Robert Fikes, Jr.
San Diego, California
It took the modern miracle of DNA testing to flesh out in a very public manner the long contentious issue of whether or not Thomas Jefferson, the venerated third U.S. President, and his comely house slave, Sally Hemings, had an intimate relationship which may have spanned four decades and produced several offspring. For nearly 200 years there have been whispers, rumors, and denials by parties who had much to gain or lose if the relationship was substantiated, so the debate continued until science advanced to the point where, combined with historical evidence, it could declare it a near certainty. Not that it matters to those few diehard amateur historians recently in the news who will forever pose straw men to raise doubt and divert attention to other possible culprits, but evidence published in the November 5 issue of the British journal Nature, and reaffirmed by the journal in early January, clearly points to at least one of the three sons of Hemings, known as Eston Jefferson, as sharing a genetic marker, the Y chromosome, with the fabled author of the Declaration of Independence. The man amongst all the presidents who for so long had been portrayed by adoring historians and his certified white descendants as too cerebral, too dignified, too high-minded, too affected by the memory of his deceased wife and respectful of their white daughters, too above-it-all to have even considered carnal knowledge of a slave girl of an inferior race, was indeed the same person who took advantage of his power as slave master to do just that. Turns out that this Renaissance man who read seven languages, founded the University of Virginia and the Democratic Party, needed a female to satisfy his libido and emotional needs the same as the "common man."
But was anyone really that surprised when the scientific evidence trumped the hagiographers who had fallen into the habit of deifying Jefferson and refuting, with as much scorn and condescension they could muster, any suggestion that his great legacy included, God forbid, miscegenation. The very idea of such an unnatural pairing was enough to send a brigade of the country's most distinguished historians charging to the battlements to hurl invective at the enemy. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Dumas Malone said the miscegenation allegation was "filth" and that such a "vulgar relationship" was "virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson's moral standards." Another Jefferson biographer, Merrill D. Peterson, apparently angered that blacks had not bought into the Saint Jefferson myth and insisted on keeping the "rumor" alive, and projecting his own fantasy concerning how blacks must feel when they think they can claim a revered Euro-American ancestor, maintained they delighted in entertaining the notion of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison because they possessed a "pathetic wish for a little pride and their subtle wish of confounding white folk." What Peterson and so many other high priests and scribes of the Temple of the Founding Fathers could not understand was that black people masses could never reconcile the man who was presented as the epitome of what was good about America with the man who once tried to negotiate the sale of a three-year-old slave girl from her mother.
One of the often used defenses was that Jefferson was not your typical racist but, as shown in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1798), was one of the chief racial theorists of his era, pronouncing blacks incapable of "comprehending the investigations of Euclid," "much inferior" to whites in reasoning, of having a "very strong and disagreeable odor," and that he had never met a black who could utter "a thought above the level of plain narration." Thus, his apologists declared, Jefferson could not have mated with any woman save a white woman of high standing. Another of their shopworn assertions was that it was far more likely that Jefferson's randy nephews, not the originator of the Louisiana Purchase himself, who impregnated Hemings. They also used the retort that Jefferson repeatedly expressed his revulsion at the thought of white-Negro breeding which he said "produces a degradation&Mac183;to which no one can innocently consent." A model of stoicism and self-control, he was supposed to be not in the least bit interested in either sex or romance after his wife's demise in 1782. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, Gordon Wood, said Jefferson was too "uptight and puritanical" to ever touch a slave. Joseph Ellis, the 1997 National Book Award winner stated the sentiment more eloquently, saying: "Jefferson consummated his relations with women at a more rarefied level, where the palpable realities of physical intimacy were routinely sublimated to safer and more sentimental regions." Strange, though, that troubling point raised by Winthrop Jordan in his monumental tome, White Over Black (1968), that Jefferson was at Monticello nine months prior to the birth of each of Heming's six children.
The Monticello establishment had pretty much succeeded in intimidating would-be revisionists suspicious of Saint Jefferson, and in persuading the general public to perceive Jefferson as a stoic, honorable, paragon of virtue who just happened to own hundreds of slaves. But black historians like Lerone Bennett, John Hope Franklin, and W.E.B. Du Bois were not nearly as impressed with the Jefferson mystique, and generations of black folk across the land grew up thinking of him as just another overblown hero of whites who probably abused his slaves like the rest of those of his privileged class. Still, it took three courageous women, the first white and the next two Africa-American, to both change the popular perception regarding the Jefferson-Hemings affair and to successfully challenge the white male academics who became increasingly irritated and weary at having to defend Jefferson's character, particularly as more sensible arguments were offered and public opinion shifted in the opposition's favor.
