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The Hemings Family Reconstruction Project: An Overview

Listen to "An American Family" (15 minutes):

The sound you hear is the death rattle of the controversy that we often thought over the course of this miniseries would never die. Death feels near. Even stalwart relationship-resister David Barton admits that if you ask any adult today whether Jefferson fathered children with Hemings, the answer will likely be a "resounding 'Yes!'" With the combination and culmination of Annette Gordon-Reed's first book, the DNA results, and the Sally Hemings film, America by and large put the Jefferson-Hemings scandal to rest. This series of striking events from 1997 to 2000 for all intents and purposes cleansed any doubt about a Jefferson-Hemings relationship from the mainstream American consciousness. So what was next? Where did the story go post-post-DNA?

Now that there was no persistent need for ardent believers to argue the existence of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship -- though there are certainly still some vocal doubters itching for a fight, as we shall see -- the dominant "story line" of the controversy moves on to the nature of that relationship and even beyond that to the lives of the extended Hemings family itself. Annette Gordon-Reed is the pivotal figure. Her The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008) won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, as well as being instrumental in securing an ultra-prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. The story line also moves to the significance of that relationship outside the Jefferson and Hemings biographies to wider American culture, specifically to mixed-race American history, in Clarence Walker's Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (2009). In focusing on the work of Gordon-Reed and Walker here in our concluding episode, we are observing first-hand evidence of the significant new directions forecast in episodes 13 and 14 to arise out of the ashes of the official narrative torched by the DNA.

Gordon-Reed's book, as David Waldstreicher notes, is captivating and unique because it does not focus on Jefferson or even Sally but, instead, on the entire Hemings family. "The post-DNA takedowns of Jefferson shared something very significant with the old defenses," says Waldstreicher, "They showed no interest in the Hemingses themselves. They did not really consider slaves and the master as inhabiting the same house, much less the same histories. By refashioning the story as a family history with the Hemingses at the center, Gordon-Reed has found a way to make the most of the salient not-so-new fact: that Hemingses and Jeffersons were kin." Starting at the beginning with Sally's mother, Elizabeth Hemings, and ending with the troubling death of Jefferson and the subsequent sale and dispersion of his slaves to pay off his debt, Gordon-Reed traces a remarkable family history.

Of Sally's siblings, Gordon-Reed studies James in particular. James had a close relationship with Jefferson and was with him in Paris when the relationship with Sally first began. He learned to cook there, became Jefferson's chef at Monticello, and, after his manumission, still worked at Monticello for pay. James, however, ultimately committed suicide, and Joshua Rothman finds his story "arguably the most powerful" in the book. The haunting despair of a man who "lived an amazing and magnificent life," achieving "so much against tremendous odds," is "almost unbearably sad," and one wonders if the "tremendously talented, gutsy, and even brash" man, chafing under the pain of enslavement that even freedom couldn't heal, will be the subject of one of the inevitable fiction or film sequels to the controversy. The mammoth Hemingses of Monticello is only half the story, however, for Gordon-Reed is at work now (2013) on another volume following the family well into the latter part of the 19th century.

Even though this is a book about the "American Family" of Hemingses, it does contain an important core section in which Gordon-Reed takes a moment to "step away from the strict narrative . . . to analyze closely the world of the enigmatic enslaved woman whose name has gone down in history with Thomas Jefferson's." It is here in chapters 14-17 that she goes into exceptional depth on the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings from Sally's perspective. The first of these four chapters discusses what type of man Sally saw in Jefferson. The next outlines the nature of their sexual relationship and evaluates whether the relationship should be considered rape. The third chapter discusses why Sally would trust Jefferson and why she would return to Virginia with him. These three chapters build to the final one in the series, which evaluates the question of whether the two loved each other. As Rothman says in his thoughtful review, Gordon-Reed "never explicitly states that the Jefferson-Hemings association was consensual," but she takes such pains to stress Sally's "agency and individuality" that the reader loses sight "of those baseline issues of power and privilege." In the final analysis, Gordon-Reed's Sally is a woman bright and mature enough to assess whether she could trust the future of her children to the word of Gordon-Reed's Jefferson, who appears "more human" than the "bloodless icon of the American Pantheon," though "not necessarily more likeable."

Just when we thought that we could lay this controversy totally to rest, however, such critics as William Hyland (2009), Robert Turner (2011), and David Barton (2012) -- "a handful of vociferous deniers" in Jan Lewis's deft phrase (episode 14) -- have, among other tactics, exhumed Jefferson brother Randolph to fan the smoldering remains of the Parton narrative and to contest Gordon-Reed's dominant position. Turner chaired the thirteen-member 2000-2001 Scholars Commission convened by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society that found "the allegation [that Jefferson was the father of ‘one or more' of the Hemings children] is by no means proven," with individual member responses ranging, with one exception, from "serious skepticism" to "almost certainly untrue" (episode 13). The substantial report of this "blue ribbon" commission that finds Randolph and his four sons certainly "far more likely suspects" for the controversial paternity, though available for a time on the internet, had regrettably but understandably never been published in book form. Turner has not lost his fight over the decade, though, for he adds fifty pages of significant new polemical material on "reactions" to the Scholars Commission report in his "Editor's Postscript," vigorously engaging Gordon-Reed, Joseph Ellis, and others. Barton makes the Hemings connection the Number One lie about Jefferson, dismissing the DNA (no "smoking gun," but a "waterlogged pea shooter"), the oral testimonies of Madison Hemings and the Woodsons ("genuine scholars require verifiable documentation"), and James Thomson Callender's credibility ("ludicrous charges").

