Jefferson's Black Family and DNA Discussion


Jefferson's Black Family and DNA Discussion (Nov. 1998)

Query From Barbara Ransby 05 Nov 1998

Does anyone have any strong opinion on the article recently published in the scientific journal _Nature_ on Thomas Jefferson's paternity of a child by one of his slaves? A friend of mine who is an NPR journalist is interested in possibly pursuing this as a story I told her I would ask around women's history circles to solicit ideas. Is anyone who works on slavery interested in commenting on this? How does it impact how we see Jefferson, miscegenation, Black women's lives under slavery, patriarchy, etc. in this period? Any thoughts?


From Alan LaBeouf 05 Nov 1998

I watched C-Span yesterday and a woman affiliated with Monticello was there to discuss this same topic. Calls came in and the only thing I 'heard' was that some people are disappointed in woman from Virginia was disgusted at the accusation...and some people thought it was about time that Americans understood the plight of the black female slave. With the evidence in, there should be little left for speculation.

That said, I must mention that someone also called into C-Span and mentioned a nephew of Jefferson's who supposedly had his way with many women on T.J.'s plantation. The suggestion was that he possibly could be the father and that the nephew's DNA could have similarities with T.J.'s. That seems a stretch to me and I'm not sure science would support that theory.

Personally, I think there is very little story here from a Jeffersonian point of view. The likelihood of his relationship with Sally Hemming was evident before the DNA why the concern now? Maybe the only new point is that Jefferson was human, not unlike most men of his time...this absolutely does not excuse him, it merely explains him. The lesson may be that we need to stop attributing hero qualities to all presidents, and take care to pass judgement based on the times and mores.

If only we could know if Sally Hemmings herself felt that she and her child(ren)either gained or lost as a consequence of her relationship with T.J. One can think of her as a victim of slavery, or perhaps as a woman who was able to make the best of a suppressive system, and at the same time have some control over her life?

From Sheila Shiki y Michaels 05 Nov 1998

Isn't it time they now stop that crap about George Washington having had no children? At least we know that [G.W.] freed his children when they were of age, let them carry his name(as did all his slaves), gave them some land & a trade with which to start life.

To me the real scandal was always that Jefferson would not free his own children in order to keep control of them. There was always the story that, as his daughter would not marry the man he chose, he did not free her as he had promised but kept her at home as his housekeeper.

From Ayla 05 Nov 1998

I cannot imagine how this can be news to has long been written of in history.

Jefferson is currently portrayed as an enigma because he espoused freedom for every man, and also kept slaves. There is a quote from Jefferson in which he says the orangutan man desires to have sexual congress with the negro female, just as the negro male desires sexual congress with the white woman.. the impulse being to move up the ladder of the improve or upgrade his offspring.

Jefferson did not consider the black a Man, and so when he speaks of all men being equal and keeps slaves, there is no contradiction in his mind, in his time. He honors and frees those with the blood of their owners. He honors the humanity he sees in them.

I cannot see that his treatment of Sally Hemmings was in any way demeaning to her in his mind, he probably thought he was doing her a great service by covering her and giving her children his physical heritage.

From Katherine C. Larson 06 Nov 1998

I think it is important to remember that while Jefferson's relationship with Hemmings may be considered an old story, there are many historians who have refused to acknowledge this reality. The DNA puts any question to rest, and forces us to rethink Jefferson in a way not possible before. We have permission, so to speak, to explore their relationship and give it the weight that it is due. Finally.

From Paulette Meyer 06 Nov 1998

The DNA evidence specifically excluded Jefferson's nephews as possible fathers for Sally's youngest son, whose DNA on the Y chromosome matches Jefferson's uncle's male offspring.

From Genevieve G. McBride 06 Nov 1998

FYI, albeit a minor point compared to the interesting opinions expressed: the reports I read said that the tests specifically anticipated and then ruled out the possibility that the nephew could have had paternity here. Admittedly, these reports were in the mainstream media I read, not the report in the original publication. But that others may not have seen this point may be because their mainstream media published an edited version of the wire service stories, while other papers like mine gave it more space.

BTW, another point I heard made was that the contemporary media reports accusing Jefferson of not admitting that he was the father of children were untrue, as they actually anticipated by about 6 years the birth of the son whose descendants' DNA now provides the solid evidence. However, the media reports I read also noted that the son was the one whose descendants could traced directly, which suggest that other children could have been Jefferson's but couldn't be so traced.

So now the questions may be only whether a subpoena can be posthumous and a corpse can be impeached. And at what cost to the taxpayers.

