How View of Jefferson Shapes Racial Debate Today

DNA linking Thomas Jefferson to his female slave shifts dialogue to what it means.

When the news about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings came out this week - DNA evidence virtually confirming that the former president's slave had borne his son - historians and commentators were quick to put their own particular spin on the story.

Some used the episode to say "I told you so" in the long-standing historical debate about the existence of the relationship. Others could not resist examining the parallels with William Jefferson Clinton, particularly the current president's own ongoing scandal involving a younger woman.

"It is reassuring, indeed liberating, news that the loftiest and most inspirational American of them all was also torn by the torments and rewards of more base pursuits," observed Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, whose commentary frequently bears the logo "Column Left."

Weighing in from the right was New York Times columnist William Safire, who read partisan motives into the preelection timing of the release of the scientific information in this week's issue of Nature magazine, especially the accompanying note by Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis that "our heroes - and especially presidents - are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans ...."

Wrote Mr. Safire: "The historian's spin: We are all Federalists; we are all sinners; so forget this impeachment stuff."

That the issue would be hotly and immediately taken up by political pundits is not surprising. Whenever something new is discovered about a prominent historical figure, "it's always going to get recast in terms of present politics," says Nina Silber, who teaches American history at Boston University.

'Jefferson' speaks

To cut through the cant, the best source may be Thomas Jefferson himself - or at least Jefferson as presented by Clay Jenkinson, the scholar who's been portraying the former president in costume and in the man's own words for more than a decade.

"It is good that the 'accusatory' phase of the Sally Hemings story is finally over," says Mr. Jenkinson, who teaches at the University of Nevada in Reno and who has performed in character as Jefferson more than 1,000 times, including for several recent presidents.

"For a long time, the only question has been 'did he or didn't he.' This is not a very interesting question. Now ... we can begin to wrestle with much more interesting questions."

Here, he includes public attitudes toward race, sex, and "heroic" figures in American history.

Jenkinson sees several reasons for the public - and political - fascination with the Jefferson/Hemings story.

There is "the backlash against the way Jefferson has been protected" by most scholars, who have debunked long-standing claims that the former president had a longtime intimate relationship with one of his slaves. (Sally Hemings was also the half-sister of Jefferson's only wife, who had died in childbirth at an early age.)

In addition, says Jenkinson, the latest revelation focuses on interracial sex, which "especially among celebrities, from O.J. Simpson on down, somehow gets right to the core of American prurience and fantasy."

Then, too, he says, there is the link - superficial though it may be - with President Clinton's circumstance.

Jenkinson is no apologist for either Mr. Clinton or Jefferson. Ticking off the long list of presidents who were monogamous (at least while in office), he discounts the "everybody did it" defense.

At the same time, he writes in his forthcoming book, "The Paradox of Thomas Jefferson," "At one time or another over a long life he said or did something that violated virtually every one of his previously articulated ideals."

For many expert observers, the historical impact (and present-day relevance) of the news about Jefferson relates mainly to race relations in America.

"He's kind of a touchstone for people's feelings about democracy and freedom, about race and slavery," says Ms. Silber.

Or as Jenkinson puts it: Jefferson is "rapidly becoming the poster child for unresolved problems of racism in this country, even though eight of the first 12 presidents were slaveholders."

Oral history confirmed

At the same time, some observers - including those who are African-American and therefore possibly descended from slaves themselves - see this week's news as a way of including black Americans more fully in the truthful telling of the country's history.

For one thing, the oral history of African-Americans (which, for more than a century, had included the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings) now is likely to be given greater credence by established historians, much the way diaries and correspondence of 19th-century women now are.

"The longevity of the relationship [with Hemings] not only humanizes Jefferson for us, but suggests that his doubts about his racialist theories may have been far more serious than he let on in his writings," observes Orlando Patterson, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"Today, I feel less alienated from him, as I suspect will most African-Americans eventually," Mr. Patterson wrote in The New York Times this week. "He is part of the family, a family with a ghastly, contradictory past, to be sure, but a family nonetheless."

In South Carolina this week, voters passed a ballot measure doing away with a state constitutional provision that banned interracial marriages.

That this should happen 135 years after the Emancipation Proclamation shows that Jefferson certainly wasn't the only American - private citizen or public official - to wrestle with issues of race or of intimacy with those of a different status.

Nor, of course, will William Jefferson Clinton be the last.

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