Jefferson-Hemings 'Evidence' a Mirage
The Devil is Still in the Details
The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty.Presented by The Thomas
Jefferson Heritage Society, edited by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. Charlottesville,
Va.: Jefferson Editions, 2001. 11.95 paperback ISBN: 0-934211-66-3
One thing most Americans probably accept as true is the news item that Thomas
Jefferson, third President of the United States, had a sexual relationship with his slave
mistress, Sally Hemings.
But did he really?
On the face of it, things look pretty bad for Mr. Jefferson. Consider, for example, these
five basic facts:
1. Thomas Jefferson was accused of being the father in the press.
2. One of Sally's children (Madison) said his father was Thomas Jefferson.
3. It was TJ's plantation, and Sally conceived the children when he was
4. Some of Sally's children were said to resemble Thomas Jefferson.
5. The DNA evidence indicates a Jefferson was definitely the father of at least one of
The above string of superficially apparent facts leading to the conclusion that Jefferson
"did it" all began with partisan accusations that were loaded with falsehoods. Moreover,
these apparent facts are just circumstances that are almost inevitable and unavoidable
when a woman has illegitimate children on a plantation.
For example, given the accusation in the press, somebody is likely to have believed it.
And of course it was Thomas Jefferson's plantation -- he would hardly be accused of
fathering children on some other plantation. A pregnancy would occur when people were
there, not when most everyone other than the servants were gone. And if some Jefferson
relative was the father, the children will naturally look like a Jefferson. The DNA tests
only indicated that "some" Jefferson -- there were many that visited the plantation -- was
Affair proponents have taken a string of facts that would probably not have happened
any other way, given that Sally Hemings had illegitimate children, and made them look
like they point inevitably to Thomas Jefferson as the father. But just take the above five
apparent facts, assume that some other Jefferson was the father besides Thomas, and you
can still come up with the same five facts!
And because many people, in the absence of a careful study, tend to form their opinions
on a superficial look at the circumstances, it is easy for them to believe that it was
Thomas Jefferson and not someone else who was the father. But a new book, scheduled
to be published May 1, 2001, shows not only that there is insufficient evidence for the
belief that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children -- it shows that in
fact, there is no real evidence at all!
Inference as Evidence
When the above apparently convincing evidence is meticulously taken apart, piece by
piece, as it is in this book, each of the arguments by Thomas Jeffersons critics falls apart.
This book demonstrates that:
1 The original rumors and accusations were based on gossip from people who could not
possibly know what went on in Jefferson's bedroom, and were published by political
enemies who had a vendetta against Jefferson.
2 Madison couldn't know who his father was of his own knowledge. He no doubt
received the same gossip as everyone else. Did his mother tell him his father was Thomas
Jefferson? Maybe so, maybe no. We don't know, and Madison doesn't say. But even if
she did, that hardly makes it so. Slaves often claimed ancestry from their owners.
Madison even acknowledged that Thomas Jefferson didn't treat him and his siblings like
his children. Moreover, there is new DNA available from Madisons son William, but the
Hemings family refuses to permit it to be tested. Why would they wish to conceal
potentially relevant evidence if Madison's assertions are so certain?
3 Many Jefferson relatives had access to Sally. It was a big plantation. Would the master
of the plantation have had better access to a slave girl than a relative of that master? We're
talking about a plantation where there are dozens of non-notable people constantly
coming in and out, easily getting together unobserved apart from the general hub-bub,
while the master of the plantation was the President of the United States! He was
constantly surrounded by visitors and hangers-on, probably with hardly a free moment to
himself from morning to night, and these visitors did not just drop by for an hour or two,
but large numbers of them often stayed in the house for weeks at a time!
4 Resemblances can be deceiving, but one thing is certain: whoever was the father of
Eston had Jefferson genes. Even if the Carr brothers were the father of some of the other
children of Sally Hemings, it must be remembered that those brothers were as closely
related to Thomas Jefferson and had as much of the Jefferson genes as Randolph's sons
(except, of course, for the Y chromosome, which is only passed down through the male
line). Callender said that 12 year-old Tom had a resemblance to the President, and if that
was Tom Woodson, we now know from the DNA tests that that accusation was
5 The DNA evidence only indicates it was some male in the Jefferson family, and
apparently someone at the plantation. No surprise there. But for the casual inquirer, the
very mention of DNA evidence suggests a one-in-a-billion certainty. Not so here,
however. Y chromosomal DNA tests only identify all males in a family as possibilities
with an approximately one-in-a-hundred sureness. It cannot identify specific individuals
within that family.
