- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

President Bush yesterday endorsed the notion that Thomas Jefferson sired a slave child, entertaining black and white men and women claiming to be Jefferson descendants on a day that a commission of scholars said they had concluded that Jefferson was not the father of a child of his slave Sally Hemings.
"The president will sign a proclamation honoring Thomas Jefferson's birthday in the presence of Jefferson's descendants, including both family members from his marriage with Martha Wayles Jefferson and his descendants from Sally Hemings," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
However, the findings of the scholars' conclusions threw doubt on the significance of the ceremony.
According to the Jefferson scholars, the evidence points to Jefferson's younger brother as having fathered a child with Sally Hemings.
Genetic tests in 1998 were widely portrayed as confirming that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings' children.
Yesterday's occasion is believed to be the first time that black and whites purporting to be Jefferson's descendants have been brought together at the White House, a Bush administration official said.
Despite Mr. Fleischer's remarks that the proclamation was attended by "Jefferson's descendants, including … his descendants from Sally Hemings," the White House said it was not taking a position on the scholarly debate.
"This was an event to recognize Thomas Jefferson's birthday," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, later said the Bush administration knew of the commission's findings but called the ceremony on Jefferson's 258th birthday "appropriate."
"The president fully understood that some might not agree with the decision to share this event with the entire family, or choose to be as inclusive but he felt that it was appropriate to bring these individuals together," the official said.
The results from the yearlong study, commissioned by a group of scholars devoted to the nation's third president, suggests that Jefferson's reputation has been damaged by the paternity allegations.
DNA tests in 1998 showed that Miss Hemings' youngest son, Eston Hemings, was fathered by a Jefferson male.
The speculation at the time by several historians was that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was the father of the child. It now appears that the evidence points to his younger brother, Randolph Jefferson.
"The circumstantial case that Eston Hemings was fathered by the president's younger brother is many times stronger than the case against the president himself," the commission said in its report.
One of the 13 scholars dissented. Paul Rahe, a professor of history at the University of Tulsa, said Thomas Jefferson rather than Randolph was probably the father of Hemings' children.
"Randolph Jefferson's known patterns of behavior make him a likely suspect, but Thomas Jefferson is known to have been present and, in Randolph's case, his presence is only a likelihood," Mr. Rahe wrote.
The report said that the memoirs of a slave claims that Randolph Jefferson, when visiting Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, spent considerable time playing the fiddle and dancing with the slaves.
Moreover, the scholars concluded that Thomas Jefferson had invited his younger brother to visit Monticello shortly before Hemings became pregnant with Eston, and mention that descendants of Eston Hemings passed down the story that Eston was sired by "Thomas Jefferson's uncle."
Both of Jefferson's paternal uncles had died before Eston was born, but the scholars say that Jefferson's daughter Martha referred to Randolph as "Uncle Randolph." They note that Sally Hemings' childbearing years corresponded closely to the years that Randolph was a widower.
The report's conclusions refute a January 2000 report by scholars at Thomas Jefferson Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates Monticello, that scientific and historical evidence shows the president probably fathered one and possibly all six of Hemings' children.
The new commission included Jefferson scholars at such universities as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown and Virginia.
"The biggest surprise to me was how weak the case really was," said commission Chairman Robert F. Turner, a University of Virginia professor.
The scholars said Missy Hemings never claimed that any of her children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and none of her children did so until Madison Hemings made that claim in an Ohio newspaper interview in 1873.
The report acknowledged the claim by Monticello's scholars that Jefferson was at his plantation when Miss Hemings' children were born. However, it emphasized that he also had visitors during those periods, including Randolph.
"Whatever one thinks of Jefferson's character, there can be little doubt that he was deeply concerned about his reputation," the report said. "Yet we are asked to believe that Jefferson would have entrusted his reputation to the discretion of a 15- or 16-year-old child" the age of Miss Hemings when their relationship is claimed to have begun.
"If he did that, he was essentially a child-molesting rapist, and that is far from what we know of him," said Mr. Turner.
The commission's findings were in turn disputed by those at Monticello who argue that the evidence shows that Jefferson had an affair with Miss Hemings and fathered children with her. "The scientific, historical and documentary evidence indicates that Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings and was most likely the father of all six of her children," said Wayne Mogielnicki, spokesman for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
"At first glance they did little or no original research and we have seen nothing that would cause us to alter our opinion on the matter," Mr. Mogielnicki said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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