In 1974, UCLA professor Fawn Brodie made the first substantial assault on Jeffersonian virtue with the publication of Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), a scholarly work in which she described what she believed was a lengthy caring, romantic relationship between slave master and slave. She could only brace herself for what would be the last deafening fusillade from the cult worshipers, fast running out of ammunition, but intent on belittling her effort. Fuzzy "psycho-history and "a tissue of surmises" said Virginius Dabney who later wrote a book hoping to once and for all bury the "legend" of an illicit union. "Amateurish Freudian reading" chimed in Rice University's John Boles. The expected reprise was heard from men like Old Dominion's Alf J. Mapp to the effect that all Brodie had done was "polish to a high gloss" a scurrilous rumor "long dismissed by serious historian" like himself, of course. And how dare Brodie pretend Jefferson "pined for an ignorant" and "so inept a servant" as Miss Hemings whom he took abroad, stated Prof. Mapp, when he could so easily have appreciated the "cultivated belles of Paris." But now the genie was out of the bottle. Too many "serious historians" were being called on time and again to deny what was becoming painfully obvious, and a lot of them were beginning to have nagging doubts about their enterprise. The fight to maintain Jefferson's integrity in this matter now meant they risked making fools of themselves should someone suddenly produce just one more piece of previously uncovered, irrefutable evidence.
Writer-artist Barbara Chase Riboud read Brodie's book and was moved to pen a best seller in 1979 titled Sally Hemings: A Novel, further refashioning Jefferson's and Hemings' image in the public mind. She was not the first African American to use their affair in a fictional work; that distinction belongs to Williams Wells Brown who wrote Clotel, or The President's Daughter in 1853. Though a work of fiction, Chase-Riboud's novel was the target of a few barbs from some riled academics, to which she responded in The New York Times: "These men have an overwhelming investment in Jefferson, they've spent their whole lives writing about this man. I have the same emotional investment in Sally Hemings. She's a figure who has been lost and despised, and I felt the American people should know as much of the whole story as anyone could know... I find it extraordinary that certified historians are rebutting a novel." The novelist would have been aghast at the ugly comments of yet another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Gary Wills, who likened Hemings to a harlot servicing a gentleman client. He wrote in The New York Review of Books: "She was apparently pleasing, and obviously discreet. There was less risk in continuing to enjoy her services than in experimenting around with others. She was like a healthy and obliging prostitute, who could be suitably rewarded but would make no importune demands. Her lot was improved, not harmed, by the liaison." When Dr. Robert Rutland got wind of a possible mini-series highlighting Jefferson-Hemings he blurted out, "Those television people don't give a damn what they do to the national character," as if exposing a more humanized Jefferson, or perhaps a Jefferson who found solace in a common law marriage with his chattel, Sally Hemings (who, by the way, was also his deceased wife's half sister, such was the world of the plantation), somehow debased the man who best personified stalwart American values and, by extension, debased the entire nation.
The perennial controversy was for the most part on hiatus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that is until it was learned that Disney/Touchstone would premier the motion picture "Jefferson in Paris" in 1995. This time the war-weary academics seemed too tired and demoralized to make another show of indignation though "the scandal" was being presented as historical fact to millions of moviegoers. Interviewed by the The Houston Chronicle about this latest version of the taboo affair, a seemingly exasperated John Boles concluded by saying, "You have to ask yourself in the long run, what difference does it make." Prof. Andrew Burstein admitted, "I'm becoming and endangered species, a Jeffersonian scholar that accepts the traditional notion that maybe a large number of Virginia slave owners did go to bed with their slaves, but that maybe Jefferson was not one of them."
