Sex Scandalous: Renewing the Jefferson-Hemings Controversy

Not sure why anyone would want to wade into the swamp of 21st century sexual politics as seen through the prism of a coupling from the early 1800's, but .....a new book argues that the conventional wisdom (which is only 12 years old) that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves is R-O-N-G, wrong:

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, is a new look at a very old dispute, except this time the dozen scholars behind the book are disrupting years’ worth of research that suggests that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.

The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that seeks to defend Jefferson’s image, is behind the book, which documents the results of a yearlong research

inquiry by a dozen scholars across the nation working without compensation for the Heritage Society. Carolina Academic Press will release the 400-page book Thursday.

Ever since a 1998 DNA test was performed on Sally’s youngest child, Eston, scholars have thought for years that a Jefferson male, assumed to be Thomas

Jefferson, fathered the boy. But those tests didn’t even involve DNA from Thomas Jefferson and only established that Eston was probably fathered by any one of more than two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time, “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy” asserts. In fact, the scholars point to Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, as the likely father of Hemings’ son.

The book also disputes accounts that Hemings’ children received special treatment from Jefferson, evidence some have used to suggest that the third president had a special relationship with Hemings. Neither Hemings nor her children received unusual privileges at Monticello, the scholars argue in the book. In fact, all of Hemings’ relations were not, in fact, given freedom at age 21, as is commonly believed.

Everything I've ever read about the DNA testing always mentions that Jefferson was never directly linked to Hemings's children, and that a number of Jefferson's male relatives could have done the deed. Nonetheless, the fact that a Founding Father had children with one of his slaves is one of those things that Everybody Knows, even though it is, at best, highly debatable and ultimately unknowable.

It's really too bad that the Hemings-Jefferson story has been reduced to a vehicle for neurotic 21st century obsessions with sex and race, because what we know for sure about their relationship illuminates much about slaves and their masters that has been lost to history. We may not know if Jefferson was Hemings's paramour, but we do know that her father was Jefferson's father-in-law. (and Hemings's mother also had a white father). In other words, Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson's wife, and was half-white and half-black. And yet, under the rigid class structure of the South, Sally Hemings was born and died a slave, while Martha Wayles lived the privileged life of a planter's daughter and then wife. Really makes you realize why slavery was called the "peculiar institution."

(Even worse, regardless of who fathered Hemings's children, those kids were, by my count, 7/8ths white...yet the same rigid rules said they were slaves, while Jefferson's daughters were free).

In many ways, history remains a nightmare from which we are still awakening.

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