Roughing-Up the Evidence
The DNA test results plus the circumstantial evidence points to Thomas Jefferson as the
most probable suspect on the basis of a rough approximation and superficial view of the
evidence only. When we go beyond that quick glance and those superficial appearances,
the "evidence" dissolves into mist. But the problem thus far has invariably been a
superficial approach in the media and by affair proponents, from the headline in Nature to
the disregard of family evidence in opposition to the gossip as was done by the Thomas
Jefferson Foundation's Research Committee.
For example, if affair opponents say there is no record of Sally ever having told anyone
that Thomas Jefferson was the father, then affair proponents say that the Madison
interview is "roughly speaking" the equivalent to a record of Sally saying that, even
though the interview doesn't make that claim. Eston changing his name from Hemings to
Jefferson is "roughly speaking" equivalent to claiming Thomas Jefferson as his father,
even though he never made that specific claim, and other slaves on the plantation did the
same thing without making any such claim. The list of such rough distortions goes on
The apparent inability of affair proponents to accept solid, conclusive evidence in order
to support their belief in the Woodson case is an example of how people who are
determined to believe in Thomas Jefferson's guilt will disregard what is by far the most
positive and conclusive evidence to come out of this whole investigation. The Woodson
family tradition is without doubt the most firmly established oral tradition in this whole
controversy. But that oral tradition was proven wrong with nearly absolute certainty.
Nevertheless, affair proponents continue to try to devise twisted scenarios that would
make Tom Woodson the son of Thomas Jefferson.
The TJHS to the Rescue
It is against this onslaught of determined affair proponents, hell-bent on making Thomas
Jefferson the culprit, that the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS) has issued its
forthcoming little book. Ten different authors combined their knowledge and talents to
produce a meticulous analysis of all the evidence, plus a revealing account of the
machinations and deceptions surrounding the Jefferson-Hemings myth and those who
promote it. In this book we can discover:
* How the myth that accuses Thomas Jefferson of fathering the children of Sally Hemings
began with allegations made by a scurrilous scandalmonger as part of an unsuccessful
blackmail scheme to force President Jefferson to appoint him to a government job.
* How the results of a 1998 DNA study were presented in such a way as to mislead the
public into believing that scientific tests had proved Thomas Jefferson was the father of
Sally Hemings' last child.
* How information about other Jefferson males living in the vicinity of Monticello who
could have been the father of Sally Hemings' last child was kept from the news media and
even omitted from scholarly books.
* How the news media were provided with the falacious title of a scientific study, and
how some were misled into denigrating Thomas Jefferson as a liar, a hypocrite, and a
fraud based on that false and misleading information.
* How the descendants of Tom Woodson continue to maintain he was the son of Thomas
Jefferson even though the DNA tests conclusively disproved this long-repeated family
* Why exhuming the body of Thomas Jefferson and subjecting it to DNA testing cannot
prove whether or not someone living today is or is not a descendant of his.
* How a research committee ignored all the contrary evidence and suppressed a dissenting
minority report in order to arrive at the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was probably
the father of all Sally Hemings' children.
* Why a deceptive statistical study indicating a high probability of Jefferson's guilt is
based on inadequate evidence and is invalid.
* Why, from a legal viewpoint, the case against Thomas Jefferson is deficient in any
substantial evidence and completely without merit.
* How a key letter written by Jefferson's granddaughter was altered by one author to
reverse its clear meaning and then reprinted and used as authority by other advocates of
the Jefferson-Hemings myth.
* Why a group of citizens felt it necessary to form the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
in order to expose the false information being disseminated to destroy the reputation of
the Founding Father who, as George Will said, "gave us our creed" and "defined the
* How these attacks on Jefferson are also used by some to undermine the principles he
stood for and on which the American republic was founded.
With careful attention to detail, the ten authors of this book explore the above topics plus
many more in this interesting and penetrating investigation into the Jefferson-Hemings
story. One after another, the carefully documented chapters show that the advocates of
Thomas Jeffersons paternity not only have many of their facts wrong, they also have
given inappropriate weight to most of the facts that they did have at hand. The reader of
this book will come away convinced that there is no evidence at all supporting the
proposition that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children.