The belief that Thomas Jefferson had an affair and fathered a child (or children) with slave Sally Hemings—and that such an allegation was proven by DNA testing—has become so pervasive in American popular culture that it is not only widely accepted but taught to students as historical fact. But as William G. Hyland Jr. demonstrates, this “fact” is nothing more than the accumulation of salacious rumors and irresponsible scholarship over the years, much of it inspired by political grudges, academic opportunism, and the trend of historical revisionism that seeks to drag the reputation of the Founding Fathers through the mud. In this startling and revelatory argument, Hyland shows not only that the evidence against Jefferson is lacking, but that in fact he is entirely innocent of the charge of having sexual relations with Hemings.
Historians have the wrong Jefferson. Hyland, an experienced trial lawyer, presents the most reliable historical evidence while dissecting the unreliable, and in doing so he cuts through centuries of unsubstantiated charges. The author reminds us that the DNA tests identified Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest child, as being merely the descendant of a “Jefferson male.” Randolph Jefferson, the president’s wayward, younger brother with a reputation for socializing among the Monticello slaves, emerges as the most likely of several possible candidates. Meanwhile, the author traces the evolution of this rumor about Thomas Jefferson back to the allegation made by one James Callendar, a “drunken ruffian” who carried a grudge after unsuccessfully lobbying the president for a postmaster appointment—and who then openly bragged of ruining Jefferson’s reputation. Hyland also delves into Hemings family oral histories that go against the popular rumor, as well as the ways in which the Jefferson rumors were advanced by less-than-historical dramas and by flawed scholarly research often shaped by political agendas.
Reflecting both a layperson’s curiosity and a lawyer’s precision, Hyland definitively puts to rest the allegation of the thirty-eight-year liaison between Jefferson and Hemings. In doing so, he reclaims the nation’s third president from the arena of Hollywood-style myth and melodrama and gives his readers a unique opportunity to serve as jurors on this enduringly fascinating episode in American history.
In 2000, the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society asked a group of more than a dozen senior scholars from across the country to carefully examine all of the evidence for and against the allegations that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and to issue a public report. In April 2001, after a year of study, the Scholars Commission issued the most detailed report to date on the issue. With but a single mild dissent, the views of the distinguished panel ranged from ''serious skepticism'' to a conviction that the allegation was ''almost certainly false.'' This volume, edited by Scholars Commission Chairman Robert F. Turner, includes the ''Final Report''–essentially a summary of arguments and conclusions–as it was released to the press on April 12, 2001. However, several of the statements of individual views–which collectively total several hundred carefully footnoted pages and constitute the bulk of the book–have been updated and expanded to reflect new insights or evidence since the report was initially released.
A seminal biography of Thomas Jefferson and a fascinating exploration of his relationship with Sally Hemings.With a novelist’s skill and a scholar’s meticulous detail, Fawn M. Brodie portrays Thomas Jefferson as he wrestled with the great issues of his time: revolution, religion, power, race, and love—ambivalences that exerted a subtle but powerful influence on his political ideas and his presidency. Far advanced for its time, Brodie’s biography was the first to set forth a convincing case that Thomas Jefferson was the father of children by his slave Sally Hemings. In a new introduction, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello, explores the impact of Brodie’s groundbreaking book and explains why it is still such a powerful account of one of our greatest and most elusive presidents. 16 pages of illustrations
When Annette Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson's renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars' evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.
Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson's life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence—especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that provided further evidence of a Jefferson and Hemings liaison. Continue reading →