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The Hemings Wars

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 627-632 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0113

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The announcement in 1998 that DNA testing proved some link between the bloodlines of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved servant Sally Hemings delivered a mighty jolt to American culture, to the historical profession, and to the reputation of the Sage of Monticello. As historians scratched their heads and commentators exulted or raged, depending on their point of view, a committee of Monticello’s historians and staff members examined historical documents, mulled the implications of the DNA findings for several months, and decided that Thomas Jefferson himself was the father of all the Hemings children. Daniel P. Jordan, Ph.D., president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (as the entity that owns Monticello was then named), stated in a January 2000 press release: “Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings. We recognize that honorable people can disagree on this subject, as indeed they have for over two hundred years.”

Immediately, a corps of Jefferson defenders sprang up to disagree. They disputed the methodology of the DNA tests and sharply questioned the methods and arguments of the TJMF committee. They raised the possibility that Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, was a more likely source of the Jefferson-family DNA flowing in the Hemings family’s veins. Though many Jefferson specialists regard the Hemings question as settled, in our boisterous Jeffersonian democracy, books, articles, and internet commentaries continue to hammer at the DNA study, at the TJMF report, and at the scholars who accept the relationship as fact. The dissenters have gained enough traction to persuade some people that the jury is still out. A 2008 article in the New York Sun summarized the debate over Hemings as “a standoff.” Some defenders rage and foam as if the Bolsheviks had captured Monticello, spreading a poisonous partisan atmosphere over the dispute; but the defenders’ camp has also included highly reputable scholars such as Lance Banning, Forrest MacDonald, and Jean Yarbrough.

M. Andrew Holowchak, assistant professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, Camden, adds a pugnacious volume (Holowchak is not only a philosophy professor but a weight-lifter) to the literature of Jefferson’s defense. Early in Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Holowchak challenges the now-orthodox view:

It is now assumed as fact, without sufficient warrant, that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with . . . Sally Hemings. . . . It is an arresting story—an intriguing story—made all the more arresting and intriguing because there is not much evidence for it. At the current stage of historical and scientific investigation, it can neither be verified, nor disconfirmed. That allows true believers—and this is a book about true believers—to spin their yarn and fashion a tapestry, depicting a legend, irrespective of truth, for tomorrow’s true believers.

[p. 19]

To a great extent, Jefferson’s defenders say they are engaged in a campaign to restore not just the Founder’s innocence, but the nation’s. If they can exonerate Jefferson, they will be rescuing the country from a “politically correct” history that demeans the Founders, undermines faith in the American enterprise, and imposes collective guilt on the nation. Holowchak takes aim mainly at three “true believers”—Fawn Brodie, author of Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974); Annette Gordon-Reed, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) and of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008); and Andrew Burstein, author of The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (1996) and of Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello (2005). Labeling their work “Three Prominent Spins” (p. 22) he finds Brodie’s analysis “chimerical and unconvincing”; Gordon-Reed’s is “agenda-driven, not truth-driven. . . . racial bias abounds in her work” (p. 119); Burstein is “cocksure of Jefferson’s duplicity on gauzy, circumstantial evidence” (p. 136).

Apparently assuming he can read their minds, Holowchak attacks these scholars by imputing malevolent motives: “Their reconstructions are not just descriptive, but also morally evaluative.” Using italics...



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