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.

Jefferson tended to be drawn to cultured women, according to the historical record. Abigail Adams, who met the 14-year-old Hemings when the latter accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly to Paris, described Sally to Jefferson as “quite a child” and warned she “wants more care” than the 8-year-old Polly, “and is wholly incapable of looking properly after her, without some superiour to direct her.” Yet advocates ask us to believe that Jefferson became smitten with this immature 14-year-old in Paris, risked his reputation (especially within his family, since Polly would surely have known) to conduct an affair with Sally when any number of women were available, and was tricked by her to enter into a “treaty” to free her future children. All this is possible, but is it probable? And how much must we leap from the known facts and embark on flights of imagination to arrive at that destination?

Ominously, Gordon-Reed, for all the rewards and adulation she has received from politically sympathetic peers in academia, seems to have either deliberately doctored the record or made errors in transcribing quotes in ways that advanced her case (she insists they were simply honest mistakes). This Report argues that the “mistakes” do not appear to be random.

There is more, much more, packed into this volume raising questions about the theory. 

Ultimately, of course, no one can prove a negative, and the Report leaves open the possibility that our third president could have conducted such an affair. But while reasonable people can disagree, 

it is our unanimous view that the allegation is by no means proven; and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people into believing the issue is closed.

Of course, it is easy to understand why many hearts yearn to believe the story. Historians are increasingly exploring the story of the rise of black Americans, bringing back to life countless African-American heroes. But the ironic notion that the author of the Declaration fell under the spell of a slave who used her power over him to ensure her children’s freedom exerts a special charm. Many want this Sally Hemings to be part of the American pantheon, and many want to see Thomas Jefferson, who was certainly duplicitous at times in his political dealings, taken down a peg. Others want to trash the Founders, exposing their maintenance of an institution that virtually condoned rape, as part of a long campaign of scorn for the ideas of limited government and individual liberty. Finally, the idea that one of America’s iconic presidents sexually preyed on a slave took off as the Clinton administration was waning, offering a helpful they-all-do-it ration-alization for Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct toward a White House intern.

It is important, however, to judge the record as honestly and dispassionately as possible, and to encourage vigorous debate. When all is said and done, Jefferson’s sometime friend/sometime enemy John Adams (who preceded him as president) offered one of the wisest statements about the Hemings controversy. In Adams’s view, the cruelty of slavery inevitably raised such questions: “[James] Callender and Sally [Hemings] will be remembered as long as Jefferson, as blots on his character. The story of the latter is a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul Contagion in the human Character, Negro Slavery.”

Edward Achorn, deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Best Season a Pitcher Ever Had