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teachers' guide: jefferson's blood

Jefferson's Blood

Note to Teachers:

This guide is a supplement to the FRONTLINE program, "Jefferson's Blood." By penetrating topics explored in the film and presenting related topics, this guide will enhance your students' understanding of Jefferson and his controversial relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman who was his slave. To maximize the use of this guide, review it before showing the video. Select which activities your students will complete. Plan which segments of the film they will view, and what they will focus on as they watch.

Thomas Jefferson Background

It would be difficult to identify a more accomplished American and one with more curiosities about the human and natural worlds--than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a scholar, a farmer, a diplomat, a president, a philosopher, and an architect, who liked to dabble in music, astronomy, and geology. He was indeed a Renaissance man. Ironically, America's third president saw his presidency as a lesser achievement than his founding of the University of Virginia and authoring of both the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom.

An examination of Thomas Jefferson is an examination of the American experience. As a shaper of our American identity, Jefferson's accomplishments have as much significance to us today as they did in 1800 or 1900. The term "Jeffersonian" has a strong legacy in America and has been used to support or refute ideas, movements, and policy throughout our nation's history.

But it is not just Jefferson's accomplishments that hold relevance today. His failures do also. A new examination of Thomas Jefferson provides us with a powerful opportunity to explore our nation's racial legacy. The horror of slavery and subsequent discrimination is mirrored in the very home of Thomas Jefferson. Reconciling Jefferson's enlightened philosophy of human nature with his ownership of several hundred slaves has always been a challenge. For years, this challenge was compounded by the speculation that Jefferson had a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he had several children. Now, the certainty of scientific evidence tells us that Jefferson and Hemings indeed did have a sexual relationship, and that the two had several children together.

Such unions between master and slave were not uncommon in eighteenth century America. In fact, Hemings' sisters were involved in similar unions. Yet Jefferson's exalted status in the American pantheon as a man of great intellect, lofty philosophy, and unequaled accomplishment is challenged by new proof of his sexual involvement with a slave.

While there is no doubt that Jefferson will continue to hold a large presence in our national life, his legacy is being redefined in a multidimensional light.

"Jefferson's Blood" is 75 minutes long. To view it in its entirety, it is recommended to show it in two to three class periods.

Note on Using the Video in the Classroom
Video is a rich and stimulating source for instruction. For educational purposes, it is effective to show video in segments of fifteen to twenty minutes. Pause after each segment to check for comprehension before continuing. Also, prompt students to focus on and record information on one or two topics at a time.

Thomas Jefferson's Family 

Jefferson's Family Tree

Sally Hemings had seven pregnancies. In addition to the children listed above, she had a daughter named Harriet, who was born in 1795 and died in 1797. She also had a daughter (unnamed) in 1799 who died not long after birth. DNA evidence all but confirms she and Jefferson had four children together. But while oral tradition in the Woodson family holds that Thomas Woodson (1790-1897) was the first child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, there is no evidence of Thomas Woodson living at Monticello, nor does the DNA of his descendants match that of other Jefferson descendants.

Student Activities
Activity I: Jefferson's Life & Times

Learning Objective:
Using the film, students will complete a timeline of Jefferson's private life and make observations on the events in his private life and his public life.

Provided below is a timeline of the public and private life of Jefferson, as well as significant events in American history. Give students a copy of the incomplete timeline, also provided below. As they watch the film, they will complete the "Private Life" column. Use the completed timeline to initiate a class discussion on Jefferson's life. Direct discussion toward the sequence of events in Jefferson's public and private lives.

DateAgePrivate LifePublic LifeAmerica
1743 Born to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randall.
1754 11 French and Indian War begins. The war results in France's loss of all territory in Canada and U.S. between Alleghenies and Mississippi River.
1757 14 Father dies suddenly.
1759 16 Begins studies at College of William & Mary, accompanied by his slave, Jupiter.
1765 22 British impose Stamp Act.
1767 24 Townshend Acts are passed.
1769 26 Elected to Virginia House of Burgesses, where he serves until 1774.
1770 27 Moves to a hilltop outside Charlottesville; he names the area Monticello and starts designing his house.
1772 29 Marries Martha Wayles. Daughter Martha born. Later in the year Martha's father dies, leaving the family land and 130 slaves. Jefferson sells some of the land but keeps the slaves, including Betty Hemings and her children Sam and Sally.