In a book due out Thursday, eminent scholars say it’s unlikely that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings‘ children, disputing a decade’s worth of conventional wisdom that the author of the Declaration of Independence sired offspring with one of his slaves.
The debate has ensnared historians for years, and many thought the issue was settled when DNA testing in the late 1990s confirmed that a Jefferson male fathered Hemings‘ youngest son, Eston. But, with one lone dissenter, the panel of 13 scholars doubted the claim and said the evidence points instead to Jefferson’s brother Randolph as the father.
“It is true that Sally’s sons Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson’s will, but so were all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother Betty Hemings who still belonged to Thomas Jefferson at the time of his death. Sally’s sons received by far the least favorable treatment of those freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will,” said Robert F. Turner, a former professor at the University of Virginia who served as chairman of the commission.
Richard Dixon, who edits the newsletter for the Jefferson Heritage Society, which sponsored the scholars panel, said the book will provide academic heft for the ongoing debate.
“The reason that this book is important is that it does address these, we might call them, reasons why Jefferson could have been the father, in a detailed manner, and shows the fallacies in these reasons, and should bring the reader back to a point where the issue is not proven,” he said.
The debate has raged for years, fueled in part by the thorny questions of slavery and race in American history and by the paradox of Jefferson himself, whose stirring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence seemed belied by his ownership of slaves.
At Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Va., the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concluded that the evidence does point toward him as the father. Like the scholars commission, however, the foundation acknowledges there is no way to fully prove or disprove the issue.
“Our evidence is the same as their evidence — our interpretation of it is different,” said Leslie G. Bowman, president of the foundation.
She said such a dispute among historians is typical and that an ongoing dialogue is a good thing.
Monticello’s website acknowledges the work of the scholars commission, though it says the consensus of historians is that Jefferson “was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson’s records.”
The claims about Jefferson date back to at least 1802, when Jefferson was serving his first term as president. A former ally of Jefferson’s wrote in a Richmond newspaper that he kept a slave named Sally as a concubine, and had fathered “several children” with her.
Hemings‘ children, Madison and Eston, kept the story alive. In November 1998, results of DNA testing were released and showed a genetic link between descendants of the Jefferson family and of Eston Hemings.