The Magazine

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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In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal
by William G. Hyland Jr.
Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s, 320 pp., $26.95

 

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.”

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