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.