From Randee Goodstadt 06 Nov 1998

I was surprised not to find anything about this DNA study of Jefferson on the New York Times web site, but CNN has a fairly elaborate story on theirs, I think on Monday.

I seem to recall reading or hearing that the DNA study pretty much ruled out Jefferson's nephew as the father of Sally Hemmings' children. The most fascinating part of the study to me was the point that Sally was actually the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife (they shared a biological father). I wonder if everyone at Monticello was aware of that fact, or was this buried geneaology?

Seems to me there are endless examples of people with high ideals who made contributions to politics or culture who had rather appalling private lives. This reminds me of the Woody Allen issue so recently before us. I have many friends who despise him and would never go to see another Woody Allen movie because of the step-daughter issue. I respect their choice not to enjoy his warped sense of humor and cock-eyed view of humanity. As for myself, I have no problem separating Woody the artist from Woody the jerk. Picasso and Marx also come to mind.

Why should Jefferson be perfect in his private affairs? Why can we only enjoy works or ideas created by those with impeccable lives?

BTW, I would like to hear more about Washington and his slave children. Where can I read more about that?

From Jeanette Keith 06 Nov 1998

Concerning the DNA evidence: according tot he new report I watched, paternal descent can be traced through some attribute of the Y chromosome. It was therefore possible to determine that Jefferson was the father of one of Hemings' descendants, and that his nephew (one of the Carr family) was not, by comparing the DNA of current male descendants. I assume that to do this you had to find male descendants of Jefferson's father or grandfather, (since all Jefferson's white children were girls and would have no Y chromosome to pass on) and male descendants of the Carrs, and compare their DNA with that of Sally Hemmings' son.

According to the report I heard, the evidence also indicated that while Jefferson fathered at least on some by Hemmings, he was not the paternal ancestor of other men descended from her.

Maybe I'm strange, but I find the DNA stuff at this point more interesting than whether or not Jefferson had sex with his late wife's half-sister. I mean, the idea that descent can be traced like that just amazes me.

From Sheila Shiki y Michaels 06 Nov 1998

The "Jefferson's nephew" story has been floated since the very beginning. I heard that according to the article, Jefferson's nephew had a distinctive marker in his DNA, which eliminated him as founder of the Hemmings line.

From Sheila Shiki y Michaels 09 Nov 1998

<<BTW, I would like to hear more about Washington and his slave children. <<Where can I read more about that?>>

This is vague, but I remember _Ebony_ had written articles about Washington descendants from time to time, in the '60s, which was when I was reading _Ebony_. I believe the Washington descendants had a family association and reunions. I know a great many in the old Negro elite traced their family connections back to George Washington. I think _Ebony_ is still published by Johnson (or Johnston?) Publications. Other than that, most of the information came to me second-hand from black history scholars who were in the Civil Rights Movement, like my old roommate Mari Hamilton or Dick Gregory.

<<According to the report I heard, the evidence also indicated that while Jefferson fathered at least one son by Hemmings, he was not the paternal ancestor of other men descended from her.>>

I thought the descendant of the youngest Hemmings son was the only one with an unbroken male line and therefore the only one they could test. She [Hemmings] was sent to him [T.J.] when she was only 14; how much freedom of choice could she have had (or how much license would the men in the family have been allowed with Jefferson's own mistress?

From Val Johnson 09 Nov 1998

re: Jefferson: two points only for brevity:

  1. the point is absolutely not whether Jefferson was "perfect in his private affairs"!!

The whole entanglement (pardon the pun) is in such a striking way both symbolically and literally representative of the fundamental paradox at the American political history and identity. Jefferson crafted the principal of hope and the political lie that "All Men Are Created Equal," and to see its reflections in his own deeds underscores and helps to explain his own contribution to the paradox. (and of course this says nothing of the gender aspect of the paradox!)

2) as the recent PBS series so importantly reminded us Jefferson KNEW that what the founding fathers, including himself, were doing was fundamentally wrong. I believe the statement in his private correspondence, in reference specifically to the co-existence of "democracy" and slavery was along the lines of 'is there is a God in judgement we will be punished.' He knew.

This eliminates the rationalization that Jefferson could act the way he did politically and privately because he believed blacks were less than human. He knew the lie for what it was, which makes his behavior all round that much more horrifying.

