W. Joseph Campbell

Finally: Some attention for book disputing Jefferson-slave mistress liaison

In Debunking, Media myths on October 16, 2011 at 11:22 am

C-Span 3 aired today the news conference launch of a thoroughly researched but largely ignored book disputing the narrative that Thomas Jefferson had children by a slave-mistress.

The C-Span program represented a rare occasion in which prominent U.S. news media have given attention to the book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, which was released September 1 at the National Press Club in Washington.

The C-Span program showed the 90-minute news conference in full, and featured the editor of the volume, Robert Turner, a history professor at the University of Virginia.

Turner headed a commission of Jefferson scholars, which was organized in 2000 by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to explore claims about Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.

Turner at the news conference reviewed a welter of evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, that points away from Jefferson’s paternity.

“You look at all the pieces,” Turner said, “and they don’t point to a romantic or a sexual relationship” between Jefferson and Hemings.

The book points out that little is known about Hemings and that she “appears to have been a very minor figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life.” The third U.S. president referred to her in just four of the tens of thousands of letters he wrote.

Mainstream U.S. news media have assiduously ignored the book and its exculpatory detail about Jefferson.

When of late they have mentioned the matter, they’ve essentially bowed to the orthodoxy that Jefferson and Hemings were sexual partners.

The Washington Post, for example, referred in an article late last week to “the discovery of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings” — without saying just who those descendants were, or how “the discovery” was made.

As The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy points out, the evidence is neither conclusive nor compelling that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings’ children.

The book notes that DNA testing conducted in 1998 was widely misreported as identifying Jefferson as having fathered children by Hemings. The DNA test results were reported in Nature in November 1998 beneath the erroneous headline, “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”

Nature’s error, Turner said, “caused a lot of confusion among the American people, very sadly.”

As the book points out, the DNA tests “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.”

One of more than two dozen Jefferson men.

Thomas Jefferson at the time was 64 and ailing, hardly making him a leading paternity candidate. (Turner observed at the news conference that “most men in that era didn’t see 40.”)

A more likely candidate, Turner said, is Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, who was known to have socialized with the slaves at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

So — will the Post correct or clarify its unsubstantiated and probably erroneous reference to “descendants” of Jefferson and Hemings?

That it will is probably as likely as the Post’s deciding to review The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy.


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