Skip to comments.Giving Thomas Jefferson the Business: The Jefferson-Hemings Hoax
Posted on 12/16/2003 11:18:44 AM PST by mrustow
In todays America, a race hoax industry manned by black activists and their white benefactors in the media, politics, and academia produces one outrage after another, with the aim of denigrating white heroes, elevating often obscure blacks, making black racists rich and powerful, and waging race war.
So it is with the smear invented in 1802, and in recent years conscripted anew to sully the name of arguably the most brilliant of all of America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). The Jefferson-Hemings Hoax claims, without any evidence, that the third president, renaissance man, and author of the Declaration of Independence fathered the children of slave Sally Hemings (1773-1835). Hoaxers seek to drag Jefferson through the mud, expropriate his legacy on behalf of Hemings' descendants, and supplant scholarship with Afrocentric propaganda. The perpetrators of the Jefferson-Hemings hoax seek, without firing a single shot, to rob the American people of their patrimony.
In July, the New York Times published articles by Jefferson descendant, Lucian Truscott IV, and Times staffers James Dao and Brent Staples, insisting that most everyone knows (Truscott) that Jefferson had fathered some or all of Hemings children. Dao alleged that compelling DNA evidence existed, while Staples spoke of a new reality that vindicated the claims made for generations by the black oral tradition.
Truscott, Dao, and Staples all left out of their tales, that there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings ever were lovers, that based on genetic evidence, any one of at least 25 men on Jeffersons side of the family may have fathered one or more of Hemings children (Jefferson family historian Herbert Barger argues persuasively that Jeffersons brother, Randolph, was Hemings lover.), and that the Jefferson paternity story was born as the fabrication of a disappointed office seeker (James Thomson Callender) with a history of libeling the Founding Fathers. Truscott and Staples resorted instead to insinuating that only a racist would deny the story.
The same race-baiting strategy prevails in academia, where scholar David N. Mayer observes, among many proponents of the Jefferson paternity claim there has emerged a truly disturbing McCarthyist-like inquisition that has cast its pall over Jefferson scholarship today. Questioning the validity of the claim has been equated with the denigration of African Americans and the denial of their rightful place in American history.
Heres what is known: Thomas Jefferson owned a slave named Sally Hemings. Hemings bore at least six children, but otherwise, little is known about her. During Hemings childbearing years, not even within the Jefferson clan, was she known as Thomas Jeffersons lover.
In 1798, scandal-mongering newspaper editor James T. Callender, was imprisoned by President John Adams, under the Sedition Act. When Jefferson was elected president, and Callender freed, Callender demanded the job of postmaster of Richmond, Va. The demand was also a veiled threat. Although Jefferson had been Callenders benefactor, he refused to meet the latters demand. Callender responded, in 1802, by loosing his libel on the world, claiming that Jefferson had a slave concubine named Sally, with whom he had fathered a child named Tom. (There is no evidence Hemings then had a son named Tom; her son, Thomas Eston, was not born until 1808.) Callender sought unsuccessfully to destroy Jefferson politically. In 1805, Jefferson privately denied the claim, and the myth died off.
After Jeffersons death, propagandists periodically dug up the Callender hoax.
In 1954, racist Ebony magazine editor, Lerone Bennett Jr. (who later, in Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, would claim that African seafarers had reached America before Europeans did), revived the hoax in an Ebony story.
In the 1970s, the myth was recycled by white psychohistorian Fawn Brodie, who simply projected her whimsical speculations onto the historical record.
The modern turning point in the hoax came with black law professor Annette Gordon-Reeds 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed uncritically accepted certain black oral traditions, heaped abuse on leading Jefferson biographers, and misrepresented the contents of an 1858 letter by Jeffersons granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, to her husband, in which Coolidge had denied the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison.
Bryan Craig, research librarian at the Jefferson Library, at Monticello, Jeffersons estate, faxed this reporter a photocopy of the original Coolidge letter.
