The Jefferson - Hemings ControversyHistory on trial Main Page

AboutTime LineEpisodesJefferson on Race & SlaveryResources

Barger, Herbert. The Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study as told by, Jefferson Family Historian. February 12, 1999. (revised August 30, 2000)
Barger is a Jefferson family genealogist, whose wife is a distant Jefferson relative, and who helped locate people for the DNA tests. He tells the story of the genesis of the testing, but his main purpose here and elsewhere is to counteract the prominent assumption that the DNA concretely links Thomas Jefferson to Sally's children. Barger points to eight other Jefferson males and points especially to Randolph Jefferson, "a private, non-political, fun-loving farmer," as likely fathers. There are other males, therefore, who fit the DNA profile. Foster's Nature article, then, is misleading and has been misinterpreted: "I am just asking that it be written in history books for our future generations to learn, that 'A' Jefferson fathered Easton Hemings. It cannot be PROVEN CONCLUSIVELY that Thomas was the father. With all the 'circumstantial evidence' that supports numerous possibilities of who fathered Sally's children, I do not know how anyone can feel so adamant that Thomas had to be the father."
Cohen, Richard. "Grand Illusion." Washington Post 13 December 1998.
DNA testing confirms that Jefferson was most likely the father of Sally Hemings's youngest child and maybe the father of the other four children. The stories about the affair pushed Hemings from the wings of the talks about Jefferson to its center, which humanized her. Jefferson's slave-holding is at odds with the Declaration of Independence, but slavery "suited Jefferson -- not just Jefferson the planter, but Jefferson the aesthete." Jefferson was an extremely self-absorbed man, more interested in mankind than in men, and he might have held on to his slaves no matter what their race. Sally Hemings has made Jefferson harder, meaner, and selfish—an exploiter. His impressive achievements are not belittled, yet the man is.
Ellis, Joseph J. "When a Saint Becomes a Sinner." U.S. News & World Report 9 November 1998: 67-68.
The DNA evidence proves that Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with his mulatto slave Sally. For the several hundred Hemings descendants, this news confirms the stories they have been passing through the generations. Among scholars, the acceptance of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison has been gaining ground. Ellis claims that "If the scholarly Jefferson has become a more controversial and problematic icon, the vast majority of ordinary Americans continue to regard him as the most potent symbol of American values in the entire gallery of national greats." Because of the new evidence and the stir that his affair has caused, Jefferson's legacy appears to be more radiant than ever before. This new evidence shows that Jefferson is human, "the saint who sinned, the great man with ordinary weaknesses." The Hemings descendants have sustained the story of their lineage for many generations because they are proud of their biological connection to Jefferson.
Foster, Eugene, et al. "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." Nature 5 November 1998: 27-28.
This is the blockbuster article by the scientist who performed the test that claims that DNA findings do not support the idea that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally's first son, Thomas Woodson, but do provide evidence that he was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson. Foster clarifies that other explanations of the findings centering on illegitimacy in a variety of the lines of descent cannot be entirely ruled out. With the absence of historical evidence to support such possibilities, however, they are considered to be unlikely.
Foster, Eugene, et. al. "Reply: The Thomas Jefferson Paternity Case." Nature 7 January 1999: 32.
This article claims that from the historical and the DNA data, Thomas Jefferson can neither be excluded nor exclusively implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with Sally Hemings. When the study began, Foster claims, "we knew that the results could not be conclusive, but we hoped to obtain some objective data that would tilt the weight of evidence in one direction or another. We think we have provided such data and that the modest, probabilistic interpretations we have made are tenable at present." He acknowledges that the title given to the study [by the journal] was deceptive in that it signified only the simplest explanation of our molecular findings, that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson.
Foster, Eugene. Letter to the Editor. New York Times 9 November 1998.
Foster explains that the genetic findings do not prove that Jefferson is in fact the father of one of Sally's sons, yet the findings do provide some objective evidence that bears on the controversy. There are "many possible explanations for the findings, and it may turn out that some highly complicated and improbable theories are true." However, until conflicting evidence is offered, the DNA study is the best evidence around.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. "Engaging Jefferson: Blacks and the Founding Father." William and Mary Quarterly 57.1 (2000): 171-82.
