Revising Revisionist History

A new book looks at the misinformation surrounding one of America’s founding fathers and an infamous interracial sex scandal.

The United States of America saw her 233rd birthday this past Saturday. We’ve come a long way since the summer of 1776, something I’m personally reminded of nearly every day as I pass the homesite where Thomas Jefferson lived while penning our Declaration of Independence. I’ve sat many times, sometimes just eating a quiet lunch, other times tapping away on a laptop, while in the shadow if Independence Hall nearby, always wondering what those imperfect men would think of the republic they created so long ago.

Jefferson, for many reasons, is perhaps my favorite historical figure. Many times, however, when I express my admiration of the man, his ideology and his worldview, I’m confronted with the reality that he was indeed a slaveowner, and the accepted reality that he had fathered a child with one of those slaves.

William Hyland, however, says that the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings has largely been blown out of proportion, that the reality we’ve been forced to accept is just another example of revisionist history. His new book, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, was released on June 9, 2009, and he offered to talk about it a little with myself, and with all of you.

Tell me, with regard to the Sally Hemings sex scandal, everything we’ve learned about Thomas Jefferson has been wrong?

I feel Mr. Jefferson’s reputation has been unfairly eviscerated by a misrepresentation of the DNA results in the Hemings controversy. The exhumation of discredited, prurient embellishments has not only deluded readers, but impoverished a fair debate. In fact, with the possible exception of the Kennedy assassination, I am unaware of any major historical controversy riddled with so much misinformation and outright inaccuracies as the sex-oriented Sally Hemings libel.

So, it is an example of historical “whisper down the lane,” perhaps started with something true but perverted over time, either intentionally or unintentionally, to implicate Thomas Jefferson?

The “Sally” story is pure fiction, possibly politics, but certainly not historical fact or science. It reflects a recycled inaccuracy that has metastasized from book to book, over two hundred years. In contrast to the blizzard of recent books spinning the controversy as a mini-series version of history, I found that layer upon layer of direct and circumstantial evidence points to a mosaic distinctly away from Jefferson. My research, evaluation, and personal interviews led me to one inevitable conclusion: the revisionist grip of historians have the wrong Jefferson — the DNA, as well as other historical evidence, matches perfectly to his younger brother, Randolph and his teen-age sons, as the true candidates for a sexual relationship with Sally.

What makes your book so much different than than countless works written about Jefferson and Hemings?

A monopoly of books (all paternity believers) written since the DNA results have gone far beyond the evidence and transmuted conjecture into apparent fact, and in most instances, engaged in a careless misreading of the record. My new book, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), definitively destroys this myth, separating revisionist ideology from accuracy. It is historical hygiene by pen, an attempt to marshal facts, rationally dissect the evidence and prove beyond reasonable doubt that Jefferson is completely innocent of this sordid charge:

  • the virulent rumor was first started by the scandal-mongering journalist James Callender, who burned for political revenge against Jefferson. Callender was described as “an alcoholic thug with a foul mind, obsessed with race and sex,” who intended to defame the public career of Jefferson.
  • the one eyewitness to this sexual allegation was Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, who saw another man (not Jefferson) leaving Sally’s room “many a morning.” Bacon wrote: “…I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early.”
  • Jefferson’s deteriorating health would have prevented any such sexual relationship. He was 64 at the time of the alleged affair and suffered debilitating migraine headaches which incapacitated him for weeks, as well as severe intestinal infections and rheumatoid arthritis. He complained to John Adams: “My health is entirely broken down within the last eight months.”
  • Jefferson owned three different slaves named Sally, adding to the historical confusion. Yet, he never freed his supposed lover and companion of 37 years, ‘Sally Hemings’ from her enslavement, nor mentioned her in his will.
  • Randolph Jefferson, his younger brother, would have the identical Jefferson Y chromosome as his older brother, Thomas, that matched the DNA. Randolph had a reputation for socializing with Jefferson’s slaves and was expected at Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, Sally’s son who was the DNA match for a “male Jefferson.”
  • The DNA match was to a male son of Sally’s. Randolph had six male sons. Thomas Jefferson had all female children with his beloved wife, Martha, except for a male who died in infancy.
  • Until 1976, the oral history of Eston’s family held that they descended from a Jefferson “uncle.” Randolph was known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph.”
  • Unlike his brother, by taste and training Jefferson was raised as the perfect Virginia gentleman, a man of refinement and intellect. The personality of the man who figures in the Hemings soap opera cannot be attributed to the known nature of Jefferson, and would be preposterously out of character for him.

I’ve written about it before, but many don’t know that both Jefferson and John Adams–two of the principal architects of the Declaration of Independence–died within hours of one another on the morning of July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day of the document’s signing, and 183 years ago from this past Saturday. Jefferson gave so much of himself for this great nation — I think it’s only right that we do everything we can to learn the truth about him.

