|3rd President of the United States|
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
|Vice President||Aaron Burr
|Preceded by||John Adams|
|Succeeded by||James Madison|
April 13, 1743|
Shadwell, Colony of Virginia
|Died||July 4, 1826
Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.
The Jefferson–Hemings controversy concerns the question of whether there was an intimate relationship between U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, that resulted in his fathering some or all of her six recorded children. For more than 150 years, most historians denied rumors from Jefferson's presidency that he had a slave concubine, and said that one of his nephews had been the father of Hemings' children. Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis said, "The alleged liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may be described as the longest-running miniseries in American history."
Beginning in the mid-20th century, new documentation was published related to this issue, and some historians studied it seriously. In her bestselling 1974 biography of Jefferson, Fawn McKay Brodie suggested he had been the father of Hemings' children. The book was widely discussed and Jefferson historians began to lose control of the narrative. While mainstream historians criticized the biography for its psychological analysis, Brodie also published her conclusions about the liaison, as well as interviews with descendants of Jefferson's mixed-race children, in American Heritage magazine, reaching a wider audience.
In 1979 Barbara Chase-Riboud published a well-received and bestselling novel of Hemings that gave her a "compelling" voice, portraying her as both an independent woman and Jefferson's concubine. , but in 1995 the film Jefferson in Paris was released, which portrayed a Jefferson-Hemings liaison.
In 1997 the issue was rejoined when Annette Gordon-Reed published a challenging analysis of the historiography on this issue, deconstructing previous versions and detailing oversights and bias. That year Ken Burns released his documentary on Jefferson as a PBS series. In discussions of the potential liaison, white historians gave all the reasons why it was unlikely Jefferson had one. African-American historian John Hope Franklin (and others) noted all the mulattos of the period and said, "These things [interracial liaisons] were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it's in character with the times—and indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely."
Historically, in the 1850s Jefferson's eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, had told historian Henry Randall that the late Peter Carr, a married nephew of Jefferson's (the son of his sister), had fathered Hemings' children. He also asked the historian not to address this issue in his biography, to which Randall acceded, while passing on information to James Parton, another historian. He published the Carr story and major historians of Jefferson generally asserted the denial of Jefferson's paternity for nearly 150 years.
As noted above, while some historians and others challenged this conclusion, for many a changed consensus did not emerge until after a Y-DNA analysis done in 1998. The DNA study showed a match between a descendant of the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest son. It showed no match between the Carr line and the Hemings descendant, nor between the Jefferson line and Thomas Woodson descendants, who had an oral history of descent.
In 2000, a consensus emerged among historians that the entirety of the evidence suggests Jefferson's paternity for all of Hemings' children. The Monticello foundation commissioned its own study, which in 2001 concluded Jefferson was likely the father of Eston Hemings and the other children. Since then the organization has reflected this change in its exhibits, as well as publications about Jefferson and his times. The revelations have stimulated works by a variety of scholars who use the new consensus as a basis for studies into Jefferson, the Hemings family, and interracial American society.
The Smithsonian and Monticello collaborated in a "groundbreaking" 2012 exhibit held in Washington, DC: Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty. It was the first to treat Jefferson or any American president in the role of slaveholder, as well as the first to present the lives of enslaved families. The exhibit traced the lives of six major enslaved families at Monticello and noted the consensus on Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' children. Some historians continue to suggest another Jefferson male as a more likely paternal candidate. In 2008 Gordon-Reed published The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, fully exploring the complicated Jefferson-Hemings family and relationships with his first family.
In popular culture, filmmakers, artists, writers and poets have ignored the historical deniers and accepted that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children. They freely interpret the meaning of this relationship in terms of American history and culture in much new work.
Jefferson became a widower at age 39 in 1782; he never remarried and died in 1826. He is believed by many historians to have had a relationship with Sally Hemings that lasted nearly four decades, until his death, and to have fathered six children with her. The Monticello website states:
Through his celebrity as the eloquent spokesman for liberty and equality as well as the ancestor of people living on both sides of the color line, Jefferson has left a unique legacy for descendants of Monticello's enslaved people as well as for all Americans.
Sally Hemings had four children who survived. In the antebellum period, hers would have been called a "shadow family". Sally Hemings was also a child from a shadow family: her father is believed to be John Wayles, who as a widower had a 12-year liaison with his mulatto slave Betty Hemings and six children with her. These children were three-quarters white and half-siblings to Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson; the youngest was Sally Hemings.