Since America is a place where high ideals clash with racial ambivalence, Jefferson is, to blacks, "the foremost exemplar of the true American spirit and psyche." The black response to the DNA was "We told you so." The rejection of the Sally story was seen as a denial of black ties to the founding of the nation, a rejection of black birthright claims. The suppression of the Sally story was just another example of white supremacy at work. The value for blacks of imagining Jefferson in love with Sally is that it gives her power over him.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. "Why Jefferson Scholars Were the Last to Know." New York Times 3 November 1998: A27.
The DNA was not really needed. The evidence has been there for a century. What was needed was more rigorous and less prejudiced scholarship.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Letter to the Editor. [Jefferson and Hemings] New York Times 10 July 2004.
Points out the double-standard applied to Jefferson: he gets a pass for owning slaves but is derogated for sleeping with Sally.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. "The All Too Human Jefferson." Wall Street Journal 24 November 1998.
Jordan, Daniel P. Statement from Daniel P. Jordan, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, issued on November 1, 1998. [Appendix D only]
The TJF, which runs Monticello, made an immediate and measured statement, saying the claims in the DNA results would be thoroughly studied: “The Foundation will evaluate carefully Dr. Foster's findings and any other relevant evidence on the subject; and then, in the Jefferson tradition, the Foundation will follow truth wherever it may lead us.”
Jordan, Daniel P. Statement on the [Monticello Research Committee] Report by TJMF President Daniel P. Jordan. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. January 2000.
"When the DNA study was released on the evening of October 31, 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) responded immediately." The TJF guaranteed that it would assess the scientific results. "Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings. We recognize that honorable people can disagree on this subject, as indeed they have for over two hundred years. Further, we know that the historical record has gaps that perhaps can never be filled and mysteries that can never be fully resolved. Finally, we stand ready to review any fresh evidence at any time and to reassess our understanding of the matter in light of more complete information."
Jordan, Daniel P. “Whoever said history is dull?” -- Remarks from, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Daniel P. Jordan, at the meeting of the Monticello Association, the organization of descendants of Thomas Jefferson, May 15, 1999.
This is the first Monticello Association meeting post-DNA results, when the Hemingses were invited as guests: "Scholarship drives the mission. We have eight Ph.D.s on the Monticello staff, and six colleagues who have published one or more books with a university press. Scholarship isn't foolproof, but it gives us the best chance of getting our history right. Scholarship also helps us appreciate that accurate history must be inclusive history. You cannot understand Thomas Jefferson without understanding slavery, and you cannot understand Monticello without understanding its African-American community. This is not being politically correct. It is being scholarly. Over the past fifteen years, the Foundation has tried hard to learn more about slavery, and Monticello's African-American community -- a process that leads us quite naturally to this evening's event, which we welcome and which we believe is a positive milestone for many reasons."
Lander, Eric S., and Joseph J. Ellis. "Founding Father." Nature 5 November 1998: 13-14.
This is the article that announced the DNA results, created the big stir, and perhaps signaled the end of the “longest running mini-series in American history”: “Almost two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered a children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children.”
Mayer, David N. The Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Myth and the Politicization of American History: Individual Views of David N. Mayer, Concurring with the Majority Report of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter. April 9, 2001.
This essay by a member of the Scholars Committee commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society illustrates that the allegations that Jefferson fathered one or more children by Sally Hemings are by no means proven. Jefferson's “place in American history—his central role in our nation's founding and the evolution of its system of government—justly derives from his ideas. His true legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government. The attributes of Jefferson the man—his character and the circumstances of his life—are essentially irrelevant to that legacy.” Mayer claims that many distinguished scholars have willingly deserted professional standards in taking control of the 1998 DNA study. This article helps explain why the Jefferson-Hemings myth has become so readily accepted today, by the American general public but also by scholars who should know better. However, Mayer expresses “the role of historians to explain the past as best they can, by following objective methodology and the evidence. However upsetting this conclusion may be to many people, again for a wide variety of reasons, it is simply the case that no credible evidence has proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings' children.”
Patterson, Orlando. "Jefferson the Contradiction." New York Times 2 November 1998.
African American Patterson stresses the differences between races on the views about the meaning behind the Jefferson-Hemings affair. The longevity of the relationship not only humanizes Jefferson “but suggests that his doubts about his racialist theories may have been far more serious than he let on in his writings.” Jefferson’s affair with Hemings marks a huge contradiction in our history; however, if we acknowledge that contradiction, it allows Americans to also accept other painful inconsistencies in our history.
