W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Jefferson’

Ignore new Jefferson-paternity study, see accuracy suffer

In Debunking, Media myths on October 20, 2011 at 9:53 am

The mainstream news media have largely shunned a significant new book that disputes the notion Thomas Jefferson had a long, loving relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings.

The drawbacks of ignoring the book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: A Report of the Scholars Commission, are suggested by a Politico item posted yesterday.

Politico asserted:

“Most historians have concluded that, as a widower, Jefferson may have had as many as six children with Hemings, maintaining a 38-year relationship with her until his death in 1826.”

“Most historians”?

That’s a stretch, as The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy suggests.

It’s a collaborative work of 13 scholars, 12 of whom are either historians of Jefferson and his times or experts on politics and government. The outlier, as it were, is a biochemist, an expert on DNA testing.

The members of the scholars commission — empaneled by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which seeks to protect the reputation of the third president — describe in the book their collective credentials, writing:

“Most of us have studied Thomas Jefferson and his era for at least two decades, and we have held teaching or research appointments at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Bowdoin, and many other respected institutions of higher learning.”

They also state that “after a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation [against Jefferson] is by no means proven. … With the exception of one member … our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.”

But it’s “by no means proven.”

And yet media reports, such as that in Politico, typically treat the purported Jefferson-Hemings relationship as if it were settled history.

An important reason for the misinterpretation stems from DNA test results reported in 1998. The tests were widely misreported as identifying Jefferson as the father of Hemings’ youngest son, Eston.

The results were published in the journal Nature, which placed this erroneous headline above the article:

“Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”

The Nature headline and its misreported findings had significant agenda-setting power.

The scholars commission, which was chaired by Robert Turner of the University of Virginia, note in the book that “much of the public has been misled about the significance of the DNA tests … reported in the journal Nature in November 1998.

“While the tests were professionally done by distinguished experts, they 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 Jefferson-Hemings Controversy addresses the DNA evidence in some detail, noting that the tests “did no more than establish that Eston Hemings’ father was almost certainly a Jefferson.”

A Jefferson.

More than two dozen Jefferson men, including Thomas, could have been the father.

By then, though, Thomas Jefferson was 64-years-old — scarcely a leading paternity candidate.

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy offers an intriguing hypothesis about why the DNA tests of 1998 were so widely misunderstood.

“Most Americans,” the book points out, “learned about DNA testing during the period leading up to and during the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and they read in USA Today and other major papers than DNA ‘genetic fingerprints’ are ‘99.9 accurate’ or even ‘99.99 percent accurate.’

“When the Jefferson-Hemings story broke [nearly] four years later, it was not surprising that many people assumed scientists had matched Thomas Jefferson’s DNA with that of Sally Hemings’ children, and conclusively established Jefferson’s paternity by this remarkable new technology.

“But that is clearly not the case.”

WJC

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‘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.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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