Jury's Still out on Historians, Jefferson and Hemings Affair

By West, Woody | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Jury's Still out on Historians, Jefferson and Hemings Affair


West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


James Callender, the Richmond newspaperman of unsavory repute who first published in 1802 the tale of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, must be snickering in his grave. The story will not go away despite aggressive efforts to bury it as deep as Callender.

The truth about the third president of the United States and Sally Hemings (the half-sister of his wife) is unlikely ever to be established. Historians for the most part have rejected the Jefferson-Hemings connection, often scornfully. How could one of the great figures in American history have had four (or six) children by a woman he held in bondage? It would have been "out of character."

However, in "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings," Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor, approaches the delicate 2-century-old dispute from the flank: She puts on the stand Jefferson scholars and historians and cross-examines them on their use of evidence to dismiss the Hemings affair.

"Historians' prejudices and individual desires to keep inviolate their particular image of Jefferson prevent a fair, hardheaded, and thorough presentation or consideration of the facts," Miss Gordon-Reed writes.

The "real scandal" of the Jefferson-Hemings case, she argues, is the inconsistent standard in scholarly writing. And one aspect is the way in which blacks have been "treated as lumps of clay to be fashioned and molded into whatever image the given historian feels is necessary in order to make his point."

There is, thus, a racial component (the author is black). However, it is a matter of racial sensibility focused on a historical conundrum rather than an exercise in polemics.

"I cannot say that I definitely believe the story is true," Miss Gordon-Reed writes, but she adds that she does believe it is not the open-and-shut case that those who dismiss the liaison assert.

Her mobilization of logic, textual analysis and familiarity with documentation is rigorous. Specialists will go at her exposition with both scalpel and ax - as is appropriate for a topic so intensely controversial and one that carries freight well beyond the historical.

What does all this matter? That is, if the widowed Jefferson maintained a 38-year affair with Hemings and ensured that her four surviving children eventually were free, does it diminish his place in the American pantheon? For those who demand unblemished icons, well, yes, it may. But two centuries down the road and with racial understanding a few yards advanced, it is hard to believe that a long, and even loving, relationship would seriously erode respect for the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Miss Gordon-Reed's methodology is to examine exhaustively what is known of the principals in the matter and then to cross-examine the way prominent historians then and now have handled the data. …

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