I am not a historian. I cannot tell you if Mr. Hyland is right or is wrong. I can tell you, however, that there is always room for debate. I look forward to reading this one, but because I can only read so much before class starts again in late August and my reading once again turns to law books only, I wanted to take the opportunity now and let everyone know it’s out there.

Click HERE to learn more and to order In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal from Amazon.com.

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Comments

  1. Gail B says:

    I for one appreciate the fact that Mr. Hyland is clearing Jefferson's name and restoring his splendid reputation. (Just pray he's correct! Rix, I'll just ask you to "hope."))

  2. Anonymous says:

    this is a comment from therightsideoflife.com:

    I called quite a few senators and representatives yesterday who received presentments from American Grand Jury last week. An aide to one of the representatives admitted that Obama is surely not a natural-born citizen. When I asked what they were going to do about it, the aide said, “Well, it would be awfully embarrassing for the country if we did anything about it.”

    can you believe that?

  3. Celia in TX says:

    I believe I have read that there are many, many people out there who believe through this history, that they are related, and they gather for family reuions. Black families and white families. I don't know that this story being addressed now is a good idea.

    I never minded if Jefferson had this affair, frankly. To me, it showed that he was human. And all I ever heard was that he loved this woman, and that shows that her acknowledged her as human, too, despite her station in life and despite the attitude of others in the country at that time.

  4. Anonymous says:

    In this economy I am sure there are people who would work for room & board and healthcare (slave?).

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have always had the feeling that the Jefferson-Hemings sex scandal was not quite the way people promoted it. It was under the Clinton administration during the time of his possible impeachment that this information was released. If memory serves me correctly, Bill Clinton started his pre-Presidency fete from Jefferson's home and then made his way to Washington, DC for the inauguration. When the Hemings'findings were released we were in the midst of his impeachment proceedings. So, Clinton and Jefferson are again linked – one fathered children with a slave and the other "did not have sex" with a White House Intern. How convenient to take the heat off of clinton and also show the public that he has done nothing less than his hero. In my personal heart of hearts I thought Jefferson was unjustly credited with this deed. I love Monticello and this part of Virginia where I live. I admire Jefferson for all of the things he has left us; not just his writings, but his inventions and the University of Virginia too. He was truly a man of letters and intellect. I find it hard to believe that such a man who could write such beautiful words and place these truths down for all generations would not be a gentlemen. He never married and could have. I choose to believe the love of his life left him and he raised the children they had and he pursued his interests to the story of a man who hid his passion for a slave. Does not match a man of such character and honor.

  6. Anonymous says:

    one day, there will be a book about our current president…and someone will be trying to clear his name

    personally, i look forward to the day i have a class that needs a paper on whatever i want…it will blast candidate obama and all who allowed this "embarassment" (yeah, i'm a student, non-traditional)

  7. Rix says:

    Gail B:

    I actually couldn't care less for the whole affair. Not only I am an atheist, I also believe that slavery (in somewhat restricted form) would be very benefitial for the society. As if that doesn't make sufficiently evil, I am also a racist (working in statistics, it's hard not to be), which obviously affects my opinion on the issue.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am a proud Virginia gentleman, a historian, and a decendant of Jefferson. Unfortunately Mr. Hyland has fallen in with a small group of Jefferson decendants and others who have refused to accept the historical facts. I have read his book, and the other scholarship on this issue, along with much other Jefferson scholarship. Jefferson undoubtedly fathered a child with Hemmings. Even the decendants who run Monticello recognize this, and include that fact in the tour. For years, Jefferson's black decendants have been welcomed at the annual family reunion by all but a few who think it some sort of a stain on the family name that Jefferson had black children and will do or say anything in an attempt to convince others that it is not true.

    I would like to point out that we fail when we attempt to apply today's morality to a different era. Many fine, upstanding, Virginia gentlemen had sexual relations with slaves. Jefferson had his after the death of his beloved wife. Such was not uncommon at the time, nor was it regarded as particularly wrong or evil. In fact, the care Jefferson showed Hemmings was notable. The same situation today would be undeniably wrong, but at that time, in that place, people saw things differently.

    The complete records of visits to Monticello, kept by Jefferson himself, supplement the DNA record and make it impossible for "uncle" Randolph to have been the father. Hyland ignores and glosses over this and many other facts in his book.

    Sadly, this book adds nothing to the scholarship on the issue and does nothing more than distract others from the measure of a truly great Virginian and American.

    In the end, it does not matter who Jefferson's decendants are. What matters are the actions of the man. Many of those are of enduring importance to our nation, and stand the test of time. Some are not. The lesson is that Jefferson, like all men, was not perfect. If he had room for improvement, perhaps we should all look at our own lives and examine what we do today, and what society accepts today, that may be viewed in a different moral light 200 years from now.

  9. DON'T DOUBT THIS THOMAS says:

    Even King David, a man after God's own heart stumbled. I for one still think Jefferson a genius, and a man whose ideals we really need right now.

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