The Magazine

Reasonable Doubt

A closer look at the Sally Hemings saga.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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Just how awful was Thomas Jefferson? In an academic and media culture that sometimes seems determined to trash all things that hint at the magnificence of America, pretty awful. Jefferson, the brilliant Founder and chief author of the Declaration of Independence, that essential document of the dignity of the individual in defiance of the bullying state, has been found guilty of being the ultimate cad and hypocrite. He had, we are assured, an inherently abusive sexual relationship with his young slave Sally Hemings, who bore several of his children. 

Nick Nolte, Thandie Newton in ‘Jefferson in Paris’ (1995)

Nick Nolte, Thandie Newton in ‘Jefferson in Paris’ (1995)

This very old idea—advanced by the corrupt scandalmonger James Callender during Jefferson’s first term as president—was dismissed for centuries, we are told, only because of the racism and closed-mindedness
of white male historians. An assistant professor at New York Law School who championed this idea, Annette Gordon-Reed, has been showered with just about every tribute that can be bestowed on a historian: the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, the $50,000 George Washington’s Book Prize, an appointment to Rutgers as professor of history, a subsequent appointment to the Harvard faculty, a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, a National Humanities medal from President Obama, and more.

Other forms of cultural pressure have helped enforce conformity on this point, including accusations of bigotry against doubters. DNA evidence proving that a Jefferson fathered one of Sally’s children supposedly sealed the case. Even thoughtful and careful historians have taken to referring to Hemings as “Jefferson’s concubine” without an “allegedly” before the phrase.

But is it true?

Against the prevailing headwinds, it takes guts even to ask. But a team of scholars headed by Robert F. Turner of the University of Virginia School of Law have done so, poking holes in the case and laying out the strong possibility that Jefferson may indeed be innocent of the charges. The scholars’ investigation seems fair and thorough. And in the spirit of intellectual inquiry, they were willing to debate their findings with anyone who might challenge them. This is all explained in their 432-page report, a surprisingly punchy and straightforward analysis that those who have a serious interest in Jefferson owe it to themselves to read.

There are obvious difficulties with the “open-and-shut” case that Thomas Jefferson carried on a long-term affair with Sally Hemings and fathered one or more of her children:

Surviving records suggest she was a very minor figure in Jefferson’s life, and that other slaves were treated more favorably than her children.

DNA analysis establishes that it is almost certain some Jefferson fathered Hemings’s son, Eston. But there are approximately 25 known potential male candidates. Meanwhile, DNA has also established that Thomas Woodson, thought by some to have been conceived by Hemings and Jefferson in Paris, could not have been the son of Thomas Jefferson.

Hemings’s known births closely followed a pattern of Jefferson’s returns to Monticello, a strong argument for his paternity. Yet those are also the very times he opened the house to relatives throughout the region for protracted visits, which raises the possibility that others might have been involved.

Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph, a widower and regular visitor to Monticello who was ignored in the initial research of Annette Gordon-Reed, was in better health than Jefferson and said to “play the fiddle and dance half the night” with the slaves, while the president was not known to do so. A tradition among descendents of Eston Hemings held that an “Uncle Randolph” was Eston’s father—that being a name by which Randolph Jefferson was known at Monticello. A surviving letter from Thomas invites Randolph to come to the house shortly before Hemings became pregnant with Eston. Randolph was reported to have fathered children with other slaves: Might he be a more probable father than Thomas?

Thomas Jefferson had little privacy, as the focus of all eyes when he was at Monticello. Noises in his room (including conversation) could be heard one flight above. Yet there is no evidence that family members had any inkling of a decades-long affair with the slave.