Of the four Hemings children who survived to adulthood—William Beverley, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings—all but Madison Hemings eventually identified as white and lived as adults in white communities. Under the Virginia law of partus sequitur ventrem, because Sally Hemings was a slave, her children were also born enslaved. They were seven-eighths European by ancestry.
In 1802 the journalist James T. Callender, after being refused an appointment to a Postmaster position by Jefferson and issuing veiled threats of "consequences", reported that Jefferson had fathered several children with a slave concubine named Sally. His family denied the allegation. Others privately or publicly made the claim. Elijah Fletcher, the headmaster of the New Glasgow Academy (Amherst County, Virginia) visited Jefferson in 1811 and wrote in his diary:
The story of black Sal is no farce — That he cohabits with her and has a number of children by her is a sacred truth — and the worst of it is he keeps the same children slaves — an unnatural crime which is very common in these parts.
Jefferson made no public comment on the matter, although most historians interpret his cover letter from 1805 to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith as a denial alluding to a more full reply, which has been lost.
The Jefferson-Wayles descendants and most historians denied for nearly 200 years that he was the father of Hemings' children. Since the mid-20th century, there have been challenges to that denial as historians have re-examined some of the evidence and thought to interpret it differently. Disagreements have arisen since the late 20th century over how to interpret historical evidence related to the issue. According to an 1868 letter by Jefferson biographer Henry Randall to the historian James Parton, Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, said that Jefferson's surviving daughter Martha stated on her deathbed that Jefferson had been away from Monticello for 15 months before one of Hemings' children was born, so could not be the father. Randolph also said:
[S]he [Hemings] had children which resembled Mr. Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins ... He [Randolph] said in one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all.
Randolph told Randall that the late Peter Carr, Jefferson's nephew by his sister and a married man at the time, had fathered Hemings' children, as explanation for the "startling" close resemblance that every visitor to Monticello could see. According to legal professor Annette Gordon-Reed, by this act he was violating a strong social taboo against naming a white man as the father of slave children, in order to explain the strong physical resemblance seen by visitors. She suggested he would only have done so for the more compelling reason of protecting his grandfather.
Because of the social taboos about this topic, Randolph requested, and Randall agreed, to omit any mention of Hemings and her children in Randall's three-volume biography, Life of Thomas Jefferson (1858). But Randall passed on the Randolph oral history in a letter to the historian James Parton. He also suggested that he had personally seen records supporting it – but no such record has been found. Randall's 1868 letter relating Randolph's family account of the Peter Carr paternity was a "pillar" of later historians' assertions that Carr was the father of Hemings' children, and Jefferson was not.
In 1873, the issue received renewed, widespread attention after publication of an interview with Madison Hemings, who asserted that Jefferson was his father. He was interviewed about his life as a slave at Monticello, and his account was published in an Ohio newspaper. Then age 68, Hemings, who had been noted by the 1870 government census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson, claimed Jefferson as his and his siblings' father. He said that when Jefferson and Sally Hemings were still in Paris, she became pregnant with his child. Based on Jefferson's promise to free her children when they came of age, she returned with him to the United States from France, where slavery had been banned. Israel Jefferson, also a former slave of Monticello, confirmed the account of Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' children in his own interview published that year by the same Ohio newspaper. Critics attacked the newspaper as politically motivated and the former slaves as mistaken or worse.
In 1874, James Parton published his biography of Jefferson, in which he attributed the content of Hemings' memoir to the political motives of a journalist who interviewed him. He and other critics essentially discounted Hemings' memoir, while attributing to him a range of negative motives for telling his story. (But the 20th-century historian Merrill Peterson noted Hemings' details about events early in his life were mostly accurate.) In his work, Parton repeated the Jefferson family's oral history about a Carr paternity and the claim that Jefferson was absent during the conception period of one of Hemings' children.
Succeeding 20th-century historians, such as Merrill Peterson and Douglass Adair, relied on Parton's book as it related to the controversy. In turn, Dumas Malone adopted their position. In the 1970s, as part of his six-volume biography of Jefferson, Malone was the first to publish a letter by Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Randolph's sister that added to the Carr paternity story. But she claimed that the late Samuel Carr, brother to Peter and also a nephew of Jefferson's through his sister, had fathered Hemings' children. Like Peter, Samuel was married when Hemings' children were born. Neither of the Randolphs named Jefferson's nephews as putative fathers of Hemings' children until after the men had died.
