I am a lineal descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and as such I feel compelled to respond to the ongoing attempt to ruin his reputation and smear his memory in the public eye. A certain coalition of interests has made a concerted effort to foster the tale of a relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman who was a slave on his estate at Monticello. These interests seem intent on ensconcing this tale firmly in the Pantheon of American Myths. Let's have a look at the history of this lie.
The tale of Jefferson's alleged dalliance with Sally Hemings has circulated for 200 years. It was first put forward by James Callender, a muckraking journalist who approached Jefferson after his election to the Presidency seeking a position as Postmaster of Richmond,VA. Jefferson declined to assist him, as he had no power to confer this position on anyone. Callender took exception to this rebuff, and began to publish lurid stories claiming that Jefferson had several children by a beautiful slave named Sally Hemings. It is said that her children all appeared to be of mixed race.
Jefferson refused to comment publicly on these calumnies, surely feeling it was beneath him to respond! These stories were not taken seriously at the time, and little attention was paid to them until Fawn Brodie's book,"Jefferson, An Intimate History" was published in 1974. Again, the tide of interest surged and receded, and not much was heard about the Jefferson- Hemings controversy until the fall of 1998.
In November 1998, the influential British magazine "Nature" published an article about a DNA study that had been designed to determined whether there was any truth to the old tales about Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Misleadingly titled " Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child", the article claimed that the "simplest and most probable explanations for our molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson, rather than the Carr brothers ( Jefferson's nephews and the traditional suspects within the family), was the father of Eston Hemings." In reality, the study DID NOT PROVE that Thomas Jefferson was the guilty party, but rather that any of more than two dozen Jefferson males could have been the culprit. This fact was conveniently left out of the article, however, and parties with a variety of personal, political, and social agendas gleefully jumped in and proclaimed Jefferson a contemptible hypocrite and much worse. Some claimed that this was a long-term secret love affair that showed that Jefferson was "only human". This notion was the fodder for a dreadful and ridiculous tv movie which aired on CBS a couple of years ago during February Sweeps.
Enter the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Jefferson's home at Monticello. this organization, which is ostensibly dedicated to maintaining both Jefferson's home and his posterity, has spent millions in the last few years turning the estate into the "JeffersonWorld" theme park it has become. Not long after the "Nature" article hit the newsstands, they announced that they would undertake their own in- house investigation of the DNA study. Imagine my chagrin when the TJF pronounced him guilty as charged! I rushed to my computer to look at their report, which is available at their website, Monticello.org. I thought that surely they must have some pretty compelling evidence these folks were Jefferson experts, right? They wouldn't have reached such a conclusion unless they had very good reason to, would they? After reading the entire report, I was forced to conclude that my long- deceased 6th great-grandfather had fallen hostage posthumously to the Politically Correct and the Commercially Motivated, who now hold Monticello as occupied territory.
This is a sad departure from the traditionally close bond between the TJF and the Monticello Association, which is the hereditary organization of Jefferson's descendants, and in whose hands the family graveyard remains. The relationship between the TJF and the MA has heretofore been cooperative and mutually beneficial. Many irreplaceable family items inherited from Jefferson have been returned to the house and are on display for the public to see, thanks to the generosity of MA members, who have always supported the TJF with generous financial donations and other types of material gifts. The reverence we in the MA have always felt for our mutual ancestor has translated in a similar feeling for the TJF and the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. It was assumed that the TJF held Mr. Jefferson in the same reverence and awe as do most others who are truly knowledgeable about him.
At first I was puzzled. How could the TJF have drawn such a conclusion based on their evidence, which can be viewed at Monticello.org. It looked as if their conclusions were based primarily on anecdotal evidence, sometimes conflicting, all several times removed from their original sources, while numerous details were studiously ignored, and one of their primary sources had used evidence which is erroneous and indeed may have deliberately been tampered with. What was going on here?
