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1981: The Jefferson Scandals:  A Rebuttal by Virginius Dabney
Virginius Dabney was a descendent of Martha Carr, Thomas Jefferson's sister, and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. He wrote The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal in 1981 to counter Fawn Brodie's biography of Jefferson, and Barbara Chase Riboud's novel about Sally Hemings.

Excerpted with permission from The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal by Virginius Dabney, 1981, Madison Books of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Largely forgotten charges that 'Thomas Jefferson had a handsome light-skinned slave as his mistress for several decades have been resurrected in a recent Jefferson biography. This book was followed by a popular novel elaborating upon the same theme. 'The appearance of these works has brought to public attention allegations that were first given currency a year after Jefferson became president of the United States in 1801. Growing out of the charges were others to the effect that a beautiful daughter of the master of Monticello and his purported paramour was sold into prostitution in the New Orleans slave market, with Jefferson's knowledge and consent.

The late Fawn Brodie, author of the biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History and Barbara Chase-Riboud, who wrote the novel Sally Hemings, say categorically that Jefferson had Sally for his concubine during thirty-eight years, a relationship that resulted in five children. The claim that Jefferson fathered these children is based to a considerable degree on so-called psychological evidence and the result purports to be "psychohistory."

The question whether the allegations are true is actually a peripheral one, since the renown of Jefferson as an innovator in government, education, science, law, architecture, agriculture, and other fields is such that nothing can shake it. However, revival of the charges makes it highly desirable that they be appraised.

Brodie and Chase-Riboud have described the charges as completely authentic. Their volumes were chosen by major book clubs and reprinted in paperback editions, with large sales and widespread publicity in the printed and electronic press. Furthermore, the allegations they made have been accepted as valid by an astonishing percentage of the mass media, as well as by countless individuals. At least two national television networks have seriously considered developing miniseries based on the Chase-Riboud novel, and efforts are under way as of this writing to interest a motion picture producer. Parade, the huge-circulation Sunday newspaper supplement, declared flatly that Jefferson had Sally as his mistress and begat a brood of children. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have tended to support the charge, a substantial number of reviewers have accepted the story as true, and publications as diverse as Newsweek, the Washingtonian, and the Unitarian World have published categorical statements that the liaison existed.

As further evidence of the extent to which the Jefferson-Hemings allegations have permeated the national consciousness, a New York Times writer quoted the following from casual conversation at the American Revolution Roundtable in historic Fraunces Tavern, New York, in December 1980: "Oh juicy--I've got files . . . on whether the President of the United States can be subpoenaed to prove he seduced his slaves."

This massive acceptance by major elements of the media--and apparently of the public--occurred despite the fact that the three internationally recognized authorities on Jefferson's life and career have found the books to be wholly unsound. Historians reviewing the Brodie biography for such scholarly publications as the Journal of American History and the Journal of Southern History have also expressed supreme skepticism, if not outright disbelief, but the circulations of these academically oriented organs are minuscule in comparison to the enormous audience of the mass media and the large sales of the books in question. The Brodie biography was the best-selling hardcover historical work to appear in 1974, and there was a British edition as well. It is obvious, therefore, that the task of combating these charges is a difficult one, especially since so many persons are prone to accept accusations of this sort against important public men. But in the interests of justice and historical accuracy, it is necessary that the other side of the case be given. This is all the more essential in view of Mrs. Brodie's contention that "shame" over his relations with Sally lessened Jefferson's effectiveness as a public figure.

I, of course, make no claim to mastery of all the facts affecting the multifaceted career of Thomas Jefferson--that would he the work of decades--but I have read everything that I could find hearing upon his guilt or innocence in this matter. As a result, I have reached quite definite conclusions....