The above 20th-century historians and other major biographers of the late 20th century, such as Joseph Ellis and Andrew Burstein, "defended" Jefferson based on the Jefferson/Randolph family testimony: he was absent at the conception of one Hemings child, and the family identified Peter or Samuel Carr as father(s) of Hemings' children. In addition, the historians concluded from their own interpretations of Jefferson's personality and views that he would not have had such a relationship. They noted he had expressed antipathy to blacks and miscegenation in his writings, and he was thought to have a "high" moral character.
The manuscripts for Thomas Jefferson's Farm Books were rediscovered and published for the first time in 1953, edited by Edwin M. Betts. They provided extensive data about slaves and slave births, including all of Sally Hemings' children, and have been used extensively by researchers.
Black oral history preserved the account of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, and the place of African Americans at the center of United States history. Black historians began to publish material related to the mixed-race Hemings descendants. Lerone Bennett, in his article, "Thomas Jefferson's Negro Grandchildren," published in Ebony in November 1954, examined the current lives of individuals claiming descent from this union.
In 1961, historian Pearl M. Graham published an article on Jefferson and Hemings based on material from the Farm Books, as well as a detailed timeline of Jefferson's activities developed by historian Dumas Malone in his extensive biography, published in several volumes beginning in the 1940s. Graham noted that Hemings conceived her children only when Jefferson was in residence at Monticello, during a time when he traveled frequently and was away for lengthy periods. Graham also provided biographical information on Sally's children; she supported accounts that Hemings and Jefferson had several children together.
In 1972, Fawn M. Brodie, an established biographer and lecturer in history at UCLA, published "The Great Jefferson Taboo" in American Heritage magazine. She addressed the rumors of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, his quadroon slave, did extensive research, and concluded that they had a long relationship. Anticipating "inevitable controversy", the magazine broke with its usual practice and published Brodie's extensive footnotes for her article. She published the article prior to her full biography of Jefferson, titled Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974). The article reached a wide public through this general interest magazine, and Brodie's biography became a bestseller.
In 1953, Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book was published in an edited version, after having been rediscovered. Its records of slave births, deaths, purchases and sales, and other information, has provided researchers with considerable data about the lives of slaves at Monticello, including the births of all Sally Hemings' known children.
Dumas Malone documented Jefferson's activities and residencies through the years. His documentation in his multi-volume biography (published 1948–1981) provided the details that Pearl Graham analyzed to show Jefferson was at Monticello for the conception of each of Hemings' children. She never conceived when he was not there. Martha Randolph, Jefferson's daughter, had made a deathbed claim that Jefferson was away for a 15-month period during which one of the Hemings' children was conceived. Gordon-Reed shows this claim is not supported by Malone's documentation; Jefferson was at Monticello at the time of conception of each child.
In 1968 the historian Winthrop Jordan said that Jefferson was at Monticello "nine months prior to each birth" of Hemings' children, during a 13-year period when he was often away for months at a time. He acknowledged that the relationship was possible. Fawn Brodie also used this information in her biography of Jefferson, which contributed to her conclusion that he had fathered Hemings' children. The source for the birth dates of the children is Jefferson's Farm Book.
In 2000, a statistical analysis of the conception data and Jefferson's residencies concluded it was 99 percent likely that he was the father of her children, and that there was only a 1 percent chance that he was not the father of all her children. This analysis, commonly referred to as a Monte Carlo simulation, was done by the head of archaeology at Monticello. In 2001, the Scholars Commission Report of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society criticized the study, as they said Neiman had not accounted for the possibility of multiple fathers. Before their report, in the previous 180 years historians had made no suggestion that Hemings had more than one partner for her children.
The Hemings children were named for people in the Randolph-Jefferson family or who were important to Jefferson, rather than for people in the Hemings family. When mixed-race children were sired by the master, they were frequently named after people from his family. Jefferson gave the Hemings family special treatment: the three boys while young had very light household duties. At working age, they were each apprenticed to the master carpenter of the estate, the most skilled artisan. This would provide them with skills to make a good living as free adults.
