This political cartoon depicts Thomas Jefferson "courting" Sally Hemings.
Jefferson's political opponents used it to discredit Jefferson during the 1804 election.
A new book has been released challenging the notion that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children. It is the latest contribution to a historical debate that has been going on for centuries. One side of the argument believes that Jefferson was involved in an adult-relationship with Sally Hemings which resulted in the birth of six children. Naysayers claim that it was his brother Randolph who is the rightful father.
DNA testing conducted in 1998 concluded that Thomas Jefferson was most likely the father of Elston Hemings and possibly five other slave siblings. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation conducted its own investigation that drew the same conclusion. The Heritage Society disagreed with these findings and established their own committee to look into the affair. In 2001, they released a report disputing both of their counterpart’s conclusions. This 400-page book, titled Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, is the commissions’ final product from this investigation.
I certainly intend to buy this book as I consider myself to be very well read on Mr. Jefferson. In fact, with the exception of “Stonewall” Jackson, I don’t believe I have studied more material on any other person. I have casually posted about this subject from time to time and tend to line up with the Foundation’s findings. I often wonder what really drives this debate. Why do some people feel the need to defend Thomas Jefferson while others chastise him? I have personally witnessed scholars, historians and regular everyday people becoming emotional over this subject. (“Pissed-off” is more of an accurate description.) So, what exactly is the big deal? Is this really a search for truth, or do folks take issue with this accusation on a personal level?
There are many complex facets to this story… You have the master and slave relationship, the older man and younger woman, the interracial aspect, and the illegitimate children? Back then it would have been (and almost was) a HUGE scandal, but other than the human-bondage aspect, this kind of relationship is fairly common in today’s world. Yes, the idea that a Founding Father was involved in a sexual relationship with a young slave girl and possibly sired multiple children is a bit controversial. That said…
Assuming that it is true and Thomas Jefferson was involved in a consenting physical relationship with a Sally Hemings, so what? Can anyone blame him? His wife had passed away before he turned 40 and he never remarried. He was a widower, with needs. If he had sex with a young, attractive woman is that really for us to judge? By all accounts that we have, the relationship between the two was not one of forced physicality. Yes Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves over the course of his life, but he was not known to have sexually abused them. Sally was not raped as far as we know. There appears to have been a mutual like between them. So whatever the nature of their experiences together it does not appear to have been cruel.
One could argue the morality of this situation, but I don’t think that applies to how we should view Jefferson’s overall contributions to society. He had his share of faults for sure, first and foremost being a slave-owner. The fact that he owned Sally does add an element of disappointment to the mix. However, it doesn't diminish the fact that from what we know, the nature of their affection appears to be sincere.
So although we will never know for sure whether it was Thomas or Randolph Jefferson who fathered Sally Hemings’ children, people need to accept the reality that he was, beyond everything else, a man. What he did in the privacy of his own bedroom should have no bearing on how we regard his accomplishments today. Personally, I don't care who he slept with. It should only matter to the descendants of the Jeffersons and the Hemings. The rest of us are either meddlers or prudes.