|THOMAS JEFFERSON'S LEGACY|
November 2, 1998
New scientific evidence indicates that Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, likely fathered a child with Sally Hemings, one his slaves. Margaret Warner and guests discuss the latest findings.
MARGARET WARNER: Thomas Jefferson is in the pantheon of American heroes - the country's third president, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of four presidents memorialized on Mount Rushmore. But for nearly 200 years, one question has dogged Jefferson's memory: Did he father several children by one of his slaves?
|The story of Sally Hemings|
The story had it that sometime after his wife Martha's death in 1782, Jefferson took as his mistress or concubine Sally Hemings, a slave who was also his wife's illegitimate half sister. Jefferson indirectly denied the allegations during his lifetime. Most leading Jefferson scholars Dumas Malone, author of a nine-volume work, and Joseph Ellis, author of "American Sphinx", discounted the story. Malone called it virtually inconceivable that Jefferson would have engaged in what he called a vulgar liaison with a slave. But according to an article in an upcoming issue of the journal "Nature," DNA analysis shows that Jefferson almost certainly fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children, her last son, Eston.
The analysis was spearheaded this year by Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired University of Virginia pathologist, who collected blood samples from known male descendants of Jefferson and of Hemings. Foster sent them to Europe for genetic analysis. Foster's study was based on the fact that markers on the Y chromosome are passed essentially unchanged from father to son. Since Jefferson had no sons who lived to adulthood, researchers used DNA from five male descendants of his father's brother, Jefferson's uncle, Field Jefferson. They also tested three descendants of Jefferson's nephews, whom some historians have suspected of fathering Hemings' children. Both sets of Jefferson family DNA were then compared to DNA taken from males descended from two of Sally Hemings' sons, oldest son, Thomas Woodson, whose family has long claimed to be descended from Jefferson, and youngest son, Eston Hemings. The geneticist found one match between the descendants of Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings.
MARGARET WARNER: The discovery has been front-page news across the nation. To tell us why and what it means we're joined by Joseph Ellis, an historian at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. His 1997 book, American Sphinx, The Character of Thomas Jefferson, won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Though his book last year cast doubt on the allegations, he co-authored the new article in Nature. Annette Gordon-Reed is law professor at a New York law school. Her book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, An American Controversy", was also published last year. She advocated taking the allegations more seriously. And Daniel Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, a private group that owns and manages Monticello, Jefferson's home outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Ellis, apparently, you've had a change of heart. Do you find this new evidence convincing?
JOSEPH ELLIS, Mount Holyoke College: It's not so much a change of heart, but this is really new evidence. And it - prior to this evidence, I think it was a very difficult case to know and circumstantial on both sides, and, in part, because I got it wrong, I think I want to step forward and say this new evidence constitutes, well, evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Jefferson had a longstanding sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Even though the match is only with one of the Hemings' descendants, Eston Hemings, it's inconceivable that Jefferson, who was 65 when Eston was born, would have made a one-night stand here. I think this is a longstanding relationship. When it began and what the character of the relationship is we probably can't know easily or at all. But it was, without question, an enduring one.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Annette Gordon-Reed, what does this discovery - how does this change our assessment, or should it change our assessment of Thomas Jefferson?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED, New York Law School: Well, it changes some aspects of our assessment. The notion that he was too cerebral or too interested in the life of the mind to be involved with a woman definitely has to be changed. The notion that he had sort of an almost physical phobia of blacks has to be changed. It just requires us to take a different look at the private life of Thomas Jefferson, and then its implications for society at large will also be something that will have to be reassessed.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Daniel Jordan, what would you add to that in terms of how this should change or expand our assessment of Thomas Jefferson?
DANIEL P. JORDAN, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation: I don't think over the long haul that it's going to have much effect on his overall standing. That's true, in part, because I think his major contributions are widely recognized. He was the principal author of the declaration. He was the author of the Virginia statute of religious freedom. He was the father of the University of Virginia. He was the catalyst for Lewis & Clark, and so on. In addition, I think Jefferson was right, the American people aren't stupid, and they know that their heroes are, in fact, human beings, with human frailties.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ellis, your view of how this should change our assessment of Thomas Jefferson.
