Phi Beta Cons

Jefferson and Hemings: Still Not Proven

Two new books about Thomas Jefferson are out, one fiction (Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings​ by Stephen O’Connor), one non-fiction (Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf), both of them assuming that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his wife, Martha, and a slave on his estate. Reviews and blurbs of the two new books indicate that reviewers and critics are also accepting this claim as true. But to my knowledge the scholarship on this matter is not settled.

Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reemade the most detailed scholarly case for the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings in her book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997). Her case seemed to be substantiated some time later when DNA testing revealed a match between descendants of a male Jefferson relative and a male descendent of Eston Hemings, one of Sally Hemings’s sons. But the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society commissioned a report in 2001, which, for various reasons, was not widely published until 2010, and which concluded that the case for Jefferson as father of Hemings’s children was not proved. There were other male Jefferson relatives who might have fathered the children. 

Herman Belz wrote about the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society commission report and Gordon Reed’s 1997 book in “The Legend of Sally Hemings,” Academic Questions, Summer 2012 (abstract available here http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ984427). Belz reports that in an addendum to the commission report, Forrest McDonald “indicated that as ‘an unreconstructed Hamiltonian Federalist,’ he was always disposed to think the worst of Thomas Jefferson, and assumed the allegations about a Jefferson-Hemings relationship were founded in fact. As a result of reading the evidence, he wrote, ‘I have entirely abandoned my earlier assumption. Thomas Jefferson was simply not guilty of the charge.’”

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