The letter actually said, "His [Jeffersons] apartments had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze."
In Prof. Gordon-Reeds hands, the second sentence changed, as if by magic, to "No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be in the public gaze."
Gordon-Reeds changes turned the letters meaning on its head, supporting claims that Jefferson could have had secret trysts with Hemings. Either Gordon-Reed committed one of the most dramatic copying errors in the annals of academia, or one of the most egregious acts of academic fraud of the past generation.
Ironically, it was Prof. Gordon-Reed, who politely, promptly, directed me to the Jefferson Library, where I obtained a copy of the original Coolidge letter. After I e-mailed her three times about the discrepancy, Prof. Gordon-Reed finally responded, As to the discrepancy, there was an error in transcription in my book. It was corrected for future printings.
In January, 2000, a panel of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF, since renamed the Thomas Jefferson Foundation), which owns Jeffersons Monticello home, released its Monticello report claiming there was a strong likelihood that Jefferson had fathered ALL of Hemings children.
The scholars who prepared the tendentious, 2000 Monticello report, led by Prof. Gordon-Reeds reported friends, Dianne Swann-Wright and Lucia Stanton, could not be bothered to study the original Coolidge letter, and instead cited the false version published in Gordon-Reeds book. Likewise, in 2000, Boston PBS station, WGBH, presented a documentary, Jeffersons Blood, which perpetuated the hoax. The Monticello Report still cites the altered Coolidge letter (on p. 6, under "Primary Sources", and the PBS/WGBH web site for Jeffersons Blood still has the phony version posted, in its entirety,, three years after it was proven to be false, a practice typical of the Jefferson-Hemings hoax industry as a whole.
While in her book, Prof. Gordon-Reed purports not to take a position on whether Jefferson and Hemings were lovers, she takes the lawyers tack of Plan B made famous by the TV show, The Practice. She attacks all of the most celebrated white biographers of Jefferson, such as Dumas Malone, while accepting at face value dubious black oral traditions. Thus does Prof. Gordon-Reed set up the reader to fall for the hoax, with the false Coolidge letter providing the knockout punch. Supportive reviewers insisted that Gordon-Reed had proved the possibility of such an affair, ignoring the fact that unlike fiction, history is about what DID transpire, not what COULD HAVE transpired.
The party of tenured academic hoaxers now insists that the burden of proof rests on those who deny the existence of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison, to prove a negative! And so does the politics of racism enjoy yet another triumph over the truth.
In November, 1998, Nature magazine published an article based on the research of a team of scientists led by Dr. Eugene Foster, with the dishonest title, Jefferson Fathered Slaves Last Child.
Although Foster & Co. could not possibly have confirmed (as opposed to disconfirming) Jeffersons paternity, they leaped over the evidence to Fosters desired conclusion: The simplest and most probable explanations for our molecular findings "are that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson [sic]
Foster & Co. studied DNA from male-line descendants of Thomas Jeffersons paternal uncle, Field Jefferson (who would have the same male Y chromosome as Thomas Jefferson), and from male-line descendants of Hemings last son, Eston, determining that one Jefferson male was Estons father. But that left at least 25 Jefferson men as candidates!
(An accompanying article in Nature by liberal historians Joseph Ellis and Eric Lander, sought to exploit the hoax, to rescue the authors sexually compromised hero, Bill Clinton.)
Descendants of Sally Hemings' son, Madison, refused to permit Madison's son, William, to be exhumed. Such cooperation would have resulted either in Madison's being shown to be the offspring of some male-line Jefferson, or of his being genetically excluded from the Jefferson line.
