W. Joseph Campbell

As if it were toxic: Media ignore exculpatory Jefferson-paternity study

In Debunking, Media myths on September 17, 2011 at 5:49 am

More than two weeks have passed since publication of a hefty scholarly study disputing that Thomas Jefferson sired children by one of his slaves, and America’s mainstream news media have shunned the work as if it were toxic.

The work, after all, does pose an acute threat to the dominant narrative that Jefferson had an intimate relationship with slave Sally Hemings.

But rather than engage and scrutinize the study — the collective work of a dozen Jefferson scholars that’s titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission and was released September 1 — the mainstream media have resolutely ignored it.

When they have had opportunities recently to address the Jefferson-Hemings tale, news outlets have turned blithely to what amounts to defamation of the third president.

The day before the scholars commission study was released, for example, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution observed:

“The descendants of slavery-era unions were often consigned to a shadowy middle-ground, as the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings will attest.”

The Washington Post flatly asserted recently that Jefferson “fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.”

And the Huffington Post the other day published a commentary that declared:

“It wasn’t until the late ’90s when new biographies of the founding fathers — like American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis, which revealed that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings that bore him six children — suddenly brought them to life in full color, foibles and all.”

There is, quite simply, no persuasive or compelling evidence — from Ellis or anyone else — that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings’ children, let alone six.

Indeed, the weight of available evidence favors the exculpatory interpretation offered by the new book, which states:

“Trying to prove a negative is usually difficult. But we have found most of the arguments used to point suspicion toward Thomas Jefferson to be unpersuasive and often factually erroneous. Not a single member of our group, after an investigation lasting roughly one year, finds the case against Thomas Jefferson to be highly compelling, and the overwhelming majority of us believe that it is very unlikely that he fathered any children by Sally Hemings.”

The scholars reported that had Jefferson carried on such a sexual relationship, it is “very difficult to believe that he would have selected as his companion the teenaged maid to his young daughters. … We … think it highly unlikely that Thomas Jefferson would have placed at risk the love and respect of his young children in this manner.”

The scholars’ work also notes that the DNA testing conducted in 1998 was widely misinterpreted as identifying Jefferson the father of Hemings’ children. (Ellis in American Sphinx incorrectly wrote that the testing “demonstrated a match between Jefferson” and the youngest son of Hemings.)

The DNA tests, the study points out, “were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.

“The tests merely establish a strong probability that Sally Hemings’ youngest son, Eston, was fathered by one of the more than two dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time, seven of whom there is documentary evidence to believe may well have been at Monticello when Eston was conceived.”

What’s more, the book says there’s no “clear evidence that Sally Hemings or any of her children ever alleged that Thomas Jefferson was her lover or their father, save for the statement attributed to an aging and clearly bitter Madison Hemings [another son] nearly five decades after Thomas Jefferson’s death.

“Surely, if they believed the famous President to be their father, they would have found it to their benefit to make this fact known to others before 1873.”

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy is rich material and certainly worthy of thorough and frank consideration by the news media.

Instead they demur, fearful perhaps of what scrutiny of the evidence will reveal.


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