Of the three vociferous deniers, perhaps William Hyland emerges as the premier Jefferson defender redivivus, fighting a rearguard action against the conspiratorial "Charlottesville connection" of insiders associated with the "quiet revolution" occurring at Monticello -- Gordon-Reed, her sycophant Dianne Swann-Wright, and her friend, "new age professor" and "avatar of paternity proponents," Peter Onuf. In In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, Hyland attacks Gordon-Reed's person as well as her arguments. Her work, according to Hyland, is acidic in tone, flawed in argument, and she "has not only injected race into the controversy" but "she has played the race card 'from the bottom of the deck'." Gordon-Reed fails to offer "a shred of documentary evidence, eyewitness, footnote, or source to support her venal opinion."

In his "Final Argument," lawyer (as is Gordon-Reed) Hyland offers sixteen points to prove Jefferson's lack of involvement in the relationship, most of them out of the venerable Jefferson Establishment play book. This summation to the jury of public opinion is remarkable evidence itself of looking-glass impact. A perfunctory brush-off, an invocation of authority, and so forth -- strategies we have seen in the past -- will not do. At no other time in the controversy did Jefferson defenders feel compelled to produce such a concise yet comprehensive and specific account of their position. Hyland nails his theses to History's door. In particular and most notably, Hyland uses the "other man" defense, charging that it was someone else, not Thomas Jefferson, who participated in this affair. Since DNA cleared the Carr brothers of involvement in the relationship with Hemings, he pins the blame on Randolph as the likely "responsible man." Hyland also goes so far as to say that with Jefferson's many health problems, there was no physical way for him to have consummated the sexual relationship in later years. This is merely a sample of the many points Hyland makes in this climactic chapter.

It remains to be seen whether such things as the "Randolph defense" and the new full availability of the exhaustive thinking of the Scholars Commission (352 pages) will gain any traction. It remains to be seen whether repeated suggestions of professional incompetence made by each of these three deniers against Gordon-Reed (materially altering the key letter by Elizabeth Randolph Coolidge) and Ellis (lying about his personal experience to his students and colleagues) will undermine their current preeminent authority in the controversy.

Turner gives climactic emphasis in his "Postscript" to the deleterious impact of multiculturalism on education and scholarship, noting that "the legacy of Thomas Jefferson has been caught up . . . in a cultural war." Enter culture warrior Clarence Walker. Although some believe that America was built on a culturally white history, he says boldly, our history is in fact mixed: "at the moment of its creation the nation was not a white racial space but a mixed-race one, in which Jefferson and Hemings, as a mixed-race couple, rather than George and Martha Washington, should be considered the founding parents of the North American republic." Chew on that for a while, you vociferous deniers!

Walker spends the first half of his slim book analyzing the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings: as Sharon Block says, "He examines the categorization of the sexual interaction, the colonial mixed-race society in which it occurred, and how the participants might have viewed the relationship." In the second half Walker goes over the rationales that have been used to deny that there was a relationship. He indicts such strategies we are now familiar with like "the other man" defense and "the moral character" defense. Believing strongly that African American oral history has been discounted, he says that this is the reason for the "racial and sexual amnesia." And Walker ends with a ringing rationale for the significance of the liaison: "The continuing contretemps surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings reveals something about how some white Americans, both Southern and Northern, want to think about the past. What they seem to want is a 'color-blind' past in which both slavery and amalgamation/miscegenation are somehow erased, but, as Arthur Schlesinger says, 'a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.' This is why the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings affair needs to be affirmed rather than denied." Tellingly, "this project is about who owns history."


Although that scurrilous rogue James Thomson Callender may have been right about the scandal, America's perception of Sally Hemings now is drastically different from what it was in 1802, as described way back in episode 1. Who could have known that the woman the scandalmonger reviled as a "slut as common as the pavement" in 1802 would be elevated to mythic first lady of the country in 2009? Even if we are inclined to discount Walker's serious but no doubt consciously sensational proposition, there is likewise no doubt that, in the superbly succinct sound-bite phrasing of the encomium accompanying a Gordon-Reed award, "At last, Jefferson is a man with a body as well as a mind, and Hemings is a woman with a mind as well as a body." "All those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life," says Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, "and out of the shadow their eyes implore us." It feels no exaggeration to say that something like Sally's imploring eyes is what -- from William Wells Brown through Pearl Graham and Fawn Brodie and Barbara Chase-Riboud and Robert Cooley to Tina Andrews and Annette Gordon-Reed -- gave two hundred years of life to this controversy and eventually life to her. De profundis.

The reconstruction of Sally Hemings and the ever spunky Jefferson-Hemings family descended from her is (for now?) the terminus ad quem of this multi-part examination of the construction of history and the exposure of racist presumptions known as the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. When in 1997 Joseph Ellis tagged the Jefferson-Hemings controversy "the longest-running miniseries in American history," his intention was, no doubt, to make fun, to trivialize. After all, in the same year Ellis said of Gordon-Reed's first book, "I believe something of the race card is played here." He changed his mind. We see differently now. And thus we see plenty of lessons here. The controversy may be over -- may be over -- but study of it should persist. The Jefferson-Hemings controversy should be tied to our consciousnesses and consciences and dragged after us like Winthrop Jordan's dead cat (remember episode 6?) as a reminder that the stories we tell shape the lives that we live. History matters.