Most importantly, Gordon-Reed notes that Jefferson freed all the Hemings children; theirs was the only slave family to all go free from Monticello, they were the only slaves freed as they came of age, and Harriet Hemings was the only female slave he ever freed. He allowed Beverley (male) and Harriet to "escape" in 1822 at ages 23 and 21, although Jefferson was already struggling financially and would be $100,000 (US$2,084,412 in 2015 dollars) in debt at his death. He gave his overseer money to give to Harriet for her journey. Jefferson avoided publicity this way, but the gentry at the time noted the Hemingses' absences; Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon noted in his memoir (published after Jefferson's death) that people were talking about Harriet's departure, saying that she was Jefferson's daughter.
In his 1826 will, Jefferson freed the younger brothers Madison and Eston Hemings, who were approaching the age of 21. To enable them to stay in Virginia, Jefferson's will petitioned the legislature for permission for them to stay in the state with their families. (Such legislative approval was required by laws related to manumission and free blacks.) Jefferson also freed three older males from the extended Elizabeth Hemings family; they had each served him for decades. His will also requested that they be allowed to stay in the state. Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally Hemings "her time" after Jefferson's death, an informal freedom, and the former slave lived with her two younger sons, Madison and Eston, in nearby Charlottesville for nearly a decade before her death.
1998 DNA study
The Jefferson family assertions about Carr paternity of Eston Hemings were disproved in a 1998 DNA study which tested the Y-chromosome of direct male-line descendants of Eston Hemings, the Carr male line, and the Jefferson male line. In addition it tested male descendants of Thomas Woodson, who have a tradition of descent from Jefferson.
As Thomas Jefferson had no acknowledged male children, Y-DNA of male-line descendants of his uncle, Field Jefferson, were used in this study. Similarly, since no direct male-line descendants of Peter Carr could be tested, the study used DNA from descendants of Peter Carr's grandfather John Carr. Y-DNA is passed directly through the male lines.
Descendants of Madison Hemings declined to have the remains of his son William Hemings disturbed to extract DNA for testing (he was buried in 1910 in a Veterans' Administration cemetery), just as Wayles-Jefferson descendants declined to have Thomas Jefferson's remains disturbed.
The president's grandson and granddaughter had identified one of his Carr nephews as the biological father of Hemings' children. Three Carr male-line descendants of Peter and Samuel Carr, the nephews in question, were tested. The results showed a consensus Carr haplotype for the male line. It was conclusively different from the haplotype common to the Hemings descendant and the Jefferson male line. This proved that a Carr did not father Eston Hemings. The researchers published their results in the journal Nature, concluding that Thomas Jefferson was probably Eston Hemings's biological father and that Peter Carr could not have been.
Following the report of these results, the biographer Joseph Ellis, who in his 1996 book had strongly denied Jefferson's paternity, said in an interview,
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. I think this is a longstanding relationship. When it began and what the character of the relationship is we probably can't know easily or at all. But it was, without question, an enduring one.
Descendants of Thomas Woodson were also tested, as they have had a long family tradition of descent from Hemings and Jefferson. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation had earlier written that historic evidence regarding Thomas Woodson did not support his descent from Hemings and Jefferson, but the family has persisted in their belief. First, there is no record of Sally Hemings having had a surviving child born before 1795. Historic evidence, such as census data and land records, also work against the Woodson family claim. The DNA study showed conclusively that there was no match between the Woodson descendants and the Jefferson male line. Four of the five Woodson descendants had a common haplogroup, suggesting a common ancestor of Thomas Woodson; it is typical of European origin. The fifth descendant showed a different haplogroup, indicating adoption or illegitimacy in that paternal line (a break in descent between Thomas Woodson and this descendant). His DNA was also indicative of paternal European origin.
The Jefferson-line DNA was a rare haplotype in Europe, known as K2. In parts of East Africa and the Middle East K2 is more common: it makes up about 7% of the Y chromosome types found in Somalia, Oman, Egypt, and Iraq. In 2007, a study team reported having found two other men in England with the surname Jefferson who have the same haplotype. DNA analysis shows they go back for at least eleven generations. Researchers suggest that this means that the haplotype was carried by an ancient migrant to England.