JOSEPH ELLIS: I think Dan is right, that there's an awful lot about Jefferson and what we associate with him that's not going to be affected by this. I do think it complicates and intensifies our understanding of Jefferson and slavery. We always knew or we've known for some time that Jefferson is the symbol of the great American paradox; that is, he wrote the magic words of American history, the ones that begin: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." And he also held 200 slaves and could walk past the slave quarters at Monticello and feel no real disjunction. Now we also know that he was a person who resisted the notion that blacks and whites could ever live together in harmony and, in fact, said that he couldn't free his slaves, in part, because once freed, the kind of racial amalgamation that might occur was anathema. And yet, at the same time, he was engaged in a relationship with a black mulatto that was the very racial amalgamation that he claimed to abhor. It makes it a much more personal and intense picture.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Gordon-Reed, how do you square that circle in your own mind or as an historian?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it's something that we have to think about. I think some of the other parts of Jefferson's writings - I'm thinking particularly about his will - when he describes why the slaves whom he is freeing should be allowed to stay in Virginia - namely that that's where their families and their connections were - and then you look at his writings in the note to the state of Virginia and some of his letters to other people where he says that, as Joe notes, when blacks are freed - when all blacks are freed, they were to be sent somewhere else. So you think in his own personal life he couldn't bear the thought of or knew it was important to make slaves whom he freed stay in Virginia, but yet couldn't find any way to think that all blacks should have a place in the American society. So it's a difficult thing to reconcile, but it's something that we can start on now, now that we can get this notion or this question of did he or didn't he behind us and focus on more important issues.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan Jordan, do you think these contradictions - this new discovery makes those contradictions harder to explain or easier to explain?
DANIEL P. JORDAN: Well, I think it reminds us of just how vicious and abominable and yet complex slavery, in fact, was. And perhaps through this new chapter in the story of Jefferson, we'll be able to relate to it in a more human manner. And many particulars, I think, this is an American story, and I think that we can learn from it. Certainly anything that causes us to think more about slavery and race and Jefferson is to the good.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Ms. Gordon-Reed?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. I think the moral of this story is the thing this shows very clearly, is that we're not two separate people, black and white; we are a people who share a common culture, a common land, and it turns out a common blood line, and this is something that we haven't wanted to deal with openly. And talking about Jefferson, which people like to do, I think is a good vehicle for exploring that question.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ellis, as an historian, do you think this was something we needed to know?
|The need to know|
JOSEPH ELLIS: Yes. I think that it's always good to know the truth. I mean, to the extent that Jefferson is himself a person that projects a variety of values into the sort of inner space of American history, that are sometimes illusory, it's still best that we know the truth. And I think that Jefferson is the most potent symbol in American history. I think Lincoln is more revered, but I think Jefferson is more loved. And I think what's liable to happen here is that a recognition that this is a person who wrote the great words of American history and those words are made flesh and live amongst us, that he's a saint and a sinner at the same time, is liable to make him, just as Dan suggests, a more human person and even more relevant for us, as we try to make our own sense, in the next century.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan Jordan, do you think this is something we needed to know?
DANIEL P. JORDAN: Margaret, it's always a positive thing when information and insights come forward. And the Foundation certainly welcomes Dr. Foster's report in that regard. If the report, in fact, is validated, then we'll certainly change our interpretation at Monticello. And I think it would make Jefferson more accessible, but it will also enable us to tell in a better way a story we're trying to tell now, and that's a story of African-Americans. We've always believed that you can't understand Jefferson apart from slavery. You can't understand Monticello apart from the African-American community. And it's just possible that this particular chapter will make it easier to get that point across to the 500,000 visitors who come annually.
MARGARET WARNER: Staying with you, Mr. Jordan, I know you have - since you came to Monticello, you've changed somehow how you dealt with slavery, but have you dealt with the Sally Hemings questions? Do you get questions from people who visit? How do you deal with that?
DANIEL P. JORDAN: We get questions about Sally Hemings regularly. Some people on the outside think we're uptight about it, but we're not, because we deal with it every day. Finally, in 1993, we put out a brochure that's given to every single visitor, about slave life, and African-American culture, and Mulberry Row, which was the center of it. And we have a panel there on Sally Hemings. And basically we have said in that section that the controversy has raged for almost 200 years, and that it's difficult to prove or to disprove. But if Dr. Foster's right, then we'll have to change that.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ellis, your book was subtitled, it dealt with his character, the character of Thomas Jefferson, and many of the historians who thought this couldn't be true, derived that from their view of his character. Should this change our assessment of his basic character?
