On January 25, the Washington Post ran an article by the author of a new book related to Thomas Jefferson with the headline “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter?”
In the first sentence, the author writes: “Many people know that Thomas Jefferson had a long-standing relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. But fewer know that they had four children, three boys and a girl, who survived to adulthood.”
None of this can be verified. No one knows whether Thomas Jefferson fathered even one child by Sally Hemings.
The confusion originated in part with 1998 DNA tests intended to settle the questions surrounding Jefferson and Hemings. Their findings were announced in the British journal Nature in an article with an erroneous headline that read: “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.”
The author of that article, pathologist Eugene Foster, apologized in an issue of Nature two months later, writing: “The title assigned to our study was misleading in that it represented only the simplest explanation of our molecular findings: namely, that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of the Carr brothers, was likely to have been the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson.”
But even this is not right.
The DNA tests only showed that “a Jefferson male” was the father of one of Sally Hemings’ children, Eston Hemings. There were at least eight male Jeffersons in the area at the time that Eston was conceived, and Jefferson was probably the least likely to have been the father.
Consider: there is no record of Sally Hemings ever telling anyone that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of her children. There is no record of anyone having seen anything, even the subtlest glance, pass between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
There is almost no evidence that Sally Hemings existed at all. In his thousands of letters and farm books where Jefferson kept accounts, there are only a handful of references to Hemings, all of them perfunctory—food distribution lists and the like.
Consider, too, that at the time Eston was conceived, Thomas Jefferson was 64 years of age and halfway through his second term as president of the United States. Ponder as well that his bedroom, on the main floor of the home at Monticello, opened to the center rooms of the house, which had as many as 50 overnight visitors at a time when Jefferson was president and spending time there. That meant Jefferson’s daughters, their husbands, and his grandchildren were usually staying at Monticello.
In an 1858 letter to her husband, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, wrote of the near-physical impossibility of any relations between her grandfather and Sally Hemings, saying, “His apartment had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze.”
We have fallen so far down the rabbit hole that all of this may be hard for the interested reader to believe. I didn’t believe it myself until I began to review the evidence, and was stunned to find that what I’d assumed had been a settled matter was anything but.
“It is shocking that anyone would say he fathered all the children,” Robert Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia, told me in a phone call recently. Turner chaired the Scholars Commission, a group of 13 professors from various colleges and universities who set out to review all of the evidence pertaining to Jefferson’s alleged paternity of the children of Sally Hemings. The Scholars Commission was organized by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which disagreed with the official keepers of the Jefferson flame at Monticello, who issued a report in 2000 saying that Jefferson was probably the father of the Hemings children.
The Monticello committee, Turner and other historians say, was an inside job, a group of Monticello-affiliated experts staffed by graduate students and chaired by a black history professor named Dianne Swann-Wright. Jefferson family genealogist Herbert Barger, who died last year, said it seemed from the start as though Thomas Jefferson was being targeted.
There were more likely culprits for the paternity of Eston Hemings, including Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s much-younger brother. Randolph was likely at Monticello at the time of Eston’s conception in August of 1807, as he’d been invited to come in a letter and was informed that his twin sister was there visiting already. There’s a good chance also that at least two of Randolph’s sons, who would have been 20 and 26, were there at least for part of that month. A cousin, George Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s commission agent in Richmond, Virginia, may also have been present.
Randolph, according to a Monticello slave, was “a mighty simple man, who used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” He was the antithesis of his older brother Thomas Jefferson, whom the great British historian Paul Johnson described as “priggish” and “censorious of bawdy jokes and bad language.” And Randolph was likely between wives in 1807.
Furthermore, the oral history points to Randolph or one of his sons. When contacted by the New York Times following the 1998 DNA tests, a descendant of Eston Hemings, Julia Jefferson Westerinen, said she always thought she was “related to Jefferson’s nephew.”
Other descendants told the media they had always thought or been told that they were related to an uncle or cousin of Jefferson’s. All of this was ignored in the rush to pin Thomas Jefferson to the wall.
The rumor about Sally Hemings was first circulated in 1802 by a reporter named James Callender, who admitted that he was determined to crush Jefferson’s re-election chances after Jefferson and his friends turned a cold shoulder to him.
The rumor was dismissed by serious historians for almost 200 years, and the core of Callender’s innuendo—that Jefferson fathered a boy named Tom, whose features were “said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to the president himself”—was proven wrong by the DNA testing on the descendants of Thomas Woodson, the supposed first child of Sally Hemings.
The Washington Post, the newspaper of record for America’s capital city, has stunk up the waters of journalism by syndicating the aforementioned article by Catherine Kerrison, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University. It should acknowledge that her new book states as fact things that have never been proven, and that are, in the minds of many people who have spent years studying the evidence, extremely dubious.
Margaret Menge has worked as a journalist for the last 14 years, including for the Miami Herald Company, UPI, and LifeZette. She has also been published in the Columbia Journalism Review, New York Observer, Civil War Book Review, and on Breitbart.com. She previously worked in Republican politics.