With the Carr nephews disproved and a match for the Eston Hemings descendant found with the Jefferson male line, formerly skeptical biographers, such as Joseph Ellis and Andrew Burstein, publicly said they had changed their opinions and concluded that Jefferson had fathered Hemings' children. As Burstein said in 2005,
[T]he white Jefferson descendants who established the family denial in the mid-nineteenth century cast responsibility for paternity on two Jefferson nephews (children of Jefferson's sister) whose DNA was not a match. So, as far as can be reconstructed, there are no Jeffersons other than the president who had the degree of physical access to Sally Hemings that he did.
In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, issued a report of its own investigation, which concluded by accepting Jefferson's paternity. Dr. Daniel P. Jordan, president of Monticello, committed at the time to incorporate "the conclusions of the report into Monticello's training, interpretation, and publications." This included new articles and monographs on the Hemings descendants reflecting the new evidence, as well as books on the interracial communities of Monticello and Charlottesville. New exhibits at Monticello show Jefferson as the father of the Sally Hemings children. In 2010, the Monticello website noted the new consensus that has emerged on Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' children in the decade since those major studies.
In its January 2000 issue, the William and Mary Quarterly published Forum: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings Redux, a total of seven articles noting the changed consensus and the developing new views on Jefferson. One article had the results of an analysis by Fraser D. Neiman, who studied the statistical significance of the relationship between Jefferson's documented residencies at Monticello and Hemings' conceptions. He concluded that there was a 99 percent chance that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children.
More than 20 years after CBS executives were pressured by Jefferson historians to drop plans for a mini-series on Jefferson and Hemings, the network airs Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. Though many quarreled with the portrayal of Hemings as unrealistically modern and heroic, no major historian challenged the series' premise that Hemings and Jefferson had a 38-year relationship that produced children.
In the fall of 2001, the National Genealogical Society published a special issue of its quarterly devoted to the Jefferson–Hemings controversy. In several articles, its specialists concluded that, as the genealogist Helen M. Leary wrote, the "chain of evidence": historical, genealogical, and DNA, supported the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of Hemings' children.
In 1999 the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS) commissioned its own report. Its founder and Director Emeritus Herbert Barger, a family historian, had assisted Eugene Foster by finding descendants of the Jefferson male line, Woodsons and Carrs for testing for the DNA study. Foster later said that Barger was "fantastic" and "of immense help to me". The TJHS Scholars Commission included Lance Banning, Robert F. Turner and Paul Rahe, among others. In 2001 the group published its report, in which the majority concluded there was insufficient evidence to determine that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children. Their report suggested that his younger brother Randolph Jefferson was the father, and that Hemings may have had multiple partners. They emphasized that more than 20 Jefferson males lived in Virginia, eight within 20 miles of Monticello. Paul Rahe published a minority view, saying he thought Jefferson's paternity of Eston Hemings was more likely than not.
But, the Monticello Jefferson-Hemings Report, examining Randolph Jefferson as a candidate, found that he made only four recorded visits to Monticello (in September 1802, September 1805, May 1808, and sometime in 1814), and none coincided with possible dates of Sally Hemings' conceptions. In August 1807, a probable conception time for Eston Hemings, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his brother about visiting, but there is no evidence that the younger man arrived. Similarly, no documentation of a Randolph visit appears at the probable conception time for Madison Hemings.
John H. Works, Jr., a Jefferson-Wayles descendant and a past president of the Monticello Association, a Jefferson lineage society, wrote that DNA tests indicated that any one of eight Jeffersons could have been the father of Eston. The team had concluded that Jefferson's paternity was the simplest explanation and consistent with historic evidence, but the DNA study could not identify Thomas Jefferson exclusively of other Jefferson males because no sample of his DNA was available.
In the fall of 2001, articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly criticized the Scholars Commission Report for poor scholarship and failure to follow accepted historical practices of analysis, or to give sufficient weight to the body of evidence. In the same year, historian Alexander Boulton wrote that Randolph Jefferson had never been seriously proposed as a candidate by historians before the 1998 DNA study. He noted "previous testimony had agreed" that Hemings had only one father for her children, and criticized the idea that she had multiple partners for her children. Jeanette Daniels, Marietta Glauser, Diana Harvey and Carol Hubbell Ouellette conducted research and in 2003 concluded that Randolph Jefferson had been an infrequent visitor to Monticello.