JOSEPH ELLIS: I think that the assessment of Jefferson's character that's been going on within the scholarly world and biographical world for the last two decades has put an emphasis on the contradictions, the paradoxes, and the duplicities Jefferson was capable of. This extends them, I believe. This makes it even more a case where he's living in a way that seems at odds with what he's saying in his letters and in his public statements. So I think at the scholarly level this is going to deepen and darken our impression of Jefferson. I think at the popular level, however, Jefferson has won every bet in American history. Anybody who's bet against Jefferson has lost, and I believe he's going to survive this as well. There's nobody that's going to take him off of Mount Rushmore.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Gordon-Reed, a follow-up on that, and also your assessment of why it was so hard for mainstream historians to accept this?
|A historical debate|
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, I think part of it comes from the first historians who wrote about it, a simple horror of misogynation, the notion that somebody with whom they identified so closely would have been involved in a relationship that they probably couldn't conceive of themselves as being involved, was anathema to them. So the notion that misogynation was bad and attaching it to someone whom they admired was just too much. The notion of a southern gentleman, the embodiment of a southern gentleman, which was what Jefferson was supposed to be, couldn't square with, couldn't countenance this kind of story. And also there was such a reluctance to take the words of black people who spoke about this seriously, those two things - horror of miscegenation and the idea that you don't use the words of a black person to define a white man's life - and that was hard for people to take as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan Jordan, what's your view about why it took so long, and why there was such resistance among mainstream scholars?
DANIEL P. JORDAN: Well, I think it's an evolutionary process and that we hope that generation by generation the evidence comes to light, and scholars still apply critical assessments, and that new voices are heard, like Annette, trained as a lawyer, in her book raised questions about the way previous historians had looked at some of the evidence, that certainly in an optimistic way that we ought to have more insight and more understanding.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Ellis, do you think that this finding in and of itself will make historians reassess their approach in general to other sort of mysteries?
JOSEPH ELLIS: Well, I think that in some sense the people that I've been teaching over the last 20 years have already accepted this, and so that I'm not sure it's quite as hegemonic a scholarly community as being described. There's a great many distinguished historians that have suggested that this liaison, in fact, did exist. I do think that we always have to be concerned about oral testimony. The oral testimony of Madison Hemings is something we should take seriously. Yet, it's not completely in accord with the scientific evidence that we have now generated.
MARGARET WARNER: Just to interrupt - he was a son who didn't have any male descendants.
JOSEPH ELLIS: That's right.
MARGARET WARNER: And possible proof.
JOSEPH ELLIS: The first of Sally's children does not match, though I don't know whether that's as reliable as the match later on. I think that -
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: May I say something about that?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: The -
MARGARET WARNER: Quickly, and then -
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: The principle evidence that there was, in fact, a Tom Hemings comes from the Woodson family and from James Calendar, who evidently was mistaken. We don't know for a fact that Sally Hemings ever had a child named Tom Woodson. So that - so Madison's testimony was to the effect that the child that she had died when he returned, so that is a question that the jury really still is out about.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Mr. Ellis, we interrupted you. Go ahead.
JOSEPH ELLIS: No, that's the point I'm making. I think that we all have to try to assess this, the evidence, as best we can. And in this particular case, I think that this new evidence is clear and convincing. Prior to this time, I think it was really divided, and I think that honest people could honestly disagree.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Jordan, do you think, though, that this suggests that, for instance, DNA testing should be used, these new advances, to try to resolve other historical mysteries or controversies?
DANIEL P. JORDAN: In the Jeffersonian spirit I think you follow truth wherever it leads and that you welcome any kind of evidence. We've used at Monticello archaeology. We've used the documentary evidence. And now we have scientific evidence, but in addition, over the past five years we have interviewed over 90 descendants of Monticello's slaves, and we do respect those family traditions, and those oral histories, and I think we gain insight from them. But, in the end, the idea is to get your history right. And that means trying to put your arms around all of the evidence and evaluate the evidence in a critical manner.
MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, Mr. Ellis, do you think DNA testing opens sort of a new frontier for historians?
JOSEPH ELLIS: Right now because this technique does not require that genetic material be obtained from the principal subject, so we can go back hundreds of years now.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Explain that.
JOSEPH ELLIS: The Y chromosome that they are able to now identify does not require that you get it from the principal subject. What we did with Jefferson was what was done with the Romanovs, and it permits us to study people that have been dead so long that their bodies have decomposed.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, great. Thank you very much, Professor Gordon-Reed, and gentlemen, thanks for joining us.
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