How many people have heard that Mr. Jefferson fathered children by a slave girl he owned? How many have heard of James Callender? Sally Hemings? Maria Reynolds?
It all started with James Thomson Callender, an impecunious and disreputable journalist, a drunkard, and an unprincipled blackmailer.1 Disappointed in his application to President Jefferson for the job of Postmaster for Richmond, and the money it would bring, he began to attack his former benefactor. He wrote in the Richmond Recorder:
“It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally.”2 Callender claimed that she had a son named Tom, who strikingly resembled the President, and that the “wench” had borne Jefferson several other children.”3
This character assassination of the new Republican President delighted the defeated Federalists and their editors piled on with glee. Here’s a sample of dusky Sally doggerel:
Of all the damsels on the green, on mountain or in valley,
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen, as Monticellian Sally.
Yankee doodle, who’s the noodle? What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock, a blackamoor’s the dandy. 4
The Jefferson family did not want to talk about the vicious rumor. Many years later, Mr. Jefferson’s grandson cast blame on the nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr, who were the children of Mr. Jefferson’s sister, Martha. His granddaughter suggested Mr. Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, who was known to habitually carouse with the slaves on Mulberry Row. Mr. Jefferson, himself, would not dignify the slander with a response at the time, but later denied it in his July 1, 1805 letter to his then Secretary of Navy, Robert Smith.
But seventy years later, it was stirred up again by the oral testimony of Madison Hemings when the Pike County Republican (Ohio) newspaper reported on March 13, 1873:
“In Paris my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home, she was enceinte by him. Soon after their arrival [back in Virginia] she gave birth to a child of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. She gave birth to four others and Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of them.”
Well, not everybody was disposed to take the word of an aged man possibly looking for self-aggrandizement, so the controversy died down again.
In time, it was dealt with in a scholarly and exhaustively researched way by Dumas Malone in 1970. For more than 40 years, Professor Malone made Thomas Jefferson his life’s work. Malone’s six-volume Jefferson biography remains a most majestic and comprehensive source on Jefferson’s life. He writes in Volume Four:
“They [the slanders] cannot be proved and certain of the alleged facts were obviously erroneous. They are distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson’s moral standards and habitual conduct. To say this is not to claim that he was a plaster saint and incapable of moral lapses. But his major weaknesses were not of this sort; and while he might have occasionally fallen from grace, as so many men have done so often, it is virtually inconceivable for this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife’s memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on the excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect. It would be as absurd as to charge this consistently temperate man with being, through a long period, a secret drunkard.” 5
But, shortly thereafter, the nasty rumor sprang up again. Fawn M. Brodie, in her sensational book of 1974, “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History” wrote:
“If the story of the Sally Hemings liaison be true, as I believe it is, it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, …but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty eight years.” 6
Her approach was to psychoanalyze Jefferson through his letters to get at his hidden passions. It is interesting to note that she has degrees only in English and taught history at UCLA, not psychology for which she has no apparent credential. It is also revealing for her inner passion that she refers to herself in her own Foreword as a “scandalmonger.”7 But apparently, people like scandal and her book was a bestseller and a basis for further attack.
In 1997, “relying heavily on Brodies’s scholarship, Professor Annette Gordon Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings using her legal training to make a more compelling case that it was “possible” Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began a sexual relationship while in Paris.8
Later, Professor Gordon-Reed wrote a new book, The Hemingses of Monticello, that simply assumed that the paternity of all of Sally’s children had been proven and went on to tell the story of those children and their descendants.” 9 Her new book received virtually every award for which they might have been eligible, including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History, the National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal from the President of the US, a half-million dollar “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Harvard University appointed her to three professorships, including in law and history.10
In 1998, it was possible to read in the newspapers that DNA tests reported in the prestigious science journal, Nature, had confirmed that President Jefferson had fathered at least Sally’s youngest child, Eston; and that the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation agreed.11
Then, using Monte-Carlo statistical analysis and a Bayesian argument, Fraser Neiman, a member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation panel of experts, published a 2000 study to show that it was next to impossible that anyone other than Jefferson fathered each of Heming’s children. Due to unfamiliarity with Monte-Carlo statistical analysis and Bayesian induction, many scholars and media, assuming anything mathematical must be decisive, took this to be the final nail in Jefferson’s coffin.12
But gradually the pendulum began to swing back toward Mr. Jefferson’s innocence. Unhappily, it is swinging slowly, in the public mind, as the mainstream media is loath to publish news which contradicts its current ‘politically correct’ way of thinking. But it definitely is swinging, as the following demonstrates.
