Tag Archives: Relations with slaves

In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal

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.

Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

A penetrating critical perspective on the question of Thomas Jefferson's paternity that will make you rethink recent conventional wisdom. It is accepted by most scholars that Jefferson had a lengthy affair with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered at least one of her children, a conclusion based on a 1998 DNA study published in Nature and on the work of historian Annette Gordon-Reed. Framing a Legend argues compellingly that the DNA evidence is inconclusive and that there are remarkable flaws in the leading historical scholarship purporting to show such a liaison. It critically examines well-known books by Fawn Brodie, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Andrew Burstein. Among other defects in these authors' works, Holowchak notes selective use of evidence, ungrounded speculation, tendentious psychologizing, and unpersuasive argumentation. He delves into what we know about Thomas Jefferson's character by showing that the historical facts do not suggest any romantic interest on Jefferson's part in his female slaves. Turning to the genetic evidence, Holowchak points out that, though DNA analysis indicates the presence of a Y-chromosome from some Jefferson male in the Hemings family line, it is unwarranted to conclude that this must have come from Thomas Jefferson. Finally, he discusses Jefferson's racial attitudes and says that they argue against any liaison with Sally Hemings.