Mrs. Brodie's approach to biography, pursuant to Erikson's theories, is not precisely that of Lytton Strachey, although it seems, when superficially examined, to be similar. E. M. Forster has written that Strachey worked from within, and thereby brought his characters psychologically alive. Forster claimed that by getting inside his subjects, Strachey was able to bring whole societies to life, and in so doing to revolutionize the art of biography. But John Halperin, a member of the University of Southern California faculty, indicates that Strachey was a good deal of a fraud. He quotes the noted biographer Leon Edel as saying of him, "One may expect that the reverse of what he says is usually the truth." Halperin asserts that "most of the time . . . he [Strachey] distorts or simply changes" the facts, and he accuses Strachey of "deliberate lies."' No one, of course, accuses Fawn Brodie or Erik Erikson of anything of the sort, but in her Jefferson biography Brodie stresses what she regards as psychological insights to a quite unusual degree.

As for Chase-Riboud, her novel Sally Hemings is an example of the type of fiction that has lately come to be known as "faction." In other words, the author and publisher claim a substantial amount of factual accuracy. Chase-Riboud does say that "my Sally Hemings is not the historical Sally Hemings," but her basic contention is that Jefferson had Sally for his mistress, and the entire book revolves about that assumption. Furthermore, the novel purports to place the principal characters in a setting that is historically accurate.

While the term "faction" is new, the writing of novels, poems, and plays based on actual events is as old as literature itself. Innumerable examples could he mentioned--Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, many of Shakespeare's plays, and Scott's novels come to mind from years gone by, while more recent works such as Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, Gore Vidal's Burr, and Herman Wouk's The Winds of War also exemplify the genre.

Publishers of "faction" indulge at times in extravagant claims to historical authenticity. Such, for example, was the case with Vidal's Burr, whose publisher declared that "the facts are actual" and "the portraits of the major characters . . . are from their own words and from the observations of their contemporaries." Yet the book gave far from a true picture, and many of the "facts" were in error or invented. Similarly, the author and publisher of Sally Hemings described that work as soundly researched, especially as it relates to the master of Monticello and his comely slave. We shall see to what extent that description is justified.

On its face, Mrs. Brodie's biography makes a formidable impression. There are no fewer than fifty-five pages of notes and eight pages of bibliography. As pointed out above, the author states positively that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a proven fact. This contrasts with the posture of the leading authorities on Jefferson, who believe strongly that all the probabilities point to the incorrectness of Brodie's charges. And they believe, furthermore, that there is a logical and plausible explanation for the paternity of Sally Hemings's children--an explanation that will he set forth in detail later in this book. These scholars recognize that Thomas Jefferson had his faults, but they are convinced that fathering Sally Hemings's brood was not one of them....

There are no anecdotes concerning Jefferson's alleged paramour, and she is not mentioned once in all the Jefferson correspondence. As John C. Miller puts it, ". . . we know virtually nothing of Sally Hemings, or her motives [and] she is hardly more than a name.". Yet there have been attempts to invest her with qualities and characteristics for which there is no evidence whatever. Page Smith, in his Jefferson: A Revealing Biography, pronounces Sally "intelligent, handsome, perhaps beautiful, full of spirit and fire, undoubtedly 'ardent'--a rewarding companion in bed" (page 208). Smith has no footnotes, and he provides us with no remote inkling as to where he could possibly have gotten such information. It goes beyond anything in Brodie, whose overall thesis as to the Jefferson-Hemings relationship he has accepted. There is nothing in Chase-Rihoud's novel about Sally's "ardor in bed," and besides, that hook appeared several years after Smith's.

The New York Times Book Review (June 15, 1980), announcing the appearance of the paperback edition of Chase-Rihoud's Sally Hemings, refers to Sally as Jefferson's "beautiful, elegant, brainy, fiery and indestructible slave-companion." Presumably the reviewer was attempting to reflect the contents of the Chase-Rihoud novel, without bothering to find out if this bit of "faction" gave an authentic picture. The Times declared that the novelist "used facts that were ingeniously assembled by Fawn Brodie in her psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson." But there are no facts in Brodie's book to prove that Sally was "brainy" or "fiery," much less that she was Jefferson's "slave-companion." Furthermore, as we have seen, Chase-Riboud stated that "my Sally Hemings is not the historical Sally Hemings." So where did the Times get all this? We have here one more example of the manner in which myths concerning Sally Hemings have been accepted as truth and disseminated to countless readers.

