Parsing Jefferson, Race, History

I had planned this cute opening for this essay: "An investigative reporter broke the story of the president and his sexual liaison. The president denied it, but then DNA evidence proved he was a liar and a hypocrite."

Then I would say this was not President Clinton I was talking about, but Thomas Jefferson, now conclusively revealed to have fathered at least one child by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, who happened also to be the half-sister of his deceased wife.

That, I say, was how I planned it. But then I talked to an African-American friend of mine, who told me I was missing the real story. Blacks have long known or assumed the long-term affair between the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave woman who did not share the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And if white historians called it rumor, conjecture, or unproved theory, it was because some of them found it difficult to come to terms with their racist view of history.

I know now what I did not know before - that Annette Gordon Reed, a New York Law School professor, and an African-American, has long tried to gain scholarly acceptance for the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, but that the scholars who fashioned Jefferson's image were unwilling or unable to weigh the matter objectively.

Why? Because, says the professor, Americans find it difficult to come to terms with black-white sexuality. And because the "dehumanization of blacks, which began with slavery, haunts us to this very day, distorting our historical perspective."

Curiously enough, Jefferson himself wrote in 1791 that "deep- rooted prejudices" against blacks will "produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other."

A hypocrite? Ambivalent? Or did he not see a sexual relationship with a woman he owned as a matter of "deep-rooted prejudices?"

Orlando Patterson Harvard University professor, also African-American, writes in The New York Times that today he feels less alienated from Jefferson, and that African-Americans will come to see him as "part of the family."

And, says Ms. Reed, perhaps now we can bring a new understanding to slavery and to race, and to our growth as a nation.

A much better story than the story of another presidential scandal that I was going to write.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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