Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: one of history's myths?

New research being published in "The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy" disputes claims that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings.

The dozen scholars behind this book are disrupting years’ worth of research that suggests that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.

Did he or didn’t he?

That, in short, is the issue in question in a new book coming out Thursday that strongly challenges the widely accepted view that Thomas Jefferson sired offspring with one of his slaves.

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, is a new look at a very old dispute, except this time the dozen scholars behind the book are disrupting years’ worth of research that suggests that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.

The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that seeks to defend Jefferson’s image, is behind the book, which documents the results of a yearlong research
inquiry by a dozen scholars across the nation working without compensation for the Heritage Society. Carolina Academic Press will release the 400-page book Thursday.

Ever since a 1998 DNA test was performed on Sally’s youngest child, Eston, scholars have thought for years that a Jefferson male, assumed to be Thomas
Jefferson, fathered the boy. But those tests didn’t even involve DNA from Thomas Jefferson and only established that Eston was probably fathered by any one of more than two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time, “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy” asserts. In fact, the scholars point to Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, as the likely father of Hemings’ son.

The book also disputes accounts that Hemings’ children received special treatment from Jefferson, evidence some have used to suggest that the third president had a special relationship with Hemings. Neither Hemings nor her children received unusual privileges at Monticello, the scholars argue in the book. In fact, all of Hemings’ relations were not, in fact, given freedom at age 21, as is commonly believed.

“It is true that Sally’s sons Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson’s will, but so were all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother Betty Hemings who still belonged to Thomas Jefferson at the time of his death. Sally’s sons received by far the least favorable treatment of those freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will,” Robert F. Turner, a former professor at the University of Virginia who served as chairman of the commission, told The Washington Times.

According to the Washington Times, the scholars cite the following evidence in the Heritage Society commission report:

• Arguments that the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson started in Paris are unlikely because she was living with his daughters at their boarding school
across the city at the time.

• The “Jefferson family” DNA used in the 1998 test came from descendants of Jefferson's uncle, which the scholars said means any one of two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time Eston was conceived could have been the father.

• Oral tradition from Eston Hemings’ family initially said he was not the son of the president, but rather of an “uncle” – which the scholars think is a reference
to Randolph Jefferson, the president’s brother, who would have been referred to as “uncle” by Jefferson’s daughters.

Ultimately, there is no way to completely prove or disprove the claims that Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings.

But “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy” questions years of accepted wisdom on the matter; pokes holes at the paradox of the freedom-touting third president
owning and sleeping with his slaves; and brings to light serious questions about slavery and race in America.

Did he or didn’t he? We’ll never know. But we’re glad the debate is getting Americans talking about important – albeit often uncomfortable – issues in our country’s history.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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