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The Content of Jefferson's Character Is Revealed at Last, or Is It?
Daryl Royster Alexander
The New York Times "Week in Review"
November 8, 1998

AS voters reaffirmed democracy last week, a report was released that seemed like lab results on a 200-year-old paternity suit against one of the Founding Fathers. DNA tests matched descendants of Thomas Jefferson with those of his beautiful slave Sally Hemings. This turned Jefferson scholarship on its ear; from the 19th century on, most historians insisted that a man of Jefferson's character could not have had a sexual relationship with Hemings.

The study in the scientific journal Nature by Eugene Foster, a retired Tufts University pathologist, showed Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings at 65, an age associated more with retirement from life than with the creation of it.

Sally Hemings' descendants had long claimed Jefferson as an ancestor, and a few books have tried to document the liaison. But Jeffersonian scholars preferred to discount the claim, specifically that contained in a memoir by Eston Hemings' brother, Madison. The scholars relied less on facts than on their understanding of Jefferson's character. Assessments of his character—written before the DNA test—follow.

-DARYL ROYSTER ALEXANDER

 

HENRY ADAMS

"History of the United States of America During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson," Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889.

"According to the admitted standards of greatness, Jefferson was a great man. After all deductions on which his enemies might choose to insist, his character could not be denied elevation, versatility, breadth, insight and delicacy . . . he fairly reveled in what he believed to be beautiful, and his writings often betrayed subtile feeling for artistic form—a sure mark of intellectual sensuousness. He shrank from whatever was rough or coarse, and his yearning for sympathy was almost feminine."

 

DUMAS MALONE

"Jefferson the President, First Term, 1801-1805," (Little, Brown and Co., 1970). Malone, who died in 1986, was considered the Jefferson authority.

(The charges of a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings) "are distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson's moral standards and habitual conduct. . . . It is virtually inconceivable that this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife's memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on the excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect."

 

MERRILL D. PETERSON

"Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation," (Oxford University Press, 1970).

" Unless Jefferson was capable of slipping badly out of character in hidden moments at Monticello, it is difficult to imagine him caught up in a miscegenous relationship. Such a mixture of the races, such a ruthless exploitation of the master-slave relationship, revolted his whole being. It is of no historical importance, but the best guess is that Sally's children were fathered by Peter Carr. " (Jefferson's nephew)

 

FAWN M. BRODIE wrote "Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History" (W.W. Norton & Co.) and famously re-ignited the Jefferson-Hemings question in 1974, using a Freudian approach.

"One of the important reasons that Jefferson's true nature has remained elusive is the insistence of all his previous biographers that after the death of his wife he never felt any lasting affection again for any woman. Gilbert Chinard stated the theme in 1928 when he wrote bluntly that though Jefferson corresponded with many women "there is no indication that he ever fell in love again." . . .

But does a man's sexuality atrophy at 39, especially if he has already demonstrated that he was capable of very great passion? . . .

Freud warned long ago (in "Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality"): "Biographers frequently select the hero as the object of study because for personal reasons of their own emotional life, they have a special affection for him from the very outset. They then devote themselves to a work of idealization." . . . This kind of canonization dominated 19th-century biography, and even today the Jefferson scholars wary of the impulse to sanctify are nevertheless often its victim; they glorify and protect by nuance, by omission, by subtle repudiation, without being in the least aware of the strength of their internal commitment to canonization. This we see particularly in their treatment of the story of Sally Hemings. This liaison, above all others in Jefferson's life, is unutterably taboo. . . . Black historians, however, have long accepted the story as accurate, and it is one of the most ironic aspects of the Jefferson image today that the blacks who repudiate him as a hero, because of his ambivalence over slavery, nevertheless believe the historical Jefferson to have been a man of great sexual vitality."

 

GARRY WILLS, in "Uncle Thomas' Cabin" (New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974), attacked Professor Brodie's book. But some of his statements about Hemings commented indirectly on Jefferson.

"Yet there is no scrap of evidence for this passion, except perhaps the fact that he retained Sally at Monticello after stories about her had been widely circulated. Still, what was he supposed to do? Kill her? Freeing or selling her would make her more likely to talk, or to be tricked into talking. It was safer to keep her nearby. 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."

 

JOEL WILLIAMSON, in "New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States" (The Free Press, 1980), argued against lumping Jefferson with other slave owners.

"Up to a point Jefferson fits neatly the pattern of the widower as miscegenator exemplified by his father-in-law. One ought not to be greatly surprised to find that he had a mulatto lover among his slaves, but if he did, it probably was not Sally. If it was, he departed the role in two important respects: he did not avow paternity . . . and he did not seem to maintain the relationship with the mistress until death did them part."

 

JOSEPH J. ELLIS, whose 1997 book, "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" (Alfred A. Knopf) won the National Book Award, included the appendix, "A Note on the Sally Hemings Scandal."

"What Hamilton and both Adamses understood about Jefferson, and what my own immersion in the historical evidence has caused me to conclude as well, is that for most of his adult life he lacked the capacity for the direct and physical expression of his sexual energies. Henry Adams put it most explicitly when he said that Jefferson's temperament was "almost feminine." When scholarly defenders like Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson claimed that Jefferson was "not the kind of man" to engage in illicit sex with an attractive mulatto slave, they were right for reasons that went deeper than matters of male gallantry and aristocratic honor. Jefferson consummated his relations with women at a more rarefied level. . . .

He was, to be sure, capable of living with massive contradictions, but his psychological dexterity depended upon the manipulation of interior images and personae; he was not that adroit at the kind of overt deviousness required to sustain an allegedly 38-year affair in the very center of his domestic haven."

 

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, a professor at New York Law School, sifted through the existing evidence and put her findings in "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy" (University Press of Virginia, 1997). She concluded:

"The failure to look more closely into the identities of the parties involved, the too ready acceptance and active promotion of the Carr brothers story, the reliance upon stereotypes in the place of investigation and analysis, all indicate that most Jefferson scholars decided from the outset that this story was not true. . . . In the most fundamental sense, the enterprise of defense has had little to do with expanding people's knowledge of Thomas Jefferson or the other participants in the story. The goal has been quite the opposite: to restrict knowledge as a way of controlling the allowable discourse on this subject."

Last week Professors Ellis and Gordon-Reed appeared on PBS' "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" to discuss the DNA research linking Hemings' last born to Jefferson. Accompanying the report in Nature was an article by Ellis and Eric Lander, a geneticist. Asked on the program if he had a change of heart, Ellis said:

"It's not so much a change of heart, but this is really new evidence. And it -- prior to this evidence, I think it was a very difficult case to know and circumstantial on both sides, and, in part, because I got it wrong, I think I want to step forward and say this new evidence constitutes, well, evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Jefferson had a longstanding sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Even though the match is only with one of the Hemings' descendants, Eston Hemings, it's inconceivable that Jefferson, who was 65 when Eston was born, would have made a one-night stand here."

Later, Professor Gordon-Reed said:

"I think the moral of this story is the thing this shows very clearly is that we're not two separate people, black and white; we are a people who share a common culture, a common land, and it turns out a common blood line, and this is something that we haven't wanted to deal with openly. And talking about Jefferson, which people like to do, I think is a good vehicle for exploring that question."

 

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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