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Jefferson in Court: An Overview

Listen to "The Real Scandal" (15 minutes):

Episode 11's Jefferson in Paris, by "foreign" filmmakers, danced around the issues in a Jefferson-Hemings relationship like a stately 18th-century minuet, but Annette Gordon-Reed, an African American, makes, in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), what Bradford Vivian calls a "political intervention," exposing the biases of Jefferson scholars as well as their investment in controlling discourse in the controversy's "zones of undecidability." Thus, Jefferson in Paris morphs into Jefferson in Court as Gordon-Reed, a lawyer, performs a "forensic survey of the evidence" designed to apply objective standards in what she comes close to calling the "kangaroo court" state of scholarship on the controversy.

It is not her intention to attack Jefferson (Hmmm, snarl her critics) says Gordon-Reed in the preface to her first edition, nor is it surprising to her that there are denials of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship. What is surprising to her -- and of utmost importance -- is the "vehemence and substance" of those denials -- defenses that make Sally Hemings "something less than human," defenses that require the "systematic dismissal of the words of black people," defenses that treat African Americans as "lumps of clay." Such shameful scholarship is the "real scandal" of the controversy, not whether Jefferson slept with Hemings, a point on which, at least in her preface, Gordon-Reed claims to be agnostic. "It is not my goal to prove that the story is true or that it is false": it will take the "wonders of DNA research," she offers prophetically, to do that.

The ultimate truth or falsity of the Jefferson-Hemings story would not change my view of the way some scholars and commentators have mishandled their consideration of it and mistreated black people in the process. I cannot say that I definitely believe the story is true, but I can say that I believe that it is not the open-and-shut case that those bent on "defending" Thomas Jefferson at all costs would have the public think. I hope both to demonstrate this and, even more importantly, to reveal the corrosive nature of the enterprise of defense.

Neither America's reputation nor Jefferson's will rise or fall depending on the truth of the story, assures Gordon-Reed; "my chief concern is that the way scholars and commentators have dealt with this issue has been harmful to the extremely difficult but crucial task of writing the history of this country."

The hard-core five-chapter nucleus of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy focuses on people: Madison Hemings, James Thomson Callender, the Randolphs and the Carrs, Jefferson, and Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed begins with an analysis of the key document from what we called in episode 4 Jefferson's "black" family, Madison Hemings's 1873 memoir (which she, like Fawn Brodie, reprints in an appendix) in which Sally names Jefferson as father of her children. Her implicit strategy in dealing with the memoir is representative of her general approach throughout the book: to identify/clarify/isolate the "charges," examine them in detail, and then answer them. For instance, Jefferson defenders say the authorial validity and veracity of the memoir are suspect 1) because of the propagandistic motivation of abolitionist newspaper publisher S. F. Wetmore who conducted the interview, and 2) because the French word "enciente" ["enceinte"] would not have been used by a "small town carpenter" with a "rudimentary education." To which Gordon-Reed answers that "Establishing a motive . . . does not destroy the statement's worth as evidence" and "Why would it be so implausible that a man whose mother had spent some of her formative years in France would know a French word?"

The skeletal sample above of just one part of her multi-pronged cross-examination does not, of course, do justice to Gordon-Reed's full analysis of the crucial question: "was Madison Hemings telling the truth?" But her summation is instructive of the seductive manner in which she attacks the seamlessness of the official narrative:

Some might say definitely yes, others would say definitely no, and depending upon the time of day, I might agree with either position. What I would not waver on is my belief that no fair-minded person could decide that the circumstances I have recounted amount to "no evidence" that the story could be true or that it would be "irresponsible" to believe that Madison Hemings was telling the truth.

Hemings's memoir, then, "cannot be dismissed as the concoction of a northern carpetbagger out to make southerners look bad," nor can it fairly be portrayed as an "outlandish tale"; instead, it should be discussed in terms of its "relative degree of probability."

