The Magazine

Reasonable Doubt

A closer look at the Sally Hemings saga.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By EDWARD ACHORN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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