jefferson’s defense and the case, so far as it goes, is compelling. There are, of course, essential differences between a legal process and the more empirical processes of historical inquiry; and in the latter there can be no final acquittal.
Notwithstanding its limitations and flaws, however, Hyland’s is a refreshing exception to the recent deluge of anti-Jefferson tracts, a reversion to the state of play before Fawn Brodie published her readable polemic 30 years ago. Brodie claimed that she wished to “humanize” Jefferson, and under that rubric, revived the dormant sex charges. But an unshaken Jeffersonian establishment (or “mafia,” as detractors liked to call it) still held the fort.
No longer. Even the keepers of Jefferson’s Monticello have gone over to the detractors; and at least two panjandrums of the University of Virginia history department (one the holder of a “Jefferson” chair) are among those who argue the great man’s guilt. The question is whether this reversal has resulted from new and probative evidence or from mere shifts of historical fashion and fortune.
In fact, the only new evidence bearing on the alleged Jefferson-Hemings affair appeared about 10 years ago in a test of Jefferson family genes, performed at a laboratory in Oxford and hastily trumpeted in an article in the science journal Nature. Proof, at last, of Jefferson’s illicit dalliance? Many leapt to that conclusion; and given the authority (and lay misunderstanding) of molecular biology, the Oxford “evidence” all but won the day.
The reality belied that impression, however: The male genetic material stemmed not from Jefferson himself or his direct descendants (he had no surviving male children), but from a Jefferson uncle. Insofar as that patrilineal DNA had become entwined in the past with that of the Hemings family, the junction could have happened in any generation and, among Thomas Jefferson’s contemporaries, by the agency of one or more of at least eight male relatives.
The Jefferson family—his granddaughter Mrs. Coolidge and his grandson Jefferson Randolph—had long entertained three traditional suspects: the president’s nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, orphaned sons of his deceased sister, and his younger brother, Randolph, a light-witted cutup, often a visitor at Monticello, who liked to fiddle and dance the nights away in the slave quarters. The only contemporary eyewitness, the overseer Edmund Bacon, “saw another man [not Thomas Jefferson, he made clear] leaving Sally’s room many mornings.”
As for Sally Hemings, often portrayed in apocryphal accounts as a siren and seductress, she was all of eight years old when her master left Monticello for Paris. We may accordingly discount the notion (a favorite of Professor Brodie’s) that when Jefferson cited “mulatto” soil colors in his European travel diaries he was indulging an erotic fantasy. It was, moreover, not Jefferson but relatives at home who chose Sally Hemings as Polly Jefferson’s companion on the transatlantic voyage. When the two children reached London, en route to Paris, Abigail Adams viewed Sally Hemings as the more childlike of the two. She was, after all, 14 years old and doubtless bewildered and disoriented. The ship’s captain who had brought the two girls from Virginia was of the view that the immature Sally ought to be sent back; and so she might have been. So much for the notion that Jefferson contrived to screen the importation of a longed-for mistress by sending for his younger daughter.
The tissue of hearsay and distortion that characterizes popular versions of the “affair” is to be expected now that historical analysis is a fading art. But that hardly excuses professional historians who have flocked to join the parade of Jefferson detractors. The case of Joseph Ellis is typical. In the earlier Jefferson biography American Sphinx, Ellis discounted the Hemings liaison. He then underwent a conversion in the face of the Oxford DNA tests, and on the PBS Newshour pronounced that the case had now been proved.
His homework was slack, to say the least. Ellis had never heard of Randolph Jefferson, the suspect younger brother; nor did he understand the crucial difference in probative value between the patrilineal genetic materials tested in Oxford and the matrilineal (mitochondrial) DNA used at nearly the same time to verify the Romanov remains before their reburial in St. Petersburg. (He cited them as precisely parallel cases.)
William Hyland has performed a useful service, but there is an amusing irony here. He rightly scoffs at a number of weird arguments, including one theory, espoused in an 18th-century treatise by a certain Dr. Tissot, that since masturbation is harmful (a medical superstition of the time), and since Jefferson owned a copy of Tissot’s treatise, he must—ergo!—have been spooked into taking a mistress as the recipient of his stray seed! Ludicrous, both in premise and inference, though typical of the bizarre theories so often called into play in this controversy.
Yet Hyland goes in for some dubious medical speculation of his own: Since, he argues, Jefferson suffered from midlife with a variety of complaints—arthritis, migraine headaches, and chronic digestive problems—he must have lacked the libido for a sustained sexual affair. He cites “Jefferson researcher” Cynthia Burton, a voice for the defense, who is of the view that Jefferson’s “fertility had been waning for over 30 years” when Sally Hemings was allegedly bearing his children. How this could possibly be known without modern fertility testing and sperm-counting is a mystery.
Obviously, such speculation, whatever its argumentative thrust, is no more than a sideshow. But now, as in the heyday of the vogue of “psychobiography” that Fawn Brodie drew upon so heavily 35 years ago, attempts to read conditions of mind or body (to say nothing of sexual desire) into the past without benefit of clinical evidence are futile, when not ridiculous.
One imaginary couch is as tricky as any other.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.