From Joan Gundersen 10 Nov 1998

What seems to be getting missed in the discussion of the strong evidence for Sally Hemmings' youngest son being fathered by Jefferson is that the same study not only ruled out Jefferson's nephews, BUT also ruled out one of Hemmings' older sons as being Jefferson's. The Monticello records show Sally Hemmings had borne children in 1795 (daughter), 1798 (son), 1801 (daughter), and 1805 (son). Teston, (the son linked by DNA) was not borne until 1807. Thus the study both proved a relationship and provided evidence that complicates any attempt to extend the Hemmings-Jefferson relationship backwards in time. It certainly does NOT prove the claims by Fawn Brodie or in the film "Jefferson in Paris." Other aspects of the story were certainly not news. Scholars have known and discussed for years the high likelihood that Sally Hemings was a half-sister to Martha Wayles Jefferson. In fact, Richard Hildreth (a historian writing before the civil war) had clearly stated the two were half-sisters.

From Sheila Shiki y Michaels 23 Nov 1998

A couple of additional thoughts & questions: In _The Nation_ (Nov. 23), Patricia J. Williams points out that Jefferson's relationship with his sister-in-law Sally Hemmings was not "illegitimate" as commentators have been saying. "Chattel slavery meant precisely that: You were permitted to treat people like livestock..." " of the most powerful ways that the logic-box of slavery operated was by suspending the vocabulary of familial or affilial relation and supplanting it with the discourse of commerce. Substituting words like "master" & "owner" for words like "father" and "brother" mad invisible both the ties of the family and the taboos, including incest."

Dick Gregory, who did his undergraduate studies in history in Illinois, told me that Abraham Lincoln, to name another President, was actually the first cousin of Robert E. Lee: and knew it. Gregory said the reason we know the name of the obscure Nancy Hanks, & not that of other worthier mothers of presidents--such as Lincoln's supportive stepmother Sarah Bush Johnston--was that she was the daughter of "Light Horse Harry" Lee's father and his indentured servant. Nancy Hanks was "Light Horse Harry's" sister and Robert E. Lee's aunt. Nancy Hanks lived briefly and died in obscurity, but you would be hard put to name the mother of another President in previous centuries who was not an Adams. But everyone knows Abraham Lincoln was the son of Nancy Hanks, who died when he was a babe.

One thing the Lewinsky affair has done is to strip away that mantle of asexuality which has cloaked Presidents, in order to make them seem "virtuous." The lack of virtue lies in the exploitation and in crimes against people. That, really, is what we must look to understand. We cannot know that Hemmings did not like Jefferson, anymore than we can say she did, because we know nothing of about her. That is the terrible part. It is ludicrous to say that conditions must be perfect for ties of affection to develop. None of us would have born, were that necessary at every point of our lineage. She might have loved or loathed him; and so might Nancy Hanks' mother lived in rage at the mighty Lees of Virginia.

From Sheila Shiki y Michaels 16 Dec 1998

I finally read that "New York Times" article on the DNA testing of the male descendants of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. (See I do *sometimes* throw out old newspapers.) There has been quite some controversy on this list, not the least because Jefferson's Y-chromosome could show him to be the father of Hemmings' oldest son, Tom. Tom looked so much like Jefferson, that it was his birth which caused the rumours. One of Jefferson's acknowledged (i.e. "white) daughter's sons claimed that Tom Hemmings could easily be mistaken for Jefferson at a distance.Moreover, Tom was conceived when Hemmings was in Jefferson's household in Paris, & she returned pregnant, with Jefferson, rather than stay in Paris and go free. But the DNA of Tom Hemmings' descendants did not match those of Thomas Jefferson, the father of Hemmings' youngest son Eston.

I think there is an "Ahem" factor here. I think the answer was that Tom Hemmings (Tom, mind you!) was the son of Jefferson, whom he resembled & who was the father of Hemmings' other children. But, the people they tested were not the direct descendants of Tom, and therefore no relation to either Jefferson or Sally Hemmings, for that matter. Two hundred years have passed & families have lots of "Ahems" in their past. Someone was slipping around, but I seriously doubt it was Sally Hemmings. We have DNA evidence, but of whose peccadilloes?

From Monica Leonards 18 Dec 1998

Regarding..."ahem" factor:

According to the original _Nature_ article reporting the results of the DNA tests:

The study included "five male-line descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson"..."Four of the five male-line descendants of Thomas Woodson shared a haplotype [the Y-chromosome marker they compared] that was not similar to the Y chromosome of Field Jefferson but was characteristic of Europeans. The fifth Woodson descendant had an entirely different haplotype, most often seen in sub-Saharan Africans..."

I think this means that, for the "ahem" factor to be true, Thomas Woodson's wife conceived both sons with the same man, who was himself either white or the son of a white man.

It also means the testing uncovered another, previously unknown, illegitimacy later in the Woodson line.