Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

It has happened again. Poor Thomas Jefferson is under fire – the enemy? Credulity and malicious suspicion. The rumor, of course, is the infamous Sally Hemings case in which Jefferson is accused of romantic affairs and/ or rape of the young slave Miss Hemings. I have addressed this rumor before – it made national headlines but was quickly debunked as being unprovable at best. And yet, some people still love bringing this back up and continue to put forth zero evidence.

This time, the article I could not leave alone is from in which Robert Perry attempts to label Thomas Jefferson as a rapist –  the reason for attacking one of our more intelligent and open-minded presidents remains unknown. Mr. Perry begins his argument in a somewhat repulsive way, “Jefferson apologists raised finicky demands for conclusive proof of the liaison, as if it were absurd to envision that a relatively young man then in his mid-40s, a widower since his wife died in 1782, would have initiated a sexual relationship with an African-American female, even an attractive light-skinned mulatto like Hemings” almost as if Perry expects anyone to want to abuse Miss. Hemings.

The most important sentence in this page-long conspiracy accurately describes the whole Jefferson-Sally Hemings case

Though it’s true that unequivocal evidence does not exist…

If I had the honor of Mr.Perry reading this post – or any Jeffersonian conspirator, I would ask them to please read that slower: “evidence does not exist”.

The article could have stopped there! In fact, I would argue that if any idea, assertion, or story was not found in any evidence, it is a mute point. A good weapon to use in an argument lacing any facts is to say, “Anything asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. As to this case, consider it dismissed.


Thomas Jefferson’s Scandal

Perhaps one of the biggest human flaw is accepting truths before researching the facts. This is the case for far too many issues today, but everyone falls victim to this flaw at least once – I, victim to this human error more than I can count. The scandal regarding Thomas Jefferson and his slaves is one that I have not truly researched and accepted for fact until now.

The rumors from the 1700’s to DNA tests in the 1990’s have damned Jefferson’s reputation and deemed him a rapist. If, indeed, Jefferson did have a relationship with his slaves, it may only help his anti-slavery stance. But the damning part about the scandal is that he was labeled a rapist. This fact the the author of the Declaration of Independence was a rapist could stain his freedom-loving reputation with hypocrisy and racism. Thankfully, for those who revere Jefferson as a man of morality and liberty, it is not true.

The story that originally got so much attention, was the DNA test that claimed Thomas Jefferson was the father of at least 2 of Sally Hemings children. The reason for the immediate attention is simply because we love a good scandal. The drama of our past still lives through a  Life Time Network-like need for drama. The very first studies that caught the public eye is the 1953 study by Fawn Brodie that seemed to have hinted at the Heming relationship. From there the rumors spread to more publications by historian Henry Randall who claimed, “She [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.” 

These hearsay claims are not without legitimate studies to accompany it. The 1998 DNA study sealed Mr. Jefferson’s fate by claiming with 100% certainty that Sally Heming’s son, Eston was his child. This study is based on the Y-chromosome of the sons of Miss Hemings to link the males together. The only problem is that Jefferson’s DNA was not used and he did not have any descendants to use for DNA. There have been many protests to the study due to it’s faulty science. Dr. Eugene Foster investigated the claims and found that it is extreamly unlikely to have any DNA link between Heming’s children and Mr. Jefferson. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In a collaborative study, PBS published the evidence attempting to debunk the bogus studies of the past:

1. Tested Subjects

Thomas Jefferson had no male decedents to test so a direct link to Sally Hemings children could not be tested. To run the DNA test, Eugene Foster used material from male relatives to Jefferson. So the results leave 8 possible father’s if the results are positive…and the results gives a <1% probability.

2. Rare Halotype

The average frequency of a genetic halotype like Jefferson’s is about 1.5%. It has never been observed outside the Jefferson family, and it was not found among a sample of 670 European or 1,200 people worldwide – and not found in Heming’s children

3. Nonspecific DNA results

In Dr. Foster’s results, he found that the 1% match was with Eston Heming and the decedents of Thomas Jefferson’s Uncle, Field Jefferson. This leads us to the next problem with the results

4. Multiple Possible links

The DNA tests indicated that any one of 8 Jeffersons could have been the father of Eston with a 1% certainty and there was nothing to indicate it was Thomas. The 8 possibilities identified by the DNA tests are Thomas, Randolph (Jefferson’s brother), Randolph’s 5 sons, and a cousin George and in 5 of Randolph’s sons, who were in their teens or 20’s when Sally Hemings was having children.

5. Misleading results

Again, the most damning part of the case against Jefferson is the drama oriented media. The media reacts to good juicy stories like the public does: it accepts it as fact if they want it to be a fact. After the DNA test came out, CNN reported the study with the headline “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child”.

6. New Results

In March of 2000, new DNA results came from the Woodson Association to show that “beyond any reasonable doubt that Thomas Jefferson was not the father”. The only reason the results did not get as much attention is because it did not conform to the more Jerry Springer-like results.

7. Grave located

Those who desire a Heming-Jeffersonian link keep claiming they know where William Hemings grave is. William Hemings, the missing link the Heming family is basing their relationship on. But the true grave has finally been found and negates any facts relying on the original grave site and puts any other facts relying on oral history in a skeptical light.

8. Thomas Jefferson Exhumation

If Thomas Jefferson were exhumed for Y chromosome DNA testing it would only confirm that he carried the same Y chromosome as the other 7 Jeffersons in question. The only way this would not be true is if Thomas Jefferson were illegitimate. Besides being futile, it is very unlikely that there would be usable DNA that could be tested after so many years.

9. Illegitimacy

The genetic trail also could have been broken in subsequent generations if any of the mothers in the presumed chain actually had her son by a man outside the Jefferson line. Some of the Hemings’ lines cannot be tested, as there are no male line descendants.

In short, this scandal has gone on for far too long and has even tarnished Jefferson’s reputation to such an extent that he is labelled a racist and bigot by the Black Lives Matters organization. If only there are more fact checkers to spread the word. The lesson to this: questions everything, because ignorance is a strong weapon. So strong, it has blemished the strongest warrior of freedom. That should be enough to disturb anyone who values facts and skepticism.