Letter to the Editor: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

I commend those who voiced their opposition to Thomas Jefferson by placing Post-It Notes on his statue (versus permanently vandalizing it), but I would respectfully submit that their criticism is founded in myth.  Charges like “rapist” and “pedophile” stem from the widespread belief that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child by the enslaved teen Sally Hemings — a belief allegedly confirmed by DNA tests.  The facts suggest otherwise.

I know something about this issue, because fifteen years ago I spent a year chairing a group of more than a dozen senior scholars from across the country charged with examining every aspect of the matter and issuing a public report.  With but a single very mild dissent, we concluded that the allegation that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings is likely false.

In reality, the DNA tests reported in Nature in 1998 did not even involve DNA from Thomas Jefferson, and the scientific conclusion was merely that Sally’s youngest son Eston was fathered by one of the more than two-dozen Jefferson males known to have been in Virginia at the time. Mathematically, the odds that man was President Jefferson range from 4 to 17 percent (depending upon whether one narrows the suspects to those we have evidence to believe were at Monticello at the time of conception).

The most likely candidate for Eston’s paternity was President Jefferson’s much younger brother Randolph, who was invited to visit Monticello shortly before Eston’s conception and was documented in the book “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave” to have spent his evenings at Monticello “playing his fiddle and dancing half the night” with the President’s slaves.  Prior to the DNA tests, Eston’s descendants passed down the story that Eston was not President Jefferson’s child, but rather the son of an “uncle.” Randolph was widely known as “Uncle Randolph” because his niece Martha ran Monticello while her father was in the White House.

Since our report (The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission) came out, the American Political Science Association and several other groups have sought to set up a debate so both sides could be presented and reason left free to combat error.  Sadly, none of the senior pro-paternity scholars have been willing to expose their arguments to such a forum.  If Jefferson’s critics at William & Mary can find a serious scholar to argue their case, I will be honored to participate in such a quest for the truth.

Prof. Robert F. Turner

Email Rober E. Turner at bobturner@virginia.edu.


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