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The Courage to Resist

Samantha Gerstein

[1] The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings has been the subject of a longstanding debate among scholars. On October 31, 1998, a DNA study released by Dr. Eugene Foster et al. in the journal Nature compared nineteen genetic markers on the Y chromosomes of fourteen subjects: five male-line descendants of two sons of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's paternal uncle), three male-line descendants of three sons of John Carr (grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr), five male-line descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson, and one male-line descendant of Eston Hemings. Dr. Foster states that, based on his findings, the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings have identical Y-chromosome haplotypes (the particular combination of variants at defined loci on the chromosome). Supposedly, there is less than a 1 percent probability that this is due to chance. This study by itself did not establish that Eston Hemings's father was Thomas Jefferson, only that Hemings's father was a Jefferson.

[2] The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) embraced this study in a letter dated January 26, 2000, by its president at that time, Daniel P. Jordan. Jordan wrote that his appointed staff research committee, consisting of four PhD's and an MD, concluded: "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. "

[3] The conclusions of the TJMF committee are summarized on their website and were based on the examination of the then currently available primary and secondary documentary evidence, the oral histories of descendants of Monticello's African-American community, recent scientific studies, and the guidance of individual members of Monticello's Advisory Committee for the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation. The following points were stressed:

1) Dr. Foster's DNA study was conducted in a manner that meets the standards of the scientific community, and its scientific results are valid.
2) The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children appearing in Jefferson's records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.
3) Many aspects of this likely relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are, and may remain, unclear, such as the nature of the relationship, the existence and longevity of Sally Hemings's first child, and the identity of Thomas C. Woodson.
4) The implications of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson should be explored and used to enrich the understanding and interpretation of Jefferson and the entire Monticello community.

[4] However, these views were not accepted by all Jeffersonian scholars. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (The Heritage Society, or TJHS) was formed in 2000 by a group of concerned businessmen and women, historians, genealogists, scientists, and patriots to perform and sponsor research in matters pertaining to the private and public life of Thomas Jefferson. The Scholars Commission, composed of thirteen members, was charged in 2001 by the TJHS to study the Jefferson-Hemings issue. The specific mission of The Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Issue was to make an informed judgment on the evidence that was currently available on whether Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings's children. Its mission was not to prove the possible paternity of Sally Hemings's children by Thomas Jefferson but rather to render a judgment on its likelihood after carefully examining all of the available evidence in accordance with customary standards and weight of evidence. The Scholars Commission was encouraged to pursue truth and publicly released an independent, thorough, logical, and compelling report in 2001. After the Scholars Commission completed its work, it went out of existence. Its conclusions were in stark contrast to the earlier TJMF stance.

[5] Each of the members of The Scholars Commission separately concluded that:

1) The Jefferson-Hemings allegation was by no means proven, and except for one dissenter, the members' individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.

2) And the original DNA report indicated only that a Jefferson male had fathered one of Sally Hemings' children--the available DNA could not specify Thomas Jefferson as the father.

Even its one dissenting member, Professor Paul Rahe, admitted in his minority report that although he believed "that it was somewhat more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings," he was forced to concede to the majority that the DNA evidence did not conclusively prove this, and, in fact, Jefferson's younger brother or any of his sons could have been Eston's father.

[6] Professor David N. Mayer, a well-known and prominent Jeffersonian scholar who also served as a member of the Scholars Commission, raised an intriguing question. He wondered why the political and historical community had basically either misinterpreted or disregarded the DNA evidence, which does not conclusively prove that Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings. On April 9, 2001, he published 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. His paper is the only full report available that conveys the in-depth views of this committee and attempts to answer his own question as to why the DNA evidence has been misinterpreted. Mayer praises Jefferson: his "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." Mayer also insists that "The attributes of Jefferson the man -- his character and the circumstances of his life -- are essentially irrelevant to that legacy."

[7] As stated earlier, the Scholars Commission concluded that Jefferson did not have an affair with Hemings nor does the DNA evidence prove he fathered one or more children by Sally Hemings. 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, not only by the American general public but also by scholars who should know better. Mayer insists "the role of historians [is] 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." Mayer focuses on six major topics including evolution of the myth, myth vs. history, oral tradition as unreliable evidence, the broader context of the myth today, the assault on standards, the flawed case for the Jefferson-Hemings story, and the implausibility of the story. The section entitled "Broader Context of the Myth Today: The Assault on Standards" gives the most insight as to the reasons why Mayer feels that the DNA evidence has been misinterpreted.

[8] Mayer expresses in this section that the rise of three associated phenomena in higher education -- the "political correctness" movement, multiculturalism, and post-modernism -- all help to clarify the reason why the Jefferson-Hemings myth has become so willingly "accepted today, not only by the American general public but also by scholars who should know better." The term political correctness was created in the early 1990s, in the heart of a "controversy over perceived threats to academic freedom on America's college and university campuses." The most imperative aspect of the "politically correct" movement has been its stress on "race/class/gender-ism." This emphasis illustrates that culture and language pervade everyone's existence in a concealed way. As a result, the assumption is that all aspects of American culture are subjugated by the culture and language of European white males.

[9] In its conflict with this supposed authority, the politically correct movement overlaps with multiculturalism and postmodernism. Multiculturalism started as a movement for variety in education by calling attention to the experiences of women, blacks, American Indians, immigrants, and members of other groups whose stories largely had been neglected in textbooks. What began as a movement on behalf of diversity and cultural pluralism, however, devolved into a "particularist" movement that, for example, fostered Afrocentrism. Mayer argues that when a supporter of political correctness or extreme multiculturalism contests the culture of rationalism and humanism, they also ally themselves with the "post-modern" movement. By definition, "postmodernist theory attempts to expose the fundamental subjectivity and indeterminacy of everything we assume we know." Postmodernism is also referred to as a dismissal of conventional principles for determining facts, evaluating evidence, and interpreting events. According to postmodernists, the interpretation of history is without doubt "socially constructed."

[10] Postmodernists and fundamental multiculturalists regularly contend that white male culture has attained authority over other cultures through principles such as "rationalism, humanism, universality, and literary merit -- values that the multiculturalists claim are not objective but rather are tools for oppressing other people by persuading them of their own inferiority." The extent to which "radical multiculturalism and postmodernism have dominated the nation's two leading organizations of historians, the American History Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) has become a major concern of many historians. As a result, a politically diverse coalition of historians, ranging in their political views from conservative and libertarian to left-liberal -- all who share a concern for how radical multiculturalism and ‘identity politics' have been destroying the profession -- even have formed a new organization to compete with the AHA and the OAH, called The Historical Society (THS)."

[11] Mayer finally declares, then, that, in effect, history has become politicized in America today, as illustrated by the widespread acceptance of the Jefferson-Hemings myth as historical fact. Therefore, political correctness, multiculturalism, and post-modernism have created an environment in the academic world today in which scholars feel pressured to accept the Jefferson-Hemings myth as historical truth. White male scholars in particular fear that by questioning the myth -- by challenging the validity of the oral tradition "evidence" cited by some of the Hemings descendants -- they will be called racially "insensitive," if not racist. Questioning the validity of the Jefferson paternity claim has been equated with the denigration of African Americans and the denial of their rightful place in American history. Mayer therefore concludes that in this politicized climate of scholarly and public opinion, it requires great personal courage for scholars to question the Jefferson paternity thesis and to point out the dubious historical and scientific record on which it rests.

[12] Which is what the Scholars Commission appointed by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society did.