I was not the only person to be astounded and troubled by the Foundation's verdict, however. Other concerned descendants, along with a group of historians and researchers, formed the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society at that time, which in turn assembled a blue ribbon Scholar's Commission to reexamine the evidence and the entire issue. The commission consisted of leading experts on Jefferson and his era, all of whom were outstanding in their respective fields and with a wide divergence of opinion on Jefferson and his philosophy. Their credentials can be viewed at tjheritage.org. After a year of study, the Scholar's Commission concluded that Jefferson was innocent of the sordid charges against him. Of the thirteen members, only one had written a very mild minority report, saying essentially that his innocence could not be fully proven. The entire 500-plus page report can be found at tjheritage.org, along with a number of other informative links.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about the TJF and its new take on Jefferson is its summary dismissal of the SC Report. Without even a cursory perusal of it, TJF's head man, Dr. Dan Jordan, dismissed it as offering no new insights. The Report has been virtually ignored by the mainstream press, as it runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of commercial sages and historians such as Annette Gordon-Reed and Joseph Ellis, who have amped their careers and lifestyles considerably at Jefferson's expense. It is clear that a great many people have a vested interest in making sure that the verdict on Mr. Jefferson remains "guilty". Indeed, this is a veritable web of intersecting interests and agendas that converge where financial gain and social manipulation meet.
Once you really start to examine all the facts - especially the ones that are not so well known - you learn about Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's brother, who lived close enough to visit on a regular - and apparently merry - basis. Even Joseph Ellis, the dean of American Jefferson experts, admits that he did not know of Randolph's existence at the time he wrote his Jefferson opus "American Sphinx'. The obscure Randolph was a long-time widower who was well-known at the time for after-hours reveling in the slave quarters at Monticello.
According to the SC Report, Randolph was most likely the father of Sally Hemings' children. However, the suggestion of anyone besides Thomas Jefferson being the father is met with howls of "You're in denial! You are prejudiced and you just don't want to admit that Thomas Jefferson could have loved a black woman!" Not so, folks. Each of us is a composite of many races and ethnicities, which becomes apparent in the study of genealogy. It is highly unlikely that any of us are pure anything when it comes to race.
While it is obvious that some of the Hemings have some Jefferson blood, the available evidence still does not answer the question of WHICH Jefferson. Since Thomas Jefferson had several siblings, uncles and cousins, there are numerous collateral lines to the family, which are not in direct line of descent from him. Those of the collateral lines are not eligible for burial in the family cemetery at Monticello, an honor reserved for the descendants of his two daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Maria Jefferson Eppes. Private family burial grounds were quite common at one time, especially in rural areas. Now, however, they may mistakenly be perceived as snobbish. or elitist. This misunderstood aspect of the controversy plays directly into the hands of the forces of political correctness, whose aim is to alter the way we view the Founding Fathers and American history in general.
Americans owe a huge debt to Mr. Jefferson's genius, particularly in terms of our concepts of individual freedom. Those who seek to defile his memory also seek to undermine the concepts he taught us. Certainly the contributions of minorities to the founding and development of this country must be acknowledged and advanced, but not by deception and deliberate tampering with the facts. To accept the Sally Hemings myth as truth is to question the validity of everything Jefferson ever said or wrote. This accusation against him is contrary to everything we know about him, and we know much from his journals, his massive correspondence, and his professional writings. I have found that the likelihood of someone believing the Jefferson-Hemings story is directly proportionate to how little they know about him. I attribute ignorance of this and so many other subjects to the massive dumbing-down of Americans, which we can see all around us. Many people are better informed about sports and celebrity lifestyles than they do about the history of their own country.
In a climate of fostered ignorance, it is easy for those with an agenda to alter history.
It is clear to me that Jefferson's ideals of independence and self- determination are anathema to those who would prefer to make all of our decisions for us. Thus, the implications of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy extend to the way we live from day to day. Are we going to be obedient consumers who allow our history to be subverted for profit and propaganda? For the sake of our future, I hope not. It is time for Americans to stand up for the ideas and people who made this country great, and Thomas Jefferson is in the forefront of these. It is my earnest hope that Americans will take the time to look into this issue, examine all the evidence, and realize that we are in danger of losing our unique heritage to the forces of manipulated conformity and political Correctness. To defend Thomas Jefferson's good name is to defend our priceless legacy of individual freedom.
This article expresses only the opinion of the author and is not intended as a statement on behalf of any other individual or group.
For more information:
The Jeffersonian Perspective
Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
'The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty'
Published by the TJHS
Edited by Eyler Coates, Sr.
Available through Amazon.com or at better book stores
The Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings DNA Study
The Monticello Association website
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