New book dis­putes claim Jef­fer­son fa­thered chil­dren of slave

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

In a book out last week, em­i­nent schol­ars say it’s un­likely that Thomas Jef­fer­son fa­thered Sally Hem­ings’ chil­dren, dis­put­ing a decade’s worth of con­ven­tional wis­dom that the au­thor of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence sired off­spring with one of his slaves.

The de­bate has en­snared his­to­ri­ans for years, and many thought the is­sue was set­tled when DNA test­ing in the late 1990s con­firmed that a Jef­fer­son male fa­thered Hem­ings’ youngest son, Es­ton. But, with one lone dis­senter, the panel of 13 schol­ars doubted the claim and said the ev­i­dence points in­stead to Jef­fer­son’s brother Ran­dolph as the fa­ther. The schol­ars also dis­puted ac­counts that said Hem­ings’ chil­dren re­ceived spe­cial treat­ment from Jef­fer­son, which some saw as ev­i­dence of a spe­cial bond be­tween the third pres­i­dent and Hem­ings.

“It is true that Sally’s sons Madi­son and Es­ton were freed in Jef­fer­son’s will, but so were all but two of the sons and grand­sons of Sally’s mother Betty Hem­ings who still be­longed to Thomas Jef- fer­son at the time of his death. Sally’s sons re­ceived by far the least fa­vor­able treat­ment of those freed in Thomas Jef­fer­son’s will,” said Robert F. Turner, a for­mer pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia who served as chair­man of the com­mis­sion.

Mr. Turner made the re­mark in a state­ment an­nounc­ing the re­lease of the book, “The Jef­fer­son­Hem­ings Con­tro­versy: Re­port of the Schol­ars Com­mis­sion.”

The com­mis­sion, which worked without com­pen­sa­tion, was formed at the be­hest of the Thomas Jef­fer­son Her­itage So­ci­ety, an out­side group that seeks to de­fend Jef­fer­son’s im­age.

Richard Dixon, who ed­its the news­let­ter for the Jef­fer­son Her­itage So­ci­ety, which spon­sored the schol­ars panel, said the book will pro­vide aca­demic heft for the on­go­ing de­bate.

“The rea­son that this book is important is that it does address these, we might call them, rea­sons why Jef­fer­son could have been the fa­ther, in a de­tailed man­ner, and shows the fal­la­cies in these rea­sons, and should bring the reader back to a point where the is­sue is not proven,” he said.

The de­bate has raged for years, fu­eled in part by the thorny ques­tions of slav­ery and race in Amer­i­can his­tory and by the para­dox of Jef­fer­son him­self, whose stir­ring rhetoric in the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence seemed be­lied by his own­er­ship of slaves.

At Mon­ti­cello, Jef­fer­son’s home in Albe­marle County, Va., the Thomas Jef­fer­son Foun­da­tion con­cluded that the ev­i­dence does point to­ward him as the fa­ther. Like the schol­ars com­mis­sion, how­ever, the foun­da­tion ac­knowl­edges there is no way to fully prove or dis­prove the is­sue.

“Our ev­i­dence is the same as their ev­i­dence, our in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it is dif­fer­ent,” said Les­lie G. Bow­man, pres­i­dent of the foun­da­tion.

She said such a dis­pute among his­to­ri­ans is typ­i­cal and that an on­go­ing di­a­logue is a good thing.

Mon­ti­cello’s web­site ac­knowl­edges the work of the schol­ars com­mis­sion, though it says the con­sen­sus of his­to­ri­ans is that Jef­fer­son “was the fa­ther of the six chil­dren of Sally Hem­ings men­tioned in Jef­fer­son’s records.”

The claims about Jef­fer­son date back to at least 1802, when Jef­fer­son was serv­ing his first term as pres­i­dent. A for­mer ally of Jef­fer­son’s wrote in a Rich­mond news­pa­per that he kept a slave named Sally as a con­cu­bine, and had fa­thered “sev­eral chil­dren” with her.

Hem­ings’ chil­dren, Madi­son and Es­ton, kept the story alive. In Novem­ber 1998, re­sults of DNA test­ing were re­leased and showed a ge­netic link be­tween de­scen­dants of the Jef­fer­son family and of Es­ton Hem­ings.

A com­mit­tee formed by the Jef­fer­son foun­da­tion con­cluded in 2000 that the weight of ev­i­dence sug­gested Jef­fer­son was most likely the fa­ther of Es­ton, and per­haps the fa­ther of all six of Hem­ings’ chil­dren recorded at Mon­ti­cello.

The Her­itage So­ci­ety fought back with its own com­mis­sion, which is­sued its re­port in 2001 dis­put­ing the con­clu­sions. The 400-page book be­ing re­leased Thurs­day is the com­mis­sion’s fi­nal prod­uct, com­plete with foot­notes and ref­er­ences to re­but the other side’s claims. Among their ev­i­dence:

Claims that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hem­ings and Jef­fer­son started in Paris are un­likely be­cause she was liv­ing with his daugh­ters at their board­ing school across the city at the time.

The “Jef­fer­son family” DNA used in the 1998 test came from de­scen­dants of his un­cle, which the schol­ars said means any one of two dozen Jef­fer­son men liv­ing in Vir­ginia at the time Es­ton was con­ceived could have been the fa­ther.

The 1802 ru­mors cen­tered on Thomas Wood­son, who was said to have been one of Hem­ings’ chil­dren. But tests of three Wood­son de­scen­dants failed to show a link to Jef­fer­son family DNA. Also, no doc­u­men­ta­tion sup­ports claims he was Hem­ings’ child.

Oral tra­di­tion from Es­ton Hem­ings’ family ini­tially said he was not the son of the pres­i­dent, but rather of an “un­cle”, which the schol­ars think is a ref­er­ence to Ran­dolph Jef­fer­son, the pres­i­dent’s brother, who would have been re­ferred to as “un­cle” by Jef­fer­son’s daugh­ters.

Of the 13 schol­ars on the panel, one, Paul A. Rahe, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Hills­dale Col­lege, dis­sented from the con­clu­sions. Among the dozen oth­ers, their be­lief in Jef­fer­son’s parent­age ranged from “se­ri­ous skep­ti­cism” to a be­lief that the pa­ter­nity ar­gu­ment is “al­most cer­tainly false.”

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