Slurring Thomas Jefferson

When, in the course of the Clinton presidency, it became necessary to normalize sexual misbehavior among presidents, the memory of Thomas Jefferson was soiled, with the compliance of academic and journalistic liberal elites.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died at the age of eighty-three.  For his tombstone, he listed the three accomplishments he desired most to be remembered:  Author of the Declaration of Independence; Author of the Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom; and Founder of the University of Virginia.  Today, many Americans have no idea about his significant achievements but rather, when they hear Thomas Jefferson's name, their immediate response, "Isn't he the president who fathered slave children?"

The charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered a slave boy went back to the time of his presidency, and was given new life in Fawn Brodie's 1974 book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.  She was proved wrong in the late 1990s by DNA testing on the descendants of both Jefferson family members and slaves which demonstrated that her candidate had no genetic link at all.  Published in the British science journal Nature, the study did find an unanticipated connection to a different slave family, and the article's misleading title, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child," caused an immediate sensation.  


Nature
was roundly criticized by other science journals because its headline over-stepped the actual results of the study which only proved that someone in the Jefferson line was connected with the descendants of the slave Sally Hemings.  Not surprisingly, the mass media picked up on the Nature story's title and not the scientific criticism.  Most recently, author Annette Gordon-Reed has won a series of prestigious book awards for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a work based on the decidedly skimpy evidence of a Jefferson liaison with the slave Sally Hemings and the rather contradictory oral history of Hemings' descendants.

The trump card for critics of Thomas Jefferson throughout all of this has been the poorly reported DNA "evidence" (despite the actual results of the study) analyzed here in my Washington Times article with Kathryn Moore [ 
http://theamericanpresident.us/images/Myth%20of%20Tom%20and%20Sally.pdf ].  The Nature article surfaced at the same time that a sitting president was having some very real problems with his sexual escapades in the Oval Office and, as Washington Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp conceded in the paper's somewhat belated "clarification" on the DNA findings, the Post's and other papers' reporters couldn't help "finding irresistible the possibility of a 200-year-old presidential sex scandal on a par with President Clinton's" and that they had failed to make clear what is fact and what is speculation in the controversy over the DNA testing which demonstrated only that "a" Jefferson fathered the fifth child of Sally Hemings -- not which Jefferson.  Shipp also recounted how the study's principal author, Dr. [Eugene A.] Foster, "has tried to rein in these stories but to no avail."

The Washington Post's retraction may as well have been printed in invisible ink, and the Wall Street Journal stated that "the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson."   Few people today know anything of the howl of distress that immediately arose from the authors of the DNA study on the very pages of Nature, or the confession-is-good-for-the-soul statements by Nature's spokesperson in Science magazine and elsewhere when Nature's editors owned up to their error.  

As for Gordon-Reed, an attorney and law professor at New York Law School, she knows quite well what DNA evidence can and cannot prove, and I
write about her lawerly dancing on the Jefferson DNA matter in "Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson DNA Myth" on the History News Network this week.  A particularly intriguing development is the release this month of William Hyland, Jr.'s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal.  Like Gordon-Reed, author Hyland is an attorney, but rather than holding teaching positions, he is a trial lawyer by trade who most recently wrote "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson" in The American Journal of Trial Advocacy [Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007].  Readers may wish to check out the Hyland and Gordon-Reed books, and decide for themselves which of these dueling attorneys makes the better case.
When, in the course of the Clinton presidency, it became necessary to normalize sexual misbehavior among presidents, the memory of Thomas Jefferson was soiled, with the compliance of academic and journalistic liberal elites.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died at the age of eighty-three.  For his tombstone, he listed the three accomplishments he desired most to be remembered:  Author of the Declaration of Independence; Author of the Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom; and Founder of the University of Virginia.  Today, many Americans have no idea about his significant achievements but rather, when they hear Thomas Jefferson's name, their immediate response, "Isn't he the president who fathered slave children?"

The charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered a slave boy went back to the time of his presidency, and was given new life in Fawn Brodie's 1974 book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.  She was proved wrong in the late 1990s by DNA testing on the descendants of both Jefferson family members and slaves which demonstrated that her candidate had no genetic link at all.  Published in the British science journal Nature, the study did find an unanticipated connection to a different slave family, and the article's misleading title, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child," caused an immediate sensation.  


Nature
was roundly criticized by other science journals because its headline over-stepped the actual results of the study which only proved that someone in the Jefferson line was connected with the descendants of the slave Sally Hemings.  Not surprisingly, the mass media picked up on the Nature story's title and not the scientific criticism.  Most recently, author Annette Gordon-Reed has won a series of prestigious book awards for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a work based on the decidedly skimpy evidence of a Jefferson liaison with the slave Sally Hemings and the rather contradictory oral history of Hemings' descendants.

The trump card for critics of Thomas Jefferson throughout all of this has been the poorly reported DNA "evidence" (despite the actual results of the study) analyzed here in my Washington Times article with Kathryn Moore [ 
http://theamericanpresident.us/images/Myth%20of%20Tom%20and%20Sally.pdf ].  The Nature article surfaced at the same time that a sitting president was having some very real problems with his sexual escapades in the Oval Office and, as Washington Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp conceded in the paper's somewhat belated "clarification" on the DNA findings, the Post's and other papers' reporters couldn't help "finding irresistible the possibility of a 200-year-old presidential sex scandal on a par with President Clinton's" and that they had failed to make clear what is fact and what is speculation in the controversy over the DNA testing which demonstrated only that "a" Jefferson fathered the fifth child of Sally Hemings -- not which Jefferson.  Shipp also recounted how the study's principal author, Dr. [Eugene A.] Foster, "has tried to rein in these stories but to no avail."

The Washington Post's retraction may as well have been printed in invisible ink, and the Wall Street Journal stated that "the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson."   Few people today know anything of the howl of distress that immediately arose from the authors of the DNA study on the very pages of Nature, or the confession-is-good-for-the-soul statements by Nature's spokesperson in Science magazine and elsewhere when Nature's editors owned up to their error.  

As for Gordon-Reed, an attorney and law professor at New York Law School, she knows quite well what DNA evidence can and cannot prove, and I
write about her lawerly dancing on the Jefferson DNA matter in "Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson DNA Myth" on the History News Network this week.  A particularly intriguing development is the release this month of William Hyland, Jr.'s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal.  Like Gordon-Reed, author Hyland is an attorney, but rather than holding teaching positions, he is a trial lawyer by trade who most recently wrote "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson" in The American Journal of Trial Advocacy [Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007].  Readers may wish to check out the Hyland and Gordon-Reed books, and decide for themselves which of these dueling attorneys makes the better case.