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.
“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.
A committee formed by the Jefferson foundation concluded in 2000 that the weight of evidence suggested Jefferson was most likely the father of Eston, and perhaps the father of all six of Hemings‘ children recorded at Monticello.
The Heritage Society fought back with its own commission, which issued its report in 2001 disputing the conclusions. The 400-page book being released Thursday is the commission’s final product, complete with footnotes and references to rebut the other side’s claims.
Among their evidence:
• The “Jefferson family” DNA used in the 1998 test came from descendants of his uncle, which the scholars said means any one of two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time Eston was conceived could have been the father.
• The 1802 rumors centered on Thomas Woodson, who was said to have been one of Hemings‘ children. But tests of three Woodson descendants failed to show a link to Jefferson family DNA. Also, no documentation supports claims he was Hemings‘ child.
• Oral tradition from Eston Hemings’ family initially said he was not the son of the president, but rather of an “uncle” — which the scholars think is a reference to Randolph Jefferson, the president’s brother, who would have been referred to as “uncle” by Jefferson’s daughters.
Of the 13 scholars on the panel, one, Paul A. Rahe, a history professor at Hillsdale College, dissented from the conclusions.
Among the dozen others, their belief in Jefferson’s parentage ranged from “serious skepticism” to a belief that the paternity argument is “almost certainly false.”
In announcing the book’s release, Mr. Turner said he is challenging scholars on the other side of the issue to debate the matter publicly. The scholars will hold a news conference Thursday at the National Press Club to discuss the book.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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