I recently finished watching the HBO mini-series John Adams. I think it is one of the best historical productions I have ever seen. Much more accurate than Mel Gibson’s over produced monstrosity The Patriot. I haven’t read a lot about John Adams, but the film incorporated a lot of events and dialog I had read about in the biographies of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, therefore I was confident that the depiction of Adams was in deed accurate. The series also gave me a strong desire to read more about Mr. Adams, our second President. I encourage you to watch it if you get a chance. My only issue with the series, aside from a few historical inaccuracies, was the depiction of Thomas Jefferson in the last episode “Peacefield.”
In the early episodes it showed Jefferson as a some-what timid man, this may or may not have been accurate, and while I felt it was a poor representation of the man I let it slide because it was a, after all, a series about John Adams, not Thomas Jefferson. The problem arrises in the final episode when Adams begins to correspond with Jefferson again after the death of his beloved wife Abigail. As they write letters back and forth we see them age and grow weaker; Adams in the fields walking, Jefferson at Monticello. Then towards the very end of the episode we see both Adams and Jefferson die. Adams is surrounded by family as he dies. Jefferson is surrounded by his slaves, one is an unnamed woman who is crying as Jefferson passes away.
The obvious insinuation is that the woman is Sally Hemings, the slave who accompanied Jefferson and his daughter to France when Jefferson took over as ambassador to France when Benjamin Franklin retired. She is also the woman who is presumed to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Jefferson. The common held belief by most Americans is that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson started a relationship in France that continued for the rest of his life at Monticello. It is also believed that Jefferson fathered several children with her.
Those who support this belief point out that the relationship began after Jefferson’s wife died, which him depressed and alone. This means that if the theory is true, Jefferson was never guilty of infidelity. There are several writings by Jefferson were he explains his love for his wife and the pain of her death. It is clear he loved his wife dearly, and it hard to say if his loneliness would lead him to enter into a relationship with someone else after her death, because of his deep devotion towards her.
The problem with all the Sally Hemings speculation is that it is just that… speculation. There is no hard evidence of any such relationship. And the problem with speculation is that it has a nasty way of turning into something worse; the “truth”. If you ask the average person on the street they will probably tell you that Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves. It is so deeply believed in America today that it isn’t even questioned.
I am not saying Jefferson, or any of the Founding Fathers, were perfect, but I am saying they deserve to be remembered and judged on things they actually did.
As of right now the evidenceagainst Jefferson, in favor of a Hemings/Jefferson relationship is feeble at best. It was a rumor then and it is still only a rumor, nothing more than tabloid gossip. So where did this rumor come from in the first place? A man named James T. Callender!
During John Adams’ Presidency he signed the Alien and Sedation Acts which caused many Republican journalists to be put in jail for writing dissenting views to the Federalist administration of Adams. (Party politics were just as bad, if not worse then as they are today!) Some believe these Acts caused Adams to lose his re-election bid. When Jefferson took over as President he pardoned many of those journalists who were harmed by the Acts. One of the people pardoned was a Republican named James T. Callender. Put the man was ambitious and wanted more than just a pardon, he wanted to be appointed Postmaster in Richmond Virginia. He believed that in writing slanderous articles against Adams he was helping Jefferson, and therefore deserved some sort of reward. Jefferson never appointed him to any position.
It is ironic that the man playing party politics to get Jefferson elected decided to not only switch parties, but also attack President Jefferson in order to ensure he didn’t win his re-election. Callender went to work for a Federalist paper and started attacking various Republicans in Congress. But as the year went on and the election drew closer he narrowed his sights on the President. Historian John C. Miller wrote (in his book The Wolf by the Ear: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery) this about Callender;
…the most unscrupulous scandalmonger of the day,… a journalist who stopped at nothing and stooped to anything… Callender made his charges against Jefferson without fear and without research. He had never visited Monticello; he had never spoken to Sally Hemings; he had never made the slightest effort to verify the “facts” he so stridently proclaimed. It was “journalism” at its most reckless, wildly irresponsible, and scurrilous. Callender was not an investigative journalist; he never bothered to investigate anything. For him, the story, especially if it reeked of scandal, was everything; truth, if it stood in his way, was summarily mowed down.
In The Real Thomas Jefferson (which collects letters and writings of Thomas Jefferson and creates a narrative based solely upon the words of the man, as well as documented accounts from various points in his life) the authors write this about Callender;
he fabricated a series of scandalous stories about Jefferson’s personal life, the ugliest of which charged him with having fathered several children by a mulatto slave at Monticello, a young woman named Sally Hemings. Although Callender had never gone near Jefferson’s estate, he alleged that this was common knowledge in the neighboring area.
After publishing these articles, the Federalist newspapers latched onto the scandal, with some writers embellishing and expanding the stories even further than Callender had done. So why didn’t Jefferson just refute the accusations and put the whole scandal to rest? Maybe he did, well in a Jeffersonian way at least.
