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Films >> Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000) >>

A note about the historical context:

Usually we'd have an historical context essay and a bibliography here. But we have a full project on the "Jefferson-Hemings Controversy" on our companion History on Trial web site at See that site for the "real" story behind this film and an extensive collection of sources.

Print Resources

Adair, Douglass. "The Jefferson Scandals." Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair. Ed. Trevor Colbourn. New York: Norton, 1974.
Adair is a prime example of a historian who refused to believe in a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. For Adair, for instance, Maria Cosway was "delectable," Sally Hemings was a "markedly immature, semi-educated, teen-age virgin . . . a mere child," and thus the idea of a relationship was absurd, not to mention "completely at variance with Jefferson's known character." While Cosway is a major figure in the earlier Jefferson in Paris film, she barely exists here.
Brodie, Fawn. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Norton, 1974.
After a long, long line of official denials, Brodie's "psycho-history" of Jefferson opened the door to accepting a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings by accepting the account by Madison Hemings of a connection between them that began in Paris. "If the story of the Sally Hemings liaison be true, as I believe it is," Brodie writes, "it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, as the Federalists and later the abolitionists insisted, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years. It also brought suffering, shame, and even political paralysis in regard to Jefferson's agitation for emancipation." Brodie's ground-breaking biography opened the door to the kind of interpretation that Andrews gives to the relationship.
Foster, Eugene, et al. "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." Nature 5 November 1998: 27-28.
This is the blockbuster report on the DNA studies that for all intents and purposes made Jefferson the father of all Hemings's children in the popular mind. The first paragraph of the reports reads: "There is a long-standing historical controversy over the question of US President Thomas Jefferson's paternity of the children of Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. To throw some scientific light on the dispute, we have compared Y-chromosomal DNA haplotypes from male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, a paternal uncle of Thomas Jefferson, with those of male-line descendants of Thomas Woodson, Sally Hemings' putative first son, and of Eston Hemings Jefferson, her last son. The molecular findings fail to support the belief that Thomas Jefferson was Thomas Woodson's father, but provide evidence that he was the biological father of Eston Hemings Jefferson."
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1997.
The first edition of this classic study appeared the year before the DNA findings. African American lawyer-historian Gordon-Reed set out to examine the ways in which previous generations of white historians had denied the possibility that Jefferson had a relationship with Hemings. In a post DNA edition she framed the situation this way: "The treatment of the story well into modern times is evidence of the continuing grip that the doctrine of white supremacy has on American society. The historiography displays carelessness with the lives of enslaved men and women, disrespect of 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."
Gordon-Reed, Annette. "Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?" American Heritage 58.5 (2008): 14-17.
Perhaps the foremost authority on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship tackles the question on everybody's mind and concludes: "The most that can be said is that Hemings and Jefferson lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Jefferson kept his promises to Hemings, and their offspring got a four-decade head start on emancipation, making the most of it by leading prosperous and stable lives. That, I think, is about as much as one can expect from love in the context of life during American slavery."
Lander, Eric S., and Joseph J. Ellis. "Founding Father." Nature 5 November 1998: 13-14.
Eminent historian Ellis had been a non-believer in a Jefferson-Hemings relationship, but here in the lead article of the very issue of Nature in which the DNA findings are announced, Ellis reveals his conversion. "The longest running mini-series in American history," now seems resolved. Recognizing that science sheds no light on "the character of the relationship" and that the findings will have political ramifications in the "upcoming impeachment hearings on William Jefferson Clinton's sexual indiscretions," Lander and Ellis remind us that "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."

Video/Audio Resources

Africans in America
Web site for the PBS series -- useful for background and overview on the racial situation in America, especially in the early period.
Jefferson's Blood PBS Frontline documentary, 1999.
Shelby Steele pieces together the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, but, in this post-DNA period, focuses on the couple's modern-day descendants, many of whom are still attempting to find their place along America's blurred color line. "[Jefferson] spawned two lines of descendants--one legitimate, one not," Steele says, "And this bastardized part of his family would be driven by a sense of incompleteness."

Online Resources

Jefferson's Blood. PBS.
Companion web site for the 1999 PBS Frontline documentary. Rich collection of clips from the film, video interviews with scholars and parties to the controversy, essays on a variety of issues, and original documents.
Jefferson, Thomas. "Laws" (Query XIV). Notes on the State of Virginia.
The troublesome chapter from Jefferson's only book that contains (starting at p. 264 in this text) highly negative descriptions of African Americans that have been called racist and posited as reasons why Jefferson would never have had a sexual relationship with a slave.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence.
The famous lines "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" are simultaneously the source of American ideals and the source of the animus against Jefferson for a relationship with a slave.
The Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission Report on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter
After the DNA findings "convicted" Jefferson in the public mind of a relationship with Hemings, and after a panel convened by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation affirmed those findings, a group of dissenting scholars reviewed the evidence and agreed unanimously that "the allegation is by no means proven."
Web site of Jefferson's home and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, curators and caretakers of Jefferson's heritage and reputation. Lots of informational material about the place and life there.
Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
The committee of scholars put together by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation basically affirmed the DNA findings and popular perception that Jefferson and Hemings were long-time lovers: "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."
Thomas Jefferson -- Sally Hemings -- DNA Study
This web site by Harold Barger, Jefferson Family Historian, refutes the DNA and Thomas Jefferson Foundation studies that link Jefferson and Hemings: "These resolutions and conclusions are based on subjective and incomplete historical information. This web site was created to provide the misinformed public with the other side of the story and to highlight information that tends to exonerate Thomas Jefferson of these allegations."