Undismayed by the total rejection by the leading Jefferson scholars of her thesis as to the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Brodie blandly reiterated and extended it in an article in American Heritage entitled "Thomas Jefferson's Unknown Grandchildren: A Study in Historical Silences." In this article, published some two years after her Jefferson biography, she provided names and photographs of blacks in various parts of the United States whose claims to direct descent from Jefferson and Sally she unhesitatingly supported. She did reject the contentions of a group of Joe Fossett's descendants, on the ground that this craftsman in iron was the son of Mary Hemings and William Fossett, or Fosset, a white apprentice at Monticello. Brodie likewise did not accept the contentions of John Hemings's descendants that he was Jefferson's son. But, as she puts it in her magazine article: "The stories of what happened to Jefferson's slave children and their descendants, long shrouded in mystery, are now emerging as a flood of information is being released by these long-silent heirs." This "flood of information" evidently consists of legends handed down in the various families concerned. "Since the publication of my Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)," she writes, "descendants of Madison, Eston have come forward with scrapbooks, family Bibles, private genealogies and pictures that have been quietly preserved over the generations. Their material is an exciting addition to the Jefferson family literature....The black heirs had chosen to remain silent in the past because they were not believed...."

There is nothing in Mrs. Brodie's article that provides any more proof that these individuals are descendants of Jefferson than she advanced in her biography. Much of her article is simply description of positions held by the persons in question in modern times with photographs.

Mrs. Brodie again asserts as a fact that "Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings lasted thirty-eight years....We know [sic] from a memoir written by Sally's third son Madison, that she became pregnant by Jefferson in Paris in 1789. The son born shortly after the return to Monticello was called 'Tom'"--and so on and on with the notorious Callender, Mrs. Brodie's "generally accurate reporter," given as the original authority and Brodie making futile efforts to prove that Tom actually existed. It is unnecessary to go again into a refutation of these confidently asserted "facts."

The magazine Ebony, published by blacks, in November 1954 carried an article entitled "Thomas Jefferson's Negro Grandchildren." Featured more prominently than any were the heirs of Joe Fossett, who as noted above, was clearly not a Jefferson descendant. The claims of all the others also were almost certainly spurious.

Black historians, Mrs. Brodie has stated more than once, believe firmly that Sally was Jefferson's mistress whatever may be the skepticism of many white historians. A notable exception among black historians is W. Edward Farrison who concluded after a comprehensive examination of the evidence that it was impossible to be certain which side was right.

Madison Hemings conceded that Jefferson showed no outward affection at any time toward him or Sally's other children. Hemings said in his interview with the Pike County Republican that the master of Monticello "was very undemonstrative" and was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us black children.... He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren." Since Madison was born in 1805 he spent twenty-one years at Monticello during Jefferson's lifetime; yet he failed to mention one single expression of affection during that entire period toward himself or his brothers and sisters on the part of their "father." In the face of this Mrs. Brodie would have us believe that there was a prolonged love affair between Jefferson and Sally which brought them several children and "much private happiness." Is it conceivable that a man of Jefferson's temperament who showered affection and attention upon his white children and grandchildren to an almost excessive degree would have ignored his "black children" by a woman with whom he was alleged to have been deeply in love for more than a third of a century? Nor did he provide opportunities for Sally's children to get any appreciable education although he was constantly concerned with the schooling of the white members of his family. We have here additional grounds for believing that the black children at Monticello were not his.

Let us bear in mind also that Jefferson expressed extreme aversion to miscegenation many times over the years. In his Notes on Virginia, written during the American Revolution he pointed out that Roman slaves were of the white race and went on to say (page 143) "Among the Romans, emancipation required but one effort. The slave when made free might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second [effort] is necessary unknown to history. When freed he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture." Jefferson regarded miscegenation as "the horror of horrors" John C. Miller writes in The Wolf by the Ears (page 275). In a letter to William Short dated January 18, 1826 only a few months before he died, Jefferson once more expressed his "aversion" to "the mixture of color in America." It would indeed have been the height of hypocrisy for a man who entertained such views and expressed them over most of his adult life to have sired mulatto children.

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