Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

By Francis D. Cogliano | Go to book overview
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Chapter 6
Sally Hemings

I

On 12 April 2001, President George W. Bush welcomed several dozen descendants of Thomas Jefferson to the White House to commemorate the 258th birthday of his predecessor. The gathering included persons descended from Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, as well as those descended from Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. 'I want to thank all the descendants of Thomas Jefferson who are here,' declared Bush. The president added, surveying the mixed-race gathering, 'No wonder America sees itself in Thomas Jefferson.'1 In so doing Bush entered into a two-hundred-year-old controversy concerning Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings's children. In the autumn of 1802 James Callender, a disgruntled officer-seeker and muckraking journalist with whom Jefferson had dealt in the past, reported in the pages of the Richmond Recorder rumors he had heard in the Charlottesville area about Jefferson and Hemings.2 The original charges were politically motivated, and Jefferson's Federalist opponents repeated and elaborated upon them throughout the remainder of his presidency. Rumors and allegations about the nature of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings persisted after his death. In 1873 an Ohio newspaper published a memoir of Madison Hemings, Sally Hemings's son and a former Monticello slave.3 Madison Hemings asserted that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson. Despite Madison Hemings's memoir and circumstantial evidence that lent credence to James Callender's reports, most historians and biographers either ignored or dismissed the claim that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had had a sexual relationship.

By the late 1990s there emerged a new scholarly consensus, which accepted that a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was probable. This was brought about by two publications. The first was a book by Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which was published in 1997. Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School, presented a devastating indictment of the unfair and biased manner in which previous historians

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