At age 9 Annette Gordon-Reed became fascinated with the career Thomas Jefferson, something that would develop into a passion for this African American girl growing up in Conroe, Texas. By age 12 she had read Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black. Years later, as a law professor in New York City, after seeing the movie "Jefferson in Paris," she decide to set pen to paper and found herself investigating leads at Monticello and in Charlottesville. Largely interested in rehabilitating the reputation of Heming, she was also more concerned with establishing the credibility of disregarded oral narratives of African Americans than in deflating the lofty image of Jefferson the icon or in pummeling his defenders. Suffice it to say that this brilliant young woman, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was uniquely prepared to scale fortress Monticello and confront every one in its corps of eminent historians, past and present, who ever floated a scenario on Jefferson-Hemings. In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) she proved more than a match for Malone, Dabney, Peterson et al. as she methodically advanced paragraph by paragraph deconstructing and then demolishing each and every argument ever put forth to shield Jefferson or that appeared to deny him or Hemings the opportunity to be viewed as complex beings fully equipped with human emotions and sexual desires. In so doing, she accomplished something so very rare in the academy for either a female or a Black: namely, directing a frontal assault on an aspect of knowledge carved out, defined, and dominated by white males that was so masterful and compelling that the challenger (Gordon-Reed) emerged the leading authority on the subject. In a word, her response to the Jefferson scholars was devastating.
With frightening precision she laid out all the so-called evidence trotted out innumerable times over two centuries and submitted as "proof" that a relationship never existed. She proceeded to cross-examine the historians and reintroduced as evidence the testimony of Hemings's descendants. The shoddy research, fanciful notions, illogical and misleading arguments and the mental contortions it took to maintain a sanitized image of Jefferson did not sidetrack Gordon-Reed who realized that it was, "important to keep in mind that the historical background in the dispute over the Jefferson-Hemings relationship has not been over what amounts to absolute proof. The battle has been over controlling public impressions of the amounts and the nature of the evidence." And she determined there had been a conspiracy of sorts of long duration whose purpose it was to uphold the more socially acceptable part of the Jefferson legacy. To one often repeated claim of Jefferson partisans she wrote: "If it is true that when one talks about Thomas Jefferson one might as well be talking about the nation, historians' suggestion that Jefferson's racism would have inevitably overcome his sexuality presents a view of this country's history and the nature of racism that is seriously flawed. The notion that a racist white man will not engage in a sexual relationship...with a black woman is, to put it charitably, quaint."
Throughout the text it is apparent that what drove Gordon-Reed was her disappointment, perhaps anger, at the long-running denial of people who should have known better and who resorted to employing vile stereotypes of blacks and misrepresented traditions of the ante-bellum South in order to bolster their cause. At one point her displeasure gave way to spite when she reflected on the 38-year Jefferson-Hemings relationship. She wrote: "It would mean that a slave woman, whom historians have spent generations either ignoring or explaining away, would have lived in this state with Thomas Jefferson four times as long as he lived with Martha Wayles Jefferson. If this was his mistress for that many years, Sally Hemings most likely would have known the real Thomas Jefferson better than anyone, and the one whom she knew would be unrecognizable to the historians who had devoted their lives to knowing him. That just could never be." The resort to derision aside, the totality of Gordon-Reed's case against the defense was withering. Henceforth It would not be possible to assume Jefferson's innocence or to be so naive as to accept the pronouncements of scholars who comprised his canonizers.
Figuratively speaking, Gordon-Reed constructed a coffin containing the body of nonsense surrounding the Jefferson Hemings affair, and lowered it into the grave. DNA evident was the eulogy read at graveside. Joseph Ellis who had previously said Gordon-Reed was playing "the race card," did the honorable thing in being the first to concede he had been wrong about Jefferson-Hemings, appearing on television and quoted in the print media. The University of Virginia's Peter Onuf who once scoffed at the "notion of Jefferson and Sally anticipating the Rainbow Coalition" evolved into a Gordon-Reed booster. Still, the majority of the rest of the naysayers, whether too stunned by the early November announcement or too proud or embarrassed to admit an egregious error, seemed to have avoided being interviewed on the matter. But wait, there are more revelations looming on the horizon thanks to DNA testing. Presently, two black women are pressing to have the same scientific team that made the Hemings family link to Thomas Jefferson determine if they have a valid claim as descendants of George Washington, another slaveholder. Nearly 30 years ago Lerone Bennett, and before him Joel A. Rogers, were informing black people about their lost kinfolk in the white community, among them Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Boone, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, and ninth U.S. Vice President Richard Johnson, to name a few. So steady yourselves, the Jefferson-Hemings finding is probably just the first in a series of "discoveries" that ultimately should have the effect of making us all more aware and more accepting of this nation's white and black heritage which, for a host of reasons too involved to analyze here, we have been hesitant to acknowledge.
About the author: Robert Fikes, Jr. is a librarian at San Diego State University and editor of the bi-monthly newsletter of the California Black Faculty and Staff Association.
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