Now that DNA evidence conclusively proves the third U.S. president
fathered the child of a slave, scholars weigh in on what it means for
the discipline of American History
It came as little surprise to law professor Annette Gordon-Reed
that DNA testing conclusively proved that Thomas Jefferson fathered a
child by Sally Hemings, a slave woman he owned.
“I was ninety-eight percent sure the test would reveal the connection,” the New York Law School professor said.
Before the scientific testing had gotten underway, Gordon-Reed, a
legal scholar and an authority on Jefferson, had already written that
the 200-year debate would require nothing short of hard scientific
evidence to prove that the nation’s third president had a sexual
relationship with a slave.
“I suspect that if [verifying the story] is ever done, it will be
the result of the miracles of modern science and all the wonders of DNA
research, and not because of any interpretation of documents and
statements,” Gordon-Reed wrote in her 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
Last month, a scientific experiment conducted by a retired
University of Virginia medical school professor showed that Jefferson
had fathered Eston Hemings, the youngest son of the seven children born
to Sally Hemings. Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired pathology professor,
established a similar or exact male chromosome link between a living
descendant of Field Jefferson, the former president’s uncle, and John
Weeks Jefferson, a living descendant of Eston Hemings. A link between
the Field Jefferson line, however, was not established with the living
male descendants of Thomas Woodson, the first child of Sally Hemings.
The test applied to males descending from their direct line of male
Nonetheless, the DNA evidence coupled with the historical evidence
known about Hemings’s descendants is leading the academic community to
accept the argument that Jefferson had a long-term relationship with
Hemings, fathering possibly all seven of the children born to her.
Black scholars, like Gordon-Reed, say the DNA testing only
confirmed what they had believed all along — that Jefferson had a
relationship with Hemings. For Black scholars, the statements by
descendants of Sally Hemings, the oral histories of the families
descended from her, and other historical evidence supporting the claims
of the controversial relationship had already proved conclusive enough.
“A fairly convincing case had been made supporting the arguments
that Jefferson and Hemings had a long-standing relationship,” said Dr.
Gerald Gill, a professor of history at Tufts University.
Black scholars have been annoyed by the arguments that White
scholars have deployed to defend Jefferson against the relationship
charges. For generations, the nation’s leading scholars on Jefferson
ardently maintained that the third U.S. president had no sexual liaison
with Sally Hemings. These White male scholars placed little weight on
the written and oral accounts by the Black descendants of Hemings.
The relationship charge, initially brought forth by a disgruntled
political job-seeker in 1802, placed Jefferson under a cloud of
suspicion that his defenders strenuously fought from the time of his
presidency until now. Contemporary Jefferson defenders have included
now-deceased historians Dumas Maloone, Douglas Adair, and Virginius
Dabney, and John C. Miller.
In 1974, these scholars took particular exception to Thomas
Jefferson: An Intimate History, a book written by the late Dr. Fawn
Brodie and published the same year, which argued that a long-lasting
love affair had developed between Jefferson and Hemings.
“It was not their role to take sides,” Gordon-Reed said of the
Jefferson scholars who denied the Hemings relationship. “And no one
really challenged them on their disregard for the evidence.”
Gordon-Reed said that in their rebuttals, Jefferson defenders used
language that denied the humanity of Sally Hemings and gave less
credence to the stories told by her descendants than to Jefferson’s
In The New York Times in early November, Gordon-Reed wrote that a
memoir written by one of Sally Hemings’s sons failed to merit their
attention because “in the eyes of many historians, [Madison] Hemings’s
race and status as a former slave made him unfit and possibly
unreliable contributor to our understanding of our past.”
A few years ago, the anti-affair arguments put forth by prominent
scholars and their disregard of the historical evidence motivated
Gordon-Reed, who is an associate professor at New York Law School, to
write a book that evaluated how historians had treated the evidence.
Last year, Gordon-Reed’s book found a receptive audience among many
historians, according to her, but it attracted criticism from scholars
who continued to deny the Hemings relationship. In a 1997 New York
Times article, Dr. Joseph J. Ellis, whose American Sphinx: The
Character of Thomas Jefferson won a National Book Award that year,
characterized Gordon-Reed’s book as one that played the “race card” in
presenting evidence about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship.
Gordon-Reed, who was stunned by the characterization, said Ellis later
apologized to her.
Dr. Rhonda Williams, a Black historian at Case Western Reserve
University, said the Jefferson discovery is important because it will
enable historians who have held the conservative view of Jefferson and
the founding fathers to move forward with a more accurate understanding
“They can reassess their work,” said Williams, who added that some
scholars have treated slavery as a deviation rather than as central to
the nation’s development.
Williams also said that scholars who have already contested
traditional theories and versions of American history will continue
“working toward that goal.”
Gordon-Reed said she believes the Jefferson revelations will lead
to scholarship that pays more attention to the relationship between
Jefferson and his slaves. She says historians won’t be able to write
that he had no sons when it appears that “he had three.”
“Adding children to one’s biography is a major thing. This is a big deal,” she said.
Gill said he believes the DNA revelation has some potential for
fostering a franker and more honest discussion of race in America. He
said the DNA discovery would have likely weakened the resistance Dr.
John Hope Franklin encountered in getting the president’s dialogue on
race to focus on slavery’s legacy had it been known at the time.
“I hope that we [can] have a new conversation on race,” Gill said.
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