He wrote to Dr. George Logan in 1816; “I should have fancied myself half guilty, had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn to them respect by any notice from myself.” Jefferson was a firm believer in the freedom of press, even if the things the press were saying were entirely false. It would have been extremely out of character of him to use his authority as President to correct an attack on his personal life. As these personal attacks gained in circulation, Jefferson privately wrote that he “feared no injury which any man could do me;… I never had done a single act or been concerned in any transaction which I feared to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated.” Towards the end of his Presidency he added “I can conscientiously declare that, as to myself, I wish that not only no act but no thought of mine should be unknown.”
Those who believe him guilty would say that he does not explicitly deny any allegations, and that by writing these after the scandal was publicized he was actually glad that the relationship with Sally Hemings was revealed so that all his dirty deeds were now known publicly. I suppose any words can be taken out of context. For a defense of this argument we can turn to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who wrote;
In speaking of the calumnies which his enemies had uttered against his public and private character with such unmitigated and untiring bitterness, he said that he had not considered them as abusing him they had never known him. They had created an imaginary being clothed with odious attributes, to whom they had given his name; and it was against that creature of their imaginations they had leveled their anathemas.
It is interesting that soon after Callender committed suicide, by jumping into the James River, the stories of “Dusky Sally” (Callender’s nickname for Sally Hemings) all but faded away. Most historians ignored the issue altogether for over a hundred years. The reason being that there just wasn’t enough evidence to even consider it was valid avenue to explore. But modern historians writing about the Founding Fathers seem to love the idea of portraying them as not only human, but flawed humans. As I have already stated I believe they all had their own flaws, but this one just doesn’t hold up when thoroughly examined. As modern historians write papers, articles, and books about Jefferson they apply stereotype characteristics such as racism and sexism. They are no different than Callender, who was always after a scandal and something juicy for publication. These modern historians are rarely considered genuine by the serious scholarly historians, who have long studied Jefferson and consider him completely innocent of such outlandish lies.
One of the most compelling arguments against Jefferson was a DNA test done in 1998 by the scientific journal Nature; “Almost two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.” Wall Builders, a history and research organization run by historian David Barton, wrote an article in defense of Jefferson;
Following the release of this story, writers and columnists across the nation spread the report. In fact, within only a few days, Jefferson had become a sexual predator, and several reports made him into a child molester.
These authors, however, deliberately ignored the non-paternity results of the DNA testing. In fact, the original Nature article had reported that Thomas Woodson–the child that oral traditions claim was born of Sally when she was fifteen or so–the child born shortly after her return from France–was not sired by Jefferson:
“President Jefferson was accused of having fathered a child, Tom, by Sally Hemings. Tom was said to have been born in 1790, soon after Jefferson and Sally Hemings returned from France where he had been minister. Present-day members of the African-American Woodson family believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson, whose name comes from his later owner. No known documents support this view.”
This finding was significant, for it repudiated the strongest of the oral traditions against Jefferson that many long had accepted as fact. A few–but only a very few–even bothered to report this non-paternity aspect of the DNA findings.
Nature, however, after exonerating Jefferson in the birth of Thomas Woodson, claimed that the DNA evidence proved that Eston Hemings–the youngest of Sally’s children–was fathered by Thomas Jefferson. It was this story which swept the nation.
Yet, only eight weeks after releasing this story, Nature issued a retraction, admitting, “The title assigned to our study was misleading.” Why? Because after proving that Jefferson had not fathered Woodson, it was revealed that their paternity conclusions about Jefferson fathering Eston were based on inaccurate and incomplete information, both scientifically and historically.
Biographer Henry Randall wrote in 1868 about his visit to Monticello and his conversation with Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph. When asked about Sally Hemings Randolph revealed that Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr had a “perfectly notorious” relationship with Sally at Monticello, and it was well known among the family that the two had had an affair. Randolph also said that “there was not a shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or an other instance had commerce with female slaves.” Randall wrote that Randolph believed him “chaste and pure – as ‘immaculate a man as God ever created.'” With this evidence and the inconclusive DNA that seems to partially suggest that someone related to Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings children, it seems logical that it was probably Mr. Peter Carr, Jefferson’s nephew!
The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society conducted their own investigation called The Scholars Commission on Jefferson-Hemings Issue. They published a 565 page report on the issue and in their summary they say;
The question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings is an issue about which honorable people can and do disagree. After a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation is by no means proven; and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people. With the exception of one member, whose views are set forth both below and in his more detailed appended dissent, our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.
I firmly believe that the case is very much closed, and that Thomas Jefferson is completely innocent of the allegation of a sexual relationship, or even a romantic one, with Ms. Sally Hemings. I find that the body of evidence against him simply does not stand up to that which is in his defense. I believe it is extremely important to correct these magnificent errors held by the public concerning the history of our Republic, and those whom sacrificed so much to create and protect it. So when you do finally get around to watching the HBO mini-series John Adams, please consider the argument above while watching the final episode “Peacefield” and tell all your friends the truth about the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson scandal!