"The alleged liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may be described as the longest-running miniseries in American history." -Joseph J. Ellis-
"All men are created equal." Thomas Jefferson is the conceiving spirit of our country and the voice of hope for repressed peoples across time the world over. And yet he owned slaves. And, further, for more than two hundred years people have argued over whether he engaged in a thirty-eight-year relationship with his slave Sally Hemings that began when she was a teen and produced perhaps six children.
If this claim is true, is Jefferson hypocrite or hero? How could a man who wrote those noble words do this? What does this mean for Jefferson's legacy, for our beatific vision of America's origin? And, if true, what kind of woman was Hemings? Was she compliant or compelled, siren or submissive? And what of their relationship -- systematic rape or tender love, shameful or tragic? The questions abound.
Where did the claim of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship originate? On what does the controversy hinge? What was the basis of the long-standing stalwart and successful defense? What has energized the opposition for two centuries? Who were the protagonists; who kept the controversy alive? Why has the tide turned toward accepting the relationship? What roles do science and sentiment play? What are the stakes in this "most infamous inter-racial affair in our history," who the stakeholders?
Through the sixteen episodes in this miniseries, we will examine the facts of the case, trace the history of its representation, and ponder what this argument means for understanding the nature of race relations in America. The Jefferson-Hemings controversy is a compelling case study in the construction of history.
*Title image of Jefferson and Hemings based on James Akin's "A Philosophic Cock" (c.1804).