Science, Media, and the Jefferson-Hemings Debate

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To the Editor:

I was shocked to read Dinshaw Dadachanji's speculations in "Science and the Media," [June 2000, p. 174] regarding the probable paternity of Sally Hemings' children. The author frames the issue in terms of a shallow "Clinton is like Jefferson" take and discredits both historians and the Hemings family to make a point about the sensationalizing of science by the media. But perhaps a little history ought to be included in this article supposedly dedicated to scientific objectivity.

Sally Hemings' black descendants have for decades fought to be recognized as descendants of Thomas Jefferson as well. Contrary to Dadachanji's suggestion, this is not a recent issue suddenly created to excuse the philandering of Bill Clinton. Family oral tradition, passed on from Sally Hemings, claims Jefferson as the father of all her children. Part of the Hemings family's fight is for the right to be buried at Monticello, Jefferson's stunning plantation home, built, of course, by his slaves. Administered today by Jefferson's white descendants, the cemetery at Monticello is open to any Jefferson descendant who wishes to be buried there. However, despite extensive historical and now scientific evidence, only white descendants have actually been allowed in. The children of the slaves who built and worked at Monticello have been forbidden by the Jefferson heirs to be buried on the property. The Hemings family claims that Monticello should be open not only to anyone with reasonable proof of being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, but also anyone descended from any of the slaves who lived, worked, and died there. Their claim of descent from Jefferson has been rejected not because of lack of evidence, historic or scientific (many whites buried in Monticello had far flimsier evidence for descent than the Hemings do), but rather due to the idea that it would make the hero of American liberty look like an immoral hypocrite. It is too uncomfortable, in other words, to admit that the man who championed democracy and freedom on paper not only owned many hundreds of human beings like so much cattle, but fathered children with at least one of them.

Pretty or not, the historical truth is this would not have been uncommon in the least in Jefferson's time. Many men who owned slaves-- both in the colonial period and later in what we more commonly think of as the time of slavery in the American south--had sex with their female property. Yes, this is shocking and disturbing. Yes, the inescapable connotations of rape in such a situation are nauseating. And yes, this is part of our country's (and Thomas Jefferson's) history. Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, had it been purely sexual, would hardly have raised eyebrows among his contemporaries, especially since Jefferson's wife had died while Sally Hemings was still a child and Jefferson never remarried. Few of his contemporaries would have looked askance at a lonely widower taking comfort from the warm body of a pretty young slave girl. However, what made Sally Hemings something of a scandal during Jefferson's day was that Jefferson treated her more like a white mistress than a slave--freeing her from her duties as a housemaid, building her a large house, supplying her with nice clothing, expensive jewelry, and books, and seeing that her children were educated.

What prompted such unusual treatment of a woman who was, after all, just one of hundreds of female slaves on the Jefferson plantation? Again, while Dadachanji conveniently ignores history for his own shot at sensationalism, historical documents nonetheless paint a clear picture. Thomas Jefferson, according to his own correspondence and the memories of his close friends and family, was deeply devoted to his young wife. He was devastated at her death, and although it left him a widower while still a relatively young man, he never married again. While his wife was still living, her father presented Jefferson with a Christmas present--a gift of two of his own slaves, a brother and sister named James and Sally Hemings. …