But male-line descendants of slave Thomas Woodson, whose family oral tradition insists he was born to Jefferson and Hemings, were genetically excluded from the Jefferson line. (The Thomas C. Woodson Family Association has ignored the finding.) Woodson has been assumed by the hoaxers to be the slave whom James T. Callender claimed was Hemings' first child (Tom). Either Woodson was not Hemings' son, or Hemings was not monogamous. If the former case is true, James T. Callender was a complete and utter liar. If the latter case is true, black oral traditions and contemporary pseudo-scholarship that have claimed that Hemings carried on an almost 40-year, monogamous love affair with Thomas Jefferson are refuted, and Hemings was not involved with ANY Jefferson male in late 1780s Paris, the time and place the legend insists the affair began.
Unscrupulous journalists and professors immediately insisted that the Foster study had proven that Jefferson was the father of Hemings children. The spirit of James T. Callender was alive and well.
The other source of claims of Jeffersons paternity is the black oral tradition. However, the hoaxers have ignored Hemings descendants mutually contradictory oral traditions, the DNA evidence, the fact that Eston Hemings never claimed to be Jeffersons child, and scholars persuasive argument that the black oral tradition that insists on Jeffersons paternity, is itself the bastard offspring of the Callender hoax.
Racist black professors and journalists, and their elite white allies, now insist that black oral history be given pride of place over documentary evidence. But oral history has always been the stuff of myth, and in the case of the black tradition, often racist myth. Relying on oral history would open the door to instant historical rewrites through contemporary black race hoaxes.
Scandalized by the TJMFs conduct, a group of scholars formed a blue-ribbon Scholars Commission. Excepting one dissent, its members found no evidence to support the Hemings story. Dissenter Paul A. Rahe, determined that although it was for him somewhat likelier than not that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings (1808-?), ultimately the case was inconclusive. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society was also formed, and in 2001 published the invaluable book, The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, that is highly critical of the Foster and TJMF reports, and accompanying media and academic circus.
The Jefferson-Hemings story is a case study in the use of scholarly and journalistic fraud and racial intimidation by people for whom the written word functions solely as a weapon in a race war. The Jefferson-Hemings hoaxers seek to steal Americas history, and replace it with a counterfeit version, in order to oppress Americas white majority.
Thomas Jefferson was a radical in every sense of the word.
It was not until the 20th Century that norms had changed enough that even the Democrat Party wanted to claim him as one of their own.
No one is gonna prove any of this either way.
I don't know what the truth of the matter is, but I could understand Madison Hemings preferring to tell people "I am the son of Thomas Jefferson" instead of "I am the son of Thomas Jefferson's brother."
Jefferson brought this on himself.
The further interesting fact, and a possible reason why Jefferson freed Hemmings and her progeny in his will, is that she may well have been an illegitimate daughter of Jefferson's wife, Martha's father (making her a half-sister to Martha).
Then came the report in 1997 -- knowing the story well, I wondered why the authors discounted the possibility of Randolph being the culprit, as the DNA did not in any way point directly to Jefferson, just to a Jefferson familiy male. The DNA would have been complicated, also, if it is true that Hemmings and Jefferson's wife Martha shared the same father.
So, I was much relieved to read the 2000 blue ribbon scholars report, which I commend to anyone intrested. I remain convinced Thomas Jefferson was not responsible for Sally Hemmings children.
IMO, the motive for the entire expose` was to lower Jefferson down to Bill Clinton's level in an attempt to protect Clinton. Considering Clinton and the group he rode in on, it's to be expected of them. As for Jefferson, I don't care if he fathered no slaves or twenty, it neither robs me of my respect for him, or breaks my faith in Jefferson's character.
And how much of what you "have read in the past" is based on either sloppy transcription or outright academic fraud like the information described in the article?
I think there is a third side: one that neither seeks to elevate TJ to sainthood, nor to morph Hemmings into the image of some fictional character, but rather hopes to have the historical record left intact without politically correct revisionism.
Yeah, I tend to agree with you.
The Truth is not known.
The Truth cannot be known.
It makes no sense for anyone to profit from this, since it is an unknown. Now, ask yourself: are fans of Thomas Jefferson talking about Sally Hammings all the time? Are they saying Jefferson was a GOD! Why? Because he never fathered a child with this woman! Isn't that great?!
