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The Jefferson Enigma

DNA evidence presented in 1998 linking Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings set off a new wave of scholarly and popular reappraisals of Thomas Jefferson. But even before the reports of Dr. Foster's DNA findings, America seemed in the midst of a Jefferson resurgence Who was Thomas Jefferson? An American sphinx? A slaveholding hypocrite? Every generation of Americans since the Revolution has looked to understand Jefferson in order to understand itself.

In this section, FRONTLINE presents some of the latest reappraisals of Jefferson; samples some "pre-DNA" views of Jefferson; and collects extensive primary resources on Jefferson for new explorations.

Jefferson Revealed? · Jeffersonian Legacies · Jefferson's Life and Work

Jefferson Revealed?
Jefferson Post-DNAarrow

For Joseph J. Ellis, the eminent Jefferson biographer who was one of the many historians who considered the Jefferson-Hemings relationship unlikely, the DNA findings "deepen and darken the portrait of Jefferson" taking shape among scholars in recent decades, but does not fundamentally alter it. Jefferson's paradoxical views on slavery now "begin to take on the look and smell of unmitigated hypocrisy;" and his dogmatic writings about the evils of race-mixing now "has a horribly hollow sound to it." In this most considered of his writings on the meaning of the DNA findings, Ellis refigures his view of Jefferson as an "American Sphinx" to fully comprehend the Jefferson we now know as the father of Sally Hemings's children.

Our Jeffersonarrow

Taking the historian's appropriately long perspective on today's headline stories, Jack Rakove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning early Americanist, asks what DNA confirmation of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship really adds "to the basic problem that has confronted us all along" which is to reconcile Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, with Jefferson as slaveholder. Rakove also challenges modern writers to examine what they mean when they accuse Jefferson of hypocrisy: Rakove argues: Treating Jefferson not as a hypocrite or slacker but as someone grappling with questions he could solve neither intellectually or morally may help us to think anew about Jefferson's writings on race, restoring some of the complexity he faced in his own time, and we face in our own.
Blacks and the Founding Fatherarrow

"Of all the Revolutionary founders, Thomas Jefferson has figured the most prominently in blacks' attempts to constitute themselves as Americans," law professor Annette Gordon-Reed writes. To analyze Jefferson's private life and public work, Gordon-Reed argues in this essay, is to attempt to answer "the central dilemma at the heart of American democracy": the desire to create a society based on liberty and equality runs counter to the desire to maintain white supremacy." Blacks believed the story about Jefferson and Hemings long before DNA forced historians to accept it, Gordon-Reed notes, and they are less likely to understand the story in the way it's often presented: as a taint or flaw in an otherwise great man.

Jefferson-Hemings Conference (March, 1999)arrow

Soon after Dr. Foster's DNA findings were published, Professors Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf quickly organized a conference at the University of Virginia to allow "historians to reflect upon and begin attempting to explain the significance of the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings." The organizers described it as a forum for a number of academics who had assumed the truth of the relationship before the DNA but had "not bothered to publish their thoughts." At this site you can watch the two hour panel discussion on the Jefferson and Hemings relationship. The panel includes: Dan Jordan, President, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation; Andrew Burstein, author of The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist; Annette Gordon-Reed, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy; Fraser Neiman, Monticello Archaeology Director; and Monticello historians Cinder Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright.

Jeffersonian Legacies
The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jeffersonarrow

"Jefferson scarcely seems to exist as a real historical person," writes Gordon Wood, one of the nation's most esteemed scholars of Revolutionary America. "Almost from the beginning he has been a symbol, a touchstone, of what we as a people are--someone invented, manipulated, turned into something we Americans like or dislike, fear or yearn for, within ourselves." In the 1960's, Merrill Peterson wrote extensively on this symbolic "Jefferson Image in the American Mind"-- here, Woods updates the story through the scholarly revisions of Jefferson in the 1960's, 70's and 80's. "So it has gone for much of our history," he concludes. "Jefferson standing for America and carrying the moral character of our country on his back."
Jefferson on his 250th Birthdayarrow

In 1996, on the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, Jefferson scholar Douglas Wilson considers Jefferson's legacy and examines the problem of judging Jefferson and his contributions from a modern-day perspective, asserting that "presentism"-- the inappropriate application of modern standards to historical figures or events--does not take into account the historical context of Jefferson's era. He defends Jefferson against contemporary criticisms stemming from his alleged relationship with Sally Hemings, as well as Jefferson's stance on slavery and race.
Jefferson Radical and Racistarrow

In this 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, Conor Cruise O'Brien compares Jefferson's radical stance on liberty to the idealism of the modern American militias, specifically the men behind the Oklahoma City bombings. He argues that Jeffersonian liberalism has no place in a modern multiracial society, stating that Jefferson was a racist who wanted all free blacks deported back to Africa. O'Brien courts controversy throughout, especially with his claim that Klu Klux Klan is "ideologically descended" from Thomas Jefferson.
What Would Jefferson Think of Us Today?arrow

Historically, there have been all sorts of reasons for mixed race Americans to "pass" for white: economic advancement, love or marriage, to avoid discrimination. In some cases, passing was a full-time job; others passed only during the regular work day--many suffered a great personal toll from constant deception and secrecy. How widespread was passing in the United States? In this fascinating excerpt, Harvard professor Werner Sollors sorts through the last hundred years of attempts at answering this question.

Jefferson's Life and Work
Jefferson's Online Libraryarrow

Collected at the Jefferson library at the University of Virginia are Jefferson's papers and letters, including over 2,700 quotations and excerpts from his writings. There are also some fascinating related links such as

'The Jefferson Bible,' Jefferson's attempt to extract an authentic Jesus from the Gospel accounts. Scroll down the homepage for online exhibits relating to Jefferson and a virtual tour of the University of Virginia rotunda he designed.

A Virtual Visit to Monticelloarrow

The Monticello website is maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, a private non-profit organization which owns and operates Monticello. The Monticello homepage offers extensive information on Jefferson, including a "day in the life of" tour and resources such as reports, listings, links and bibliographies. It also displays the Research Committee's online report on Jefferson and Hemings. For those who have an interest in the house and grounds of Monticello, there is ample information about the architecture and decoration of the house (including floor plans and a virtual tour of the living room and dining room), information about the plantation and the people who worked it, and special sections on Jefferson's gardens. The site also includes biographies and photos of Jefferson-Hemings grandchildren.
Jefferson's Life and Work:  A Timelinearrow

This very detailed timeline of Thomas Jefferson's life is a part of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, a collection of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The timeline is organized in terms of three broad categories: The Colonial Period, The American Revolution, and The Early Republic. You will also find some related documents, such as Jefferson's letter to James Madison in 1814, the last letter that Jefferson wrote, and his original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
A Presidential Portraitarrow

There are many C-Span video clips here on Jefferson, such as interviews with biographers, clips of his "forest retreat," and a film of Jefferson impersonator Bill Baker. In addition, you can read or listen to a letter Jefferson wrote one year before his death offering his practical observations on life, or you can read the transcript of his first inaugural address in 1801.

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