According to a survey conducted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 22 percent of American teenagers did not know it was England their country separated from during the Revolution (17 percent thought it was France); 15 percent did not know what happened on July 4, 1776; and 10 percent did not realize that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Though the Foundation did not ask about Thomas Jefferson, it would be a good bet that one of the few American history "facts" they did know-whether from their politically correct social studies classes, from Hollywood, or the media-is that Thomas Jefferson had children by his slave, Sally Hemings.
A charge first raised during Jefferson's lifetime by the notorious scandal-mongering journalist James Callender, it became in the hands of Hollywood a tender saga of interracial, cross-cultural love (Jefferson in Paris). Some writers saw hypocrisy, with the great exponent of "equality" proving to be a sexual abuser of a woman he considered to be his own property.
Recently, in a remarkable example of high-tech genetics at the service of historical research, DNA evidence seemed to clinch the issue: The descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest son, were found to have DNA in their genes from the Jefferson family. Television and newspapers reported the findings as definitive, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's children. Case closed.
But a new study concludes that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly did not father Hemings's children. Though published in April, this study by a commission of 12 scholars received almost no media attention, except for a column published on the eve of Independence Day in The Wall Street Journal by University of Virginia professor Robert Turner.
Of the 12 scholars participating, one expressed a mild dissent, maintaining that "we can never know." The others expressed "strong skepticism" about the charge of Jefferson's paternity or believed it to be "almost certainly false."
The commission noted that the DNA evidence proved conclusively that Jefferson was not the father of Thomas Woodson, Hemings's first son, who was the one Callender and others specifically charged Jefferson with fathering. No evidence was available about the lineage of Hemings's three daughters, two of which died in infancy, and two of her sons. But her youngest son, Eston, was found to have Jefferson DNA.
This could have come from more than two dozen men in the Jefferson family in and around Monticello. Though this would include Thomas Jefferson, at the time of Eston's conception he was 64, and the commission proposed another candidate, the president's brother, Randolph, 12 years younger, with a reputation-proven by documentary evidence-for consorting with the slaves at Monticello.
The scholars found a letter from Thomas inviting Randolph, who lived 20 miles away, to come for a visit, which would fall at exactly the time that Eston would have been conceived. Furthermore, Eston's descendants never claimed that their forebear was the son of the president. According to the family tradition, his father was not Thomas Jefferson, but "an uncle." The president's daughters and whole household knew his younger brother as "Uncle Randolph."
The new report is a model of close historical analysis, but in reading it we should remember that other scholars-indeed, other commissions-have come to different conclusions. What emerges from all the reports and counterreports, though, is a portrait of old Virginia society that is by no means flattering. Among the many evils of slavery was its occasion for sexual sin. Another was the monstrous offense of white men getting slaves pregnant, then enslaving their own children.
Apparently more than one white man exploited Sally Hemings, including Jefferson's nephews, the Carr brothers, who are twice recorded to have lamented how their bad behavior was hurting their uncle's reputation.
Sexual exploitation of slaves was a vice Thomas Jefferson hated. He was painfully conflicted over his conviction "that all men are created equal" vs. his economic dependence on slavery. But could he in this situation have written, as did the Apostle Paul in chapter seven of Romans, "What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do"? Christians, who know better than to idealize sinful human beings, realize this is a possibility. But in Jefferson's case, we still do not know for sure.