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Monticello Mythology

What Sally Hemings tells us about our times.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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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.


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