By rights, the unanimous finding of a blue-ribbon panel of scholars should have renewed American curiosity over whether Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings had a child together, if not recast the two-century-old debate altogether. Remember when this allegation was said to have been settled, as Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and resume-craftsman-extraordinaire Joseph J. Ellis put it, “beyond a reasonable doubt”? That was back in 1998, after a retired pathologist named Eugene Foster analyzed DNA samples from the Jefferson and Hemings families to conclude, as the resulting Nature headline read, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.”
But did he? After weighing the evidence, both scientific and historical, a commission of 12 professors led by Robert F. Turner of the University of Virginia announced in April that, given the two dozen-plus Jefferson males (with DNA markers in common) roaming Virginia at the time in question, there simply can be no grounds for certainty. “The commission agrees unanimously that the allegation is by no means proven,” the summary of the report reads, “and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people.” With the exception of one low-key dissent, the professors’ conclusions “range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.”
Alas, most people will have to go online to follow the fascinating detective work that went into this landmark study (the full report is available at www.mindspring.com/~tjshcommission). It is a frustrating fact that while the original Jefferson-DNA story made a massive media splash perhaps exceeded that year only by the re-election and impeachment of Bill Clinton subsequent retrenchments and amendments to the initial story have made nary a media blip.
For instance, almost immediately after the Nature story broke, sparking one of those fabled follow-up frenzies, Dr. Foster and his co-authors admitted their evidence was inconclusive and even “misleading” for not having clarified the fact that then-65-year-old Thomas Jefferson was only one of a family-treeful of possible fathers for Sally’s last child, Eston Hemings. As reported in Science magazine, two of the more plausible sources of Jeffersonian DNA Thomas’ younger brother Randolph (12 years his junior) and Randoph’s son Isham were completely ignored by the Foster study because, as Dr. Foster told the magazine, “they weren’t suspects.”
Of course, as it is now well-known, Mr. Ellis is prone to flights of fancy, most notoriously about himself. Following a report last month in the Boston Globe, Mr. Ellis admitted to fabricating an extensive Vietnam War record, roles in both the anti-war and civil rights movements, even a stellar student football career all lies, which he wanted everyone, himself included, to believe. No word, incidentally, in the media on Mr. Ellis’ starring role in riding that Jefferson comet through space into the middle of the Clinton impeachment inquiry. Not that it was all lies, but it was certainly something he wanted everyone to believe.