Similarly, to take just one other example, Gordon-Reed separates "the wheat from the chaff" in regard to Callender, the originator of the charges. She argues that Jefferson defenders focus on Callender's personality rather than the content of his writings. She grants their point: Callender was "a despicable individual ruled by venom and racism" and unquestionably out to exact revenge. "The fact that [Callender] was a loathsome character," however, "does not mean that he always lied." Blackmailers are successful because they have at least some truth. Callender was, in fact, right about Alexander Hamilton's affair with Mrs. Reynolds and Jefferson's affair with Mrs. Walker, as well as right about Jefferson morally and financially supporting his political activity. So, adjectives like "loathsome," "drunken," and "vile" cannot substitute for analysis, and, moreover, Callender's characteristic slandering style was to exaggerate rather than to fabricate. Thus, "People who are looking for the truth in this matter are not absolved from the need to subject [Callender's charges] to scrutiny." We have to face the "unpleasant truth that even a despicable man can be right about some things." And in this case the notion that Callender was some sort of a "lone ranger" inventing scurrilous charges for personal gain or satisfaction is belied by the knowledge that other newspapers had the story before Callender but decided not to print it.

Gordon-Reed's argument style is pointed, unforgiving, and doggedly logical, all of which were instrumental in garnering a wide base of support from the critical community. A significant portion of the responses to Gordon-Reed's book were positive, a sign that the tipping point in the controversy is near. Several of them -- including reviews by Martha Hodes, Jewel L. Spangler, Kathleen M. Brown, Winthrop D. Jordan, and Robert J. Allison -- commend Gordon-Reed on her ability to overcome the racist biases of previous Jeffersonian scholars in the pursuit of objective truth and describe her arguments as compelling and persuasive. Specifically, "As for the 'Jefferson scholars,'" Jordan, a marginal Jefferson defender we encountered earlier in episode 6, says, "the author is devastatingly on target, because of distorted or ignored critical bits of evidence and because these authors' argument on the basis of character has always been (at least in my view) weak and obviously driven by personal predilections." Some, including Brown and Jordan, attribute this accomplishment to Gordon-Reed's unique tripartite perspective. For instance, Jordan says, "She is a professor of law, an African American, and a woman, all of which attributes have shaped her perspectives in this book, yet the product is essentially historical."

In addition to the positive responses, Gordon-Reed's book was met with serious, even vehement criticism, perhaps also in a strange way a sign that a tipping point is near. Some of the most fervent opposition came in the form of reviews by Douglas R. Egerton and Robert A. Rutland, both of whom passionately devote their articles to discrediting Gordon-Reed's work. Egerton focuses on portraying Gordon-Reed as unqualified to write this book, referencing her lack of knowledge about the environment during Jefferson and Hemings's lifetime that "undermines" her arguments, specifically mentioning "slave law and perceptions of race in the early republic," and he further criticizes her for not "adequately investigat[ing] Jefferson's racism as a formidable obstacle to a loving, thirty-eight-year romantic relationship." Rutland uses Gordon-Reed's book as a comparison to Joseph Ellis's writings (his had just won the National Book Award) on the subject, portraying Ellis's work as effective and convincing because he reexamines the controversy with "a spirit of inquiry," as opposed to Gordon-Reed's work, which, in obviously acerbic terms, he considers "vengeful" and "contemptuous" and succeeds only in "flaying a dead horse" by reiterating the fact that Jefferson was not perfect.

The tipping point was indeed near. Sometimes in this miniseries our episodes overlap chronology, and this is one of them. As we will see in the next episode, late in 1998, the year following the publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the results of DNA tests performed on a Thomas Jefferson descendant and on a descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally's last child, showed a match, indicating Thomas most likely the father of Eston. That big news prompted another edition of the book with a new "Author's Note" by a Gordon-Reed now emboldened to articulate the wider meaning and deeper significance of her work. "Let me be clear," she says now, "There is currently no reasonable basis for doubting Madison Hemings's story," and the treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings story is evidence of the "continuing grip that the doctrine of white supremacy has on American Society." WHITE SUPREMACY?! A loaded term. Shocking in the brutal images of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups it inevitably and immediately conjures.

