Don’t Let the Legend Become Fact

In a recent column, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams referred to the purported liaison between Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings, and his supposedly fathering six children with her, as if these were proven facts. This is far from so. The available evidence does not prove this conclusion. A forthcoming article in the Summer Academic Questions by Herman Belz, “The Legend of Sally Hemings,” analyzes the controversy in light of the book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, edited by Robert F. Turner, 2001, re-released in 2010. The unanimous conclusion of the scholars who examined the evidence for the sake of this report is that a sexual relationship between the two has not been proven. Cindy Adams’s casual, offhanded remark just shows the damage that can be done by faulty scholarship based on postmodern notions of relativism, identity politics, racial accusations, etc. Half-baked theories are accepted as historical fact by the general public. In this case the faulty scholarship began with Harvard-based law professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

A DNA connection has been claimed (and also disputed as inconclusive) between a male descendent of Sally Hemings’s last child and 25 male descendents of the Jefferson family. This does not prove a connection to Jefferson (his brother Randolph or one of Randolph’s five sons are likely possibilities), but the journal Nature irresponsibly presented the DNA information with the headline: ”Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.” In addition, the William and Mary Quarterly, the leading journal in the field of early American history, accepted the Jefferson paternity thesis following the DNA study, as did the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and many prominent historians, such as Joseph Ellis. As Belz notes, there was a rush to judgment in the media and the academy.

Belz’s piece is one of a set of pieces in the forthcoming AQ issue, highlighting academic “Frauds, Fallacies, Fads and Fictions.”

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