Wouldn't that be a silly claim? In no way can this alleged incident be used to boost Jefferson's reputation. As why should it? There's no proof, so fans of Jefferson have no reason to say much of anything on the topic.
BUT ... people who want to claim "everybody does it" have a real reason to smear him with an unsubstantiated "fact". Oh, sure, we don't know for sure, ... but, you know, everybody does it ... and one of the Jefferson men did it ... and, you know, it could have been Tom ... so, that's almost like proving that he was a hound-dog, right? So, I guess we can ignore all the verified sex scandals too ... because, you know ... even Thomas Jefferson did it.
In short: this is useful as a smear on a great American. The story can serve no other purpose. We don't have to declare Thomas Jefferson a saint, but we should say that this is an unfounded, unsubstantiated smear job. It has no use as anything else.
How much more likely then, that Jefferson fathered one of her children. If she lived on his property, it would have been very peculiar for other members of Jefferson's family to pay a visit to his slave. Can you just see them sneaking around back, on an ostensible visit to Jefferson - it just isn't plausible. And how would such a relationship with one of his relatives have been initiated? It just makes more sense that a relationship would have developed between Jefferson and his slave - though, with him being in a position of authority, how much of a relationship would that have been?
Beats me! The only thing I know how to do with computers is break them.
The article produced some fine, reasoned debate on FR, but unfortunately I can't find that original thread.
The Atlantic article is not bad, but it's a bit strident.
Yep --- the governor of New Jersey. William, though, didn't agree with his dad's politics, and chose to stay loyal to the King. The bastard....
That's a GREAT question. Monetarily speaking, I doubt it would do much of anything, but I think that if one leads an honest life then this would just add to it. Certainly would be quite the conversation starter, don't ya think?
All this is much more plausible than the idea that a 60+ year old man (when that was quite old) was busy shagging the help.
Yes, but we will never know what the TRUTH of this matter is. The 'facts' in the article above are no more definitive than the claims of the other side.
Neither side has anything but allegations and vague statistics.
Does either position make Thomas Jefferson less of a great man, indeed a Renaissance Man, and patriot?
I agree. I would prefer provable fact in place of the ongoing speculation. However it turns out matters not to me. If Tom and Sally were an item, I hope they both enjoyed the relationship. It is not right that a great man or a humble slave be lonely. OTOH, if Jefferson was true in life to Martha, let it be known. It won't make him a saint. Those of us who have spent the time to read about Jefferson know he was just a man. As remarkable as he may be to our history and Republic.
What I find interesting is that our actual understanding after the Blue Ribbon Commission, hasn't really advanced much from what Dumas Malone wrote some 50 years ago: it was a Jefferson male, but almost certainly not Thomas.
I don't see that.
At the time this may have occurred, Sally Hemmings was Thomas Jeffersons Property.
Anything he may or may not have done was neither illegal nor immoral in that context.
That it may be illegal or immoral today is irrelevant.
It did not happen today.
Therefore there can be no smear.
That certainly bears repeating!
2 key ideas are here: First, that what Jefferson did on behalf of this country stands on its own as the product of his intellect and his character. The words and warning that are his real legacy to this country and the world are true no matter what he may or may not have done in his private life. Second, one must ALWAYS look to the motivation of those who seek to tear down an individual. In this case it is clear that smearing so revered a figure as TJ is the perfect way to excuse allegedly similar behavior by WJC.
An interesting comment on Sally comes, as you may recall, from Abigail Adams, who met Sally in London as she accompanied Jefferson's daughter to France (sometime after Jefferson). Adams thought she was an immature teen-aged child, hardly able to act effectively as Miss Jefferson's servant. Sally apparently was given the opportunity for some education during her time in Paris. (That would be consistent with her being Jefferson's wife's half-sister). Those who knew her and knew Jefferson at the time found the notion of an affair (alleged by Callendar) risable.