Remarks by the President During Event in Honor of Thomas Jefferson's Birthday. April 12, 2001.
White House gathering to which Hemings descendants were invited at about the same time the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society report casting doubt on the relationship came out.
Report of the Monticello Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. January 2000.
This is the report of the committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson (Memorial) Foundation and headed by Dr. Dianne Swann-Wright subsequent to the DNA findings that concludes that Jefferson was probably the father of all Sally Hemings's children. The report contains a statement by TJMF President Daniel P. Jordan, the Committee Charge and Overview, Assessment of DNA Study, Review of Documentary Sources, Research Findings and Implications, Assessment of Possible Paternity of Other Jeffersons, Conclusions, Minority Report, Response to the Minority Report, and the Reply to the "Response to the Minority Report.”
Report on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter. The Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission. April 12, 2001.
The Scholars Commission was formed by the newly organized Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society after the report of the Thomas Jefferson (Memorial) Foundation concluded that Jefferson probably fathered all of Sally Hemings's children, The Scholars Commission conclusions, to the contrary, ranged from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.
Safire, William. “Sallygate.” New York Times 2 November 1998: A27.
"James Callender was the first to expose the affair between Jefferson and Hemings. Now two centuries later, we learn through DNA evidence that there is a strong likelihood that he was right, that an affair between the two did in fact occur. Jefferson’s affair wasn’t any different than President Clinton’s, who faces probable impeachment, yet he had no consequences. According to Joseph J. Ellis, a key Jefferson historian, '’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.'’ The question, then, that this article seeks to answer is, ‘if Jefferson impregnated a young slave and refused to comment on Callender's story, what's the big deal about Clinton dallying with young women and lying under oath about it?’”
Staples, Brent. "Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Together at Last?" New York Times 2 November 1998.
Discovering the DNA evidence caused much stir among historians who tried to prove that the Jefferson-Hemings affair didn’t happen, and among those who tried not only to prove that the affair did in fact happen but that it spanned decades. However, prior to the DNA findings, what many historians had searched far and wide to answer is, if the affair did happen, was it consensual, and what was the reasoning behind the affair? Thomas Jefferson has been the most controversial President throughout our history thus far, yet by most average Americans, he is praised as the man who created democracy from nothing.
Staples, Brent. "The Shifting Meanings of 'Black' and 'White.'" New York Times 15 November 1998.
The proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemings has embarrassed historians who saw him as too noble for sex with a slave -- and vindicated black descendants who knew all along that he was as lusty as anyone else. Genetic tests have linked Jefferson to Hemings's final child, Eston, born in 1808. However, Jefferson was a man of contradictions as seen through his writings, specifically the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote while enslaving others. But Jefferson did break down the barriers of race that existed during his lifetime.
Turner, Robert F. “Fact Trumps Fiction on Jefferson Story.” Boston Globe Online 1 June 2002.
Turner was chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society’s Scholar’s Commission: "Honest people may disagree, but to brand total strangers with the epithet 'Whitey' because they believe Jefferson and the oral history passed down by Eston Hemings over the blatantly racist Callender is as unfair as it is unprofessional."
Turner, Robert F. "The Jefferson Hemings Controversy." Speech at a press conference held by the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, Washington, November 26, 2011.
On the occasion of the 2011 publication of the Scholars Commission report edited by Turner.
Turner, Robert F. "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings." Speech December 3rd, 2011, at the Stonebridge Center in Natural Bridge, Virginia.
Turner headed the Scholars Commission of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, the group that studied the Jefferson-Hemings controversy subsequent to the DNA tests and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation report that found the relationship credible. To the contrary, the Scholars Commission's conclusion was "not proven." The occasion for the speech was the 2011 book publication of the Scholars Commission's report.
Turner, Robert F. The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.
Turner chaired the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society's Scholars Commission, whose report in 2001 contradicted the belief fostered by the interpretation of the DNA results by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (2000) that Jefferson probably fathered all of Sally Hemings's children. Their full report was only available on the web at that time and, unlike the TJMF report, soon not generally available at all, a fact that almost certainly diminished its impact on the direction of the controversy at that time. Turner publishes it here a decade later with significant additional material of his own.
Turner, Robert. "The Truth about Jefferson." Wall Street Journal 3 July 2001.