Magazine article Insight on the News

Authors Admit Doubts Surround DNA Study

Magazine article Insight on the News

Authors Admit Doubts Surround DNA Study

Article excerpt

The authors of the infamous article about Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings -- who still believe he fathered her last child -- now admit there's much room for debate.

The British journal Nature has backed away from a highly publicized November report that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemings. While the authors of the study blame a headline for drawing a conclusion that wasn't there, the lead writer, Eugene A. Foster, acknowledged that "we never proved it. We never can. We never will."

The report, headlined "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child" was given to the press prior to publication and just before the Nov. 3 election. Supporters of President William Jefferson Clinton seized it as proof that other presidents engaged in sexual misconduct. Indeed, the scientific article was accompanied by an essay pointing out the human frailties of many historical figures, authored by a historian who a month earlier had signed a newspaper ad opposing Clinton's impeachment.

In the most recent issue of Nature, the study's authors maintain their conclusion -- that Jefferson, who was 65 at the time, is the most likely father of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings' final child. But they say other men in Jefferson's family, such as his younger brother Randolph or one of Randolph's five sons, could have fathered Eston Hemings.

"It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson's family could have fathered Sally Hemings' later children," the study's authors write, responding to letters suggesting just that. "The title assigned to our study was misleading in that it represented only the simplest explanation of our molecular findings."

Jefferson backers held a press conference in January in which they accused Nature of tarring the Founding Father with an unfounded accusation. "My fear is that we will get Thomas Jefferson down to a bumper sticker: `Tom and Sally Did It'" said Willard Sterne Randall, whose 1993 biography, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Herbert Barger, a Jefferson family researcher from Fort Washington, Va., whose wife, Evelyn, is Jefferson's first cousin six generations removed, helped round up heirs for the DNA study. He believes Randolph Jefferson, a frequent visitor to Monticello who was 12 years younger than Thomas, fathered Eston Hemings. "The facts in the case were that some Jefferson blood matched some Hemings blood," says Barger, who has studied the Jefferson family for 25 years. "That's a scientific fact. That is as far as anybody should go."

Jefferson's confirmed descendants remain convinced the debate about impeachment had something to do with the article's timing. It was unnecessary "to take one of our nation's founders and to trash him the weekend before the national election," says Wade Hampton Jefferson, 52, a developer from Hilton Head, S.C., who descends from Field Jefferson, a paternal uncle of Thomas Jefferson.

In the essay that accompanied the November article in Nature, Joseph Ellis, coauthor of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, wrote that "our heroes -- and especially presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh and blood humans with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails" Ellis was among the "Historians in Defense of the Constitution" who signed an October ad in the New York Times opposing the impeachment of Clinton.

On Dec. 4, Ellis wrote to Barger that he still believes Thomas Jefferson fathered several children with Sally Hemings, including Eston. …

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