In 1999, Lucian Truscott IV, a Wayles-Jefferson descendant and member of the Monticello Association, the Jefferson lineage society, invited Hemings' descendants to that year's annual meeting. In light of the new material on Jefferson DNA and other historic reviews, the Association decided to commission its own report to determine whether it would admit Hemings' descendants to the lineage society. The report was to determine whether the Hemings descendants could satisfy the society's requirements for documentation of lineage. The 2002 report to the Monticello Association concluded the evidence was insufficient to establish Jefferson's paternity. The majority of members voted against admitting the Hemings descendants as members of the group.
Truscott IV noted in American Heritage magazine that the Association had not had such strict documentation standards before the DNA study results were published in 1998. He checked the previous membership rules and found the following:
"ARTICLE III — Membership . . . Any lineal descendant of Thomas Jefferson who applies for membership, and annually pays dues as stated in the By-Laws of this Association, shall be a Regular Member of the Association. . . ." Only those 33 of the 93 words in that section of the article address membership criteria; the rest of the paragraph was largely concerned with the payment of dues.
In 2010, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen (descended from Sally Hemings' sons Madison and Eston, respectively; they identify as African American and white), and David Works (brother of John H. Works, Jr., and descended from Martha Wayles), were honored with the international "Search for Common Ground" award for "their work to bridge the divide within their family and heal the legacy of slavery." The three have spoken about race and their extended family in numerous appearances across the country. After organizing a reunion at Monticello in 2003 of both sides of the Jefferson family, they organized "The Monticello Community", for descendants of all who lived and worked there during Jefferson's lifetime In July 2007, the three-day Monticello Community Gathering brought together descendants of many people who had worked at the plantation, with educational sessions, tours of Monticello and Charlottesville, and other activities.
Shay Banks-Young, a descendant of Madison Hemings, had grown up with a family tradition of descent from Jefferson. David Works had originally resisted the new DNA evidence, but after he read the commissioned reports, he became convinced of Jefferson's paternity. Julia Jefferson Westerinen is descended from Eston Hemings. After Hemings moved his family to Madison, Wisconsin in 1852, they took the surname Jefferson and entered the white community. His descendants married and identified as white from then on.
In the 1940s, Julia's father and his brothers changed the family oral tradition and told their children they were descended from an uncle of Jefferson, as they were trying to protect them from potential racial discrimination related to their descent from Sally Hemings. In the 1970s, a cousin read Fawn McKay Brodie's biography of Jefferson and recognized Eston Hemings' name from family stories. She contacted Brodie and learned the truth about their descent. Their family was later contacted to recruit a male descendant for the 1998 DNA testing. Julia's brother, John Weeks Jefferson, was the Eston Hemings' descendant tested whose Y-DNA matched that of the Jefferson male line.
In his last book before the DNA test results were published, Andrew Burstein wrote that Jefferson could not have been the father of Hemings' children. Since then he published Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello (2005), in which he concluded that Jefferson did have a long-term sexual relationship with Sally Hemings.
Burstein said in an interview about his 2005 book,
On Jefferson's isolated mountaintop, sex took place as part of a hierarchy that everyone involved understood. Jefferson, and those of his class, did not share our current understanding of sexual morality. Sally Hemings was his servant, and had little power. She was dependent economically, though this does not mean her feelings were irrelevant. But it does mean that he had extraordinary power, and she very little, and so, as his concubine, she had probably replicated her mother's relationship with Jefferson's father-in-law; for she was, in fact, Jefferson's late wife's half-sister, and I have described the Hemings family as a parallel, subordinate family to the all-white Jeffersons.
In 2005 Christopher Hitchens published a new biography of Jefferson, whom he had always admired and praised. While continuing that praise, he assessed the president and his views. In an interview on NPR about the book, Hitchens discussed Jefferson's pessimistic views of the possibility of the co-existence of whites and blacks in the United States. He said,
Then there's the odd, of course, fact that he had a very long love affair with a woman who he owned, who he inherited from his father-in-law, who was his wife's half-sister, and produced several children by her, whose descendants have mainly been brought up on the white side of the color line. So in a strange way, his own patrimony disproves his own belief that there couldn't be coexistence between black and white Americans.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), Annette Gordon-Reed recounts the history and biography of four generations of the enslaved Hemings family, focusing on their African and Virginian origins and interrelationships with the Jefferson-Wayles families, until the death in 1826 of Thomas Jefferson. She discusses Jefferson's complex relationships as the family's master, Sally Hemings' partner, and the father of her children.
