W. Joseph Campbell

‘DNA evidence is all in’ on Jefferson? Got that wrong

In Debunking, Media myths on October 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Nearly 13 years have passed since the release of DNA testing evidence that was widely misreported as evidence that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by a purported slave-mistress, Sally Hemings.

Jefferson (Library of Congress)

That evidence was scarcely so conclusive or definitive.

The testing in 1998 identified the third president as one of more than two dozen Jefferson men who may have been the father of Hemings’ youngest child, Eston.

One of more than two dozen Jefferson men.

Misrepresentations and mischaracterizations of the DNA evidence persist, as suggested by a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of U.S. News and World Report.

The commentary, written by Jamie Elizabeth Stiehm, asserted:

“After his beloved wife Martha died, Jefferson took as his mistress … a beautiful girl named Sally Hemings, decades years [sic] younger than he. At his stately Monticello in Virginia, his mountaintop, he was literally master of all he saw. That meant his two white daughters, horses, gardens, fields, a library of books, fine clothes, and the best of wines he chose during his Paris days.

“Never forget the 100 slaves Jefferson owned to make the wheels of wealthy planter life go round. Among them were the Hemings children born to Sally Hemings — his own, but never recognized as such by Jefferson, even informally. They were the only four slaves he later set free, however, probably by a pact he kept with Sally Hemings. (And the DNA evidence is all in.)”

The “DNA evidence is all in”?

Not so.

As a recently published scholarly study about the controversy notes, 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 was 64 and ailing at the time Eston Hemings was conceived; Jefferson’s advanced age and infirmities make him an improbable paternity candidate.

The scholarly study, titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, also says:

“The problem [in misinterpreting the DNA evidence] lies not only with a news media prone to over simplifying and sensationalizing complex stories.  Numerous prominent scholars have contributed to the misunderstanding by characterizing the DNA study as ‘confirming’ or ‘clinching’ the case for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.”

Stiehm’s unsourced and uncritical commentary adds to the confusion.

She stumbles on another point, too, in stating that Hemings’ children “were the only four slaves [Thomas Jefferson] later set free.”

That’s wrong.

Robert Turner, a University of Virginia professor who edited The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, says that “Thomas Jefferson legally freed (manumitted) seven slaves that we know of.”

They included  Sally Hemings’ brothers, Robert and James, as well as  Burwell Colbert, a son of Sally’s sister, Bett; Sally’s brother, John, and Joseph Fossett, a son of Sally’s sister, Mary.

Jefferson also freed Sally’s youngest children, Madison and Eston, Turner notes.

The reference in The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy to the news media’s “over simplifying and sensationalizing complex stories” deserves additional comment.

Complexity-avoidance often characterizes news coverage, as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

“All too often,” I write, “the news media seem complexity-adverse and exceedingly eager to simplify and synthesize.

“This tendency is explained in part by the tyranny of deadlines and the limitations of on-air time and newsprint space. Even so, few important events can be explained without recognizing and acknowledging their context and intricacies.”

That certainly holds for the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. News reports and commentary about the matter almost invariably embrace the simplistic but wholly unproven narrative that Jefferson took a slave as a years-long mistress.


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