Founder's DNA revisited

Culture | But the media ignore evidence showing Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton are not so similar

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Did Thomas Jefferson have a child with his slave, Sally Hemings? The centuries-old controversy seemed to have been resolved by today's genetic science, when researchers matched the DNA of Ms. Hemings's descendants with that of Jefferson's. Apparently, an American founder, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, used his unpaid, subservient help sexually-not unlike William Jefferson Clinton, who was also nailed by DNA evidence. The headlines proclaimed the findings, pundits discussed whether Jefferson's failings negated his legacy, and historians who had earlier defended him from the charges now conceded the point (see WORLD, Nov. 21, 1998). But now the original researchers are saying that they did not, in fact, prove that Jefferson fathered Ms. Hemings's child. Responding to letters in the scientific journal Nature, which originally published their findings, the lead author Eugene Foster emphasized that their research only proved that the Hemings child was descended from someone in the Jefferson family. There is no way to establish the specific father or to demonstrate conclusively that he was Thomas Jefferson. As explained to WORLD by Mary Korte, biology professor at Concordia University-Wisconsin, the research isolated certain DNA sequences on the Y chromosome, which establishes the male sex. But all of the males in the Jefferson family had essentially the same Y chromosome. According to the genetic evidence, the father could have been Jefferson. Or it could have been his brother Randolph. Or one of Randolph's sons. Or, presumably, his uncle Field, or his son George or one of his sons. One of the ugliest moral degradations of slavery was sexual sin, compounded by the enslavement and selling of one's own illegitimate children. Any of these men had access to Monticello and could have been culpable. Defenders of Jefferson often conceded the point that Ms. Heming had children from a white man, probably a Jefferson, since the family resemblance was too close to deny. But it had been assumed by the Jefferson family that this strain came from the president's sister's family, his nephews Peter or Samuel Carr, who lived at Monticello at the time. The DNA research originally began to clear up the question about the Carr family (who turned out to be no relation to the Hemings clan). Though speculation had long centered on Ms. Hemings's first child, named, it was thought significantly, Thomas, the DNA evidence did show that he was no Jefferson. The child who scored the match was Eston, Ms. Hemings's fifth child. The Sage of Monticello was 65 years old when he was born. In a letter to Nature, Herbert Barger, the husband of a Jefferson descendant who helped with the research, argued that the most plausible father was the president's brother, Randolph. Another likely candidate was Randolph's son, Isham, who spent his adolescence at Monticello. As Eliot Marshall reports in Science (Jan. 8, 1999), though this tentativeness of identification was evident in the article's data, Nature packaged the story as a proof of Jefferson's paternity. The headline to Mr. Foster's article read, "Jefferson fathered slave's last child." A heading read, "Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children." An accompanying essay by Jefferson scholar Joseph Ellis presented the case as closed. Now Nature is apologizing for the misleading spin. The editors were supposedly in a hurry to forestall the popular press, which had learned of the research, and so made some mistakes of presentation. "The whole thing really was rushed through," said Rosalind Cotter of Nature to Mr. Marshall. What was the hurry? Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media points out the "impeccable timing" of the article, which came out just before last November's election. Our embattled president, linked by genetic evidence to sex with an intern, was doing no more than what the great Thomas Jefferson did. President Clinton and his actions could thus be associated with not only a fellow president, but a Mt. Rushmore president. And, in fact, sympathetic pundits made the point that if Jefferson could be a great president, despite his moral failing, why shouldn't we cut President Clinton some slack? Usually, the rumor that Jefferson had a child with a slave (first raised by his political enemies in his own time) has been used by radical historians to portray him as a hypocrite. Here is the author of the phrase "all men are created equal" not only owning slaves, but exploiting them sexually. Thus, the founders were good at egalitarian rhetoric, but were really only interested in establishing America as a racist, sexist, patriarchal playground for rich men of the upper class. But this anti-American critique was strangely missing in the face of this alleged "proof." Nearly all accounts presented Jefferson's supposed affair with his slave sympathetically, even, as in the mostly made-up movie Jefferson in Paris, as a love story that his society just could not understand. The story was spun so that Jefferson, though seemingly caught in an unseemly act, would likely become-like his presidential successor-even more popular. But now that we know that the scientific study did not prove what people were saying it did, another question presents itself: Why hasn't this semi-retraction in Nature and the story on the controversy in Science, both of which appeared in the beginning of January, been picked up by the mainstream media? Both publications are standard news sources. Why haven't these second thoughts been covered, particularly by the publications that reported Jefferson's paternity as fact? As the once-aggressive press has turned ever more protective during the impeachment hearings, the media are failing to present the evidence that maybe Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson may not have been so much alike after all. Again, defective scholarship is difficult to recall. Jumping to conclusions on the basis of a misunderstanding of scientific data is not uncommon. But even ostensibly objective scientific journals and mainstream reporters are not exempt from political bias. When the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that purportedly showed that most Americans agreed that what the president and Monica Lewinsky did "was not really sex," the editor was fired. His board ruled that a scientific forum should not appear to be at the service of the Democratic party line. But the intellectual establishment supports President Clinton and feels no qualms about knocking the Founding Fathers off their pedestals. Maybe Thomas Jefferson-who when listing which of the Ten Commandments to be followed left out the one on adultery-was the father of young Eston. We still do not know. But it surely distorts history to look at the giants who once walked the earth through the reduction lens of our current leadership.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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