William G. Hyland, Jr., a trial lawyer, published In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal (2009), in which he argues that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph, who had a reputation for socializing with the Monticello slaves (in contrast to Thomas, who, Hyland argues, did not) is the most likely of several possible candidates for the father of Sally Hemings' children. He repeats the poor reputation of James Callendar, who had first reported allegations of Jefferson's relationship with a slave.
In 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and Monticello collaborated on a major exhibit held at the National Museum of American History, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty (January–October 2012). Described as a "groundbreaking exhibit", it was the first on the national Mall to address Jefferson as slaveholder and the family lives of slaves at Monticello. Members and descendants of six families, including the Hemings, were documented and the strength of the enslaved families was shown. The exhibit also noted that "evidence strongly support[s] the conclusion that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children." More than one million visitors saw the exhibit. Following the Washington run, the exhibit toured the US, being held at museums in Atlanta, St. Louis and other venues. Both the United States National Park Service and the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs note in their online biographies that Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' children has been widely accepted.
Representation in other media
While historians have discussed the issue, numerous artists, writers and poets have grappled with the meaning of Jefferson's paternity in American history, as in these selections from a list of resources listed in a Lehigh University student project of "History on Trial": The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy:
- Bolcom, William, composer. From the Diary of Sally Hemings. Perf: Alyson Cambridge, Lydia Brown. Audio CD. White Pine Music, 2010. Setting of text by Sandra Seaton (18 pieces)
- Hartz, Jill. Siting Jefferson: Contemporary Artists Interpret Thomas Jefferson's Legacy. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2003. The record of a University of Virginia Art Museum exhibit, Hindsight/Fore-sight: Art for the New Millennium (2000), in which performance works, such as Todd Murphy's "Monument to Sally Hemings" (on the cover), were site-specific. A chapter is devoted to "Thomas Jefferson: Race and National Identity."
- Hindsight/Fore-Site: Art for the New Millennium (2000), University of Virginia Art Museum, some images from installations
- Mion, Tina. Half Sisters (2002 painting). Of Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Mion wrote: "I feel that the real story is being overlooked. Most people don't know that Sally was Martha's half-sister and that, by written accounts, she looked like Martha. Sally moved into the White House after Martha's death. How strange it must have been for Jefferson to be constantly reminded of his dead wife."
- Monteith, Sharon. "Sally Hemings in Visual Culture: A Radical Act of the Imagination?" Slavery and Abolition 29.2 (2008): 233-46. Explores the representation of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in visual culture.
- Park, Gloria Toyun. "Thomas Jefferson." (1998), Fiber Scene. In a public art installation at Columbia University, Park placed wigs she had made on historical public statues sited on the campus. She said, "Thomas Jefferson wore a slave bonnet and a wig, alluding to his alleged relationship with his slave mistress of forty years, Sally Hemings."
- Saar, Lezley. Harriet Hemings: Slave Daughter of Thomas Jefferson (1999), All-Art.org
- Salter, Mary Jo. "The Hand of Jefferson," in A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, New York: Knopf, 2008. pp. 124–38. Excerpt: "His time is over. / He'll take the answer to his grave / whether he fathered children with his slave, / Sally Hemings; what words he'll offer / to cover himself are buried in a drawer, / meant for his tombstone."
- Seaton, Sandra. "From the Diary of Sally Hemings", Michigan Quarterly Review 40.4 (2001). (See William Bolcom above, who set several of these texts to music.)
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- Resources: The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, History on Trial, Lehigh University, 2009–2012
- "The History of a Secret: A chronology of how the Jefferson-Hemings story was long dismissed by historians as legend, lie or worse", Jefferson's Blood, PBS Frontline, May 2000
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- Sally Hemings, An American Scandal (2001) - a TV mini-series written by Tina Andrews dramatizing the Jefferson-Hemings story. Released on DVD as Sally Hemings: An American Love Story (2011)
- Scharff, Virginia (October 3, 2014). "Sally Hemings (1773–1835)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Library of Virginia. Retrieved 2 January 2015.