In 2001 came The Report of the Commission of Independent Scholars. The public was not satisfied with, and a little uneasy about, the excesses of the pro-paternity parade. So these thirteen highly qualified, nationally prominent Jefferson Scholars were selected and convened to review the question in an assuredly disinterested manner. They came to a startling conclusion. “They thought it likely that Jefferson did not father any of Hemings’s children”13 and with one exception, “our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly untrue.” 14 Twelve of thirteen independent votes for “not guilty” are overwhelmingly short of being convicted ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’
With the Commission’s help, the world began to understand the truth. The actual final report of the DNA concluded that one of the more than two dozen Jefferson men known to have been in Virginia at the time of Eston Hemings’s conception was almost certainly Eston’s father. Based on the scientific evidence alone, the probability that Estons’s father was President Jefferson was about 4 percent. The oral tradition passed down by generations of Eston Hemings’s descendants was that he was not the child of President Jefferson, but rather of an “uncle.” So Randolph is the only potential father who fits all of the evidence. 15
In 2005, Cynthia Harris Burton writes a book the title of which says it all: Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search. 16
Now for the coupe de grace to the nasty rumor: Dr. M. Andrew Holowchak’s Framing a Legend comes out in 2013.17 He brings impressive credentials with “five academic degrees in psychology, philosophy, and the history and philosophy of science with which he has taught and/or authored books about logic, critical reasoning, ethics, ancient philosophy, psychoanalysis, Freud and Thomas Jefferson.” 18 In it he cautions “not so fast.” “He examines the claims by Professor Gordon-Reed, and several other prominent scholars in the pro-paternity camp, and he painstakingly reveals error after error. He draws upon his knowledge of ancient and modern Greek, Latin, ancient history and philosophy, and logic to expose careless scholarship and, to put it in his words, “shoddy reasoning.” Then he goes further. “The reason for her selective approach to history….is clear. Gordon-Reed, a black woman herself, has a social, not a historical agenda – namely, to change the way blacks are viewed by historians.”19 In his words, “racial bias abounds in her work.” 20
Brodie, a UCLA professor during the iconoclastic 1970’s, according to John C. Miller in the “Wolf by the Ears,” 21 is guilty of piling “implausibility upon implausibility.” Clifford Egan writes, in the Social Science Journal a piece entitled “How Not to Write a Biography: A Critical look at Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson,” “to Brodie’s factual errors, contradictions and cavalier use of evidence must be added another sin – the injection of contemporary issues into evaluating the past.” 22 Dr. Holowchak reveals Brody’s bias by showing how she made up what she needed but didn’t find, and ignored what she found that didn’t support her thesis. Her bias seems to be gender, as she criticizes all the prior male historians as protectionist. All in all, her work now has been discredited completely by serious scholars.
Regarding the mathematical proof, Dr. Holowchak exposes it to be a clear example of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ or to use his word, “humbug.” 23
The written testimony of Madison Hemings is examined in light of his meager education and found to leave “little reason to doubt that the account was written down with political bias by Samuel Wettmore, the editor of the paper, a publication with political motives that were anti-Jefferson” 24 It is highly doubtful that the slave Madison Hemings ever knew the word “enceinte” or even “concubine.”
So, in summary, Dr. Holowchak reviews in great detail and depth the case for and against Jefferson’s fathering any children by his slave, Sally Hemings. In his compelling book, Dr. Holowchak “unframes” Jefferson by exonerating him by reviewing and examining all the evidence and exposing the immorality of agenda-driven scholarship. It is a refreshing accomplishment in this day of liberal insistence on ‘politically correct’ thought, enforced by media and biased academic punishment.
Of course, all during this raging controversy, one never hears about Maria Reynolds. She is the married woman who had an illicit three-year affair with Alexander Hamilton, for which he publically apologized, ending any hope of denial as to the truth of that enduring sin. 25 Is salacious gossip really that more interesting than salacious fact?
It is fitting that Dumas Malone should be allowed the final words in this matter. The professor put the matter into perspective by placing it into the larger context:
“Miscegenation was [only] a legend in his [Jefferson’s] case, but its existence in the plantation households he knew best was an undeniable fact. He was a victim of the slave system he abhorred, though not in the way his political enemies asserted at the time, or that certain moral and social reformers claimed afterwards” 26
1. Holowchak, Dr. M. Andrew. Framing a Legend Prometheus Books (Amherst NY 2013) p. 69
2. Callender, James. “The President Again” The Recorder Richmond, VA Sept. 1802 p. 1
3. Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President Little, Brown & Co. (Boston 1970) Vol. 4 p. 212
4. Brodie, Fawn. “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: W.W. Norton 1974) p. 472
5. Malone. Vol. 4, p. 214
6. Brodie. “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History p. 17
7. Ibid. p. xiii
8. Holowchak Framing a Legend p. 14
9. Robert F. Turner, Chairman, Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission. Foreword to Holowchak Framing a Legend p. 15
10. Ibid. p. 15-16
11. Holowchak Framing a Legend p. 21
12. Ibid. p. 21
13. Ibid. p. 245
14. Ibid. p. 246
15. Turner Foreword to Holowchak Framing a Legend. p. 10-11
16. Ibid. p. 11
17. Holowchak, Dr. M. Andrew. Framing a Legend Prometheus Books (Amherst NY 2013)
18. Turner Foreword to Holowchak Framing a Legend. p. 11
19. Ibid. p. 16
20. Holowchak Framing a Legend. p. 119
21. Ibid. p. 55-56
22. Ibid p. 56
23. Ibid. p. 188
24. Ibid p. 45
25. Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, The Penguin Press (New York NY 2004) p. 364
26. Malone. Vol. 4, p. 498
About the Author: Mr. John M. Stewart is the Chaplain of the St. Petersburg Chapter of the SAR, and a former President of both that Chapter and the Palm Beach Chapter. He has studied, lectured about, and impersonated Thomas Jefferson before appreciative audiences for decades. He is a 1965 graduate of the University of Virginia.
Copyrighted (c) 2017. John Stewart. All Rights Reserved