The historiography displays carelessness with the lives of enslaved men and women, disrespect for the sensibilities of their descendants, and a concomitant willingness to safeguard the interests of those who held blacks in bondage -- sometimes at the cost of all reason. The picture that emerged from this, for me, revealed the ways in which our distorted racial values, set down in the time of slavery, promote and protect error, irrationality, and unfairness. As if we had fallen through the looking glass, the chief purveyors of the distortion presented themselves, and were accepted, as models of accuracy, rationality, and fairness.

"Those entrusted with the power to shape 'the truth' of American history found [the Jefferson-Hemings relationship] too inconvenient for their aims," Gordon-Reed continues, and "in the face of their discomfort with this truth, the Hemings family had to yield its identity and integrity." And then Gordon-Reed delivers the coup de gras: "To an all too significant degree, this has been the story of black life in America." If we are to have a better future together, "the tale of how the Jefferson and Hemings story unfolded in the pages of history can never be told (and wondered at) enough."

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. 1997 was the year of Ken Burns as well as Annette Gordon-Reed. Burns' major and still influential Jefferson documentary aired before the DNA bombshell exploded (episode 13), and his interview transcripts show more clearly than the few sound bites he was able to use in the film that the pre-DNA battle lines of the controversy were firmly drawn by race. His white talking heads resisted the notion of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison on the old saw of moral impossibility (Natalie Bober and Daniel Jordan), practical politics (Andrew Burstein), dearth of evidence (Joseph Ellis), and character (Lewis Simpson and Stephen Mitchell). We have to remember who he was, says Bober. No practical politician would have two such children while president in the wake of the open scandal, claims Burstein. There isn't enough evidence for "a dispassionate group of jurors" to convict, deduces Ellis. But damn evidence, anyway, believes Mitchell, "anyone who has a sense of integrity will recognize integrity in Jefferson and won't believe that there was an atom of possibility that the Sally Hemings story happened, since Jefferson was such a deeply compassionate man and felt the way he did about slavery. Besides, he simply didn't have that strong a libido. I just don't think it's possible that he was a liar and a whoremaster. Few people can be that schizophrenic."

On the other hand, Burns' African American talking heads talk reality and inevitability. "I know this relationship existed," says Julian Bond, though I can't prove it: "A man who owns slaves is not far removed from a man who will sleep with his slave. A man whose slave is the daughter of his father-in-law is not far removed from a man who will sleep with a slave. There's no distinction between the slaveowner and the adulterer with his slaves; in my mind, these are equal evils or parallel evils." Just look around, says John Hope Franklin, whom Burns gives the last word in his Jefferson-Hemings segment, mulattoes abound. Lots of people were sleeping with slaves: "These things were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it's in character with the times—and indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely." However, says James Oliver Horton, "I would still honor the Declaration of Independence even if Thomas Jefferson had produced children by Sally Hemings. And I would also argue that blacks at the time and in the century following honored the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's words even as they recognized the inconsistency of the man in terms of his actions." Bottom line, however we might feel about the nature of the relationship, why should Jefferson be excepted from the general rule? Such relations are a natural part of the plantation landscape. Atoms of possibility aplenty at Monticello.

So the Burns transcripts vividly and succinctly frame the scholarly stand-off before Gordon-Reed's intervention. Suffice it to say that her comprehensive analysis of seemingly all the questions raised by the controversy -- such as wouldn't Jefferson have freed Sally if he loved her? would Sally want to be freed? what do the names of Sally's children tell us? wouldn't Jefferson's racism obviate sexual contact? could there be love between a slave and a master? was Sally immature? what kind of woman was Jefferson attracted to? what appealing qualities might Sally have? why did Sally's children go free? would a man who evidently loved his family do this to them? was Jefferson a child molester? was Jefferson passionless? would Jefferson lie? and on and on and on and on -- ripped a gaping hole in the tender belly of the official narrative. And the blood flowed.