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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: Fauquier Heritage Institute presents "The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fauquier Heritage Institute presents "The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission"

By Gar Schulin

WARRENTON, VA - The 2012 edition of the annual Fauquier Heritage Institute Lectures in American History features distinguished local historians and nationally acclaimed scholars to address a variety of topics of regional and national significance.

On Saturday, 31 March 2012, with special cooperation by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, the Institute will host Dr. Robert F. Turner, Chairman of the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, which strongly challenges the modern-era view that President Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by an enslaved African-American woman named Sally Hemings. The lecture will be held at 3:00 PM in the John Barton Payne Building, located at 2 Courthouse Square, on Main Street, in Old Town Warrenton, Virginia. Admission is free to the public. A question-and-answer session and book signing for The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission will be held following the lecture.

The report of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy documents the results of a year-long, independent panel inquiry by thirteen distinguished academics from across the nation. Working without compensation at the request of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, the scholars were unanimous in their conclusion that "the allegation is by no means proven," and with but a single mild dissent their views "ranged from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly untrue." Each argument in the debate is examined in careful detail in the comprehensive 412-page volume, with more than 1,400 footnotes documenting their analysis.

Many of the commonly accepted premises behind the story were found to be false, according to the panel of scholars. Dr. Turner relates on September 1, 1802, one of the most disreputable scandalmongers in American history, James Thomson Callender (who once called George Washington a “traitor” and a “thief”), published an article in the Richmond, Virginia Recorder alleging that while in Paris, Thomas Jefferson had begun a sexual relationship with his servant Sally Hemings- and a son named “Tom” was born of that relationship shortly after they returned to Virginia at the end of 1789 and his “features are said to bear a striking resemblance to those of the President himself.” The report documents Callender was a self-confessed “liar,” who claimed the lies he wrote about President John Adams had made Jefferson President. Subsequently Turner describes Callender as having demanded “payment” in the form of an appointment as Postmaster of Richmond, threatening to turn his pen on Jefferson if the appointment was not forthcoming. When Jefferson refused, Callender vowed a “ten thousand fold vengeance” upon Jefferson. Dr. Turner notes the “Black Sal” allegation was rejected even by Jefferson’s political enemies Alexander Hamilton and John Adams (Adams previously and subsequently was a great Jefferson friend, but at the time his enemy because Adams blamed Jefferson for Callender’s lies during the incredibly nasty political campaign of 1800). The American people also apparently found no credibility in the allegations, re-electing President Jefferson by an overwhelming margin in 1804.

Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that such a relationship could have begun in Paris, as claimed, as Sally Hemings was the fourteen-year-old servant to Jefferson's daughters Martha and Mary, who lived in a boarding school across town from their famous father and the school had quarters for servants. Years after returning to Monticello, Martha received letters from classmates asking to be remembered to Sally. Dr. Turner recounts Jefferson, after learning his two year old daughter had died of whooping cough, had requested that Mary be sent to him immediately in the care of a trusted older slave named Isabel Hern. Unbeknownst to Jefferson, Isabel was suffering complications from recent childbirth, so his in-laws sent fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings to accompany Mary on the trans-Atlantic voyage. The Scholars Commission Report reveals the only credible surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings’ talents or abilities are found in two 1787 letters from the remarkable Abigail Adams, wife of U.S. Minister to Great Britain John Adams, who kept the fourteen-year-old Sally and Jefferson’s eight-year-old daughter for two weeks when they arrived from Virginia on the way to joining Jefferson in Paris. She described Sally as being “quite a child,” and said that she “wants more care than the child [Jefferson’s eight-year-old daughter], and is wholly incapable of looking properly after her, without some superiour to direct her.”

According to Dr. Turner, very little else is known about Sally Hemings in the historic record, as Jefferson made passing references to her in only four of his more than 20,000 letters; and only eleven brief entries in his memorandum books, most of them lists of servants and only a single listing after she returned from Paris. Furthermore, years later, while President Jefferson brought a number of servants from Monticello to work at the White House, Sally Hemings was not among them and remained at Monticello. In an undated note to one of his Monticello overseers prior to departing for Washington, D.C., Jefferson instructed that his daughter Martha and her husband were to receive “everything the plantation will furnish,” and added, “They are to have also the use of the house-servants, to wit, Ursula, Critta, Sally, Bet, Wormeley and Joe. So also of Betty Hemings, should her services be necessary.” According to Dr. Turner, if Sally Hemings had filled the role of his de facto wife or mistress, surely her name would have been listed with that of her mother, Betty Hemings, for special treatment; and surely he would have taken her with him among the dozen slaves he regularly took to Washington- but he never did. Compiling verbatim all listings and descriptions of Sally Hemings contained in the historic documents, Dr. Turner notes everything known about Sally Hemings fit onto one side of a standard index card. Quite clearly the report observes, with the almost total absence of information pertaining to Sally Hemings, she appears to have been a very minor figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Today, many mistakenly believe Jefferson's paternity was established by 1998 DNA testing reported in the journal Nature, but those tests did not even involve DNA from Thomas Jefferson, and merely established that Sally's youngest child, Eston, was likely fathered by one of more than two-dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time- of whom at least seven are thought to have been at Monticello when he was conceived. At the time of Eston’s conception, the elderly President Thomas Jefferson, age 64, was documented as suffering a host of medical and physical maladies including debilitating rheumatism clearly documented in the firsthand accounts; and intense migraine headaches which often lasted for weeks at a time.

By far the strongest family traditions (stories passed down from one generation to the next) suggesting President Jefferson's paternity of a Hemings child was told by descendents of Thomas Woodson, long thought to have been the slave "Tom" upon whom the original 1802 story was founded. However, six different tests of descendents of three of Woodson's sons proved beyond any doubt he could not have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson. And for many generations, descendents of Eston Hemings passed down the story that he was not President Jefferson's son, but rather the son of an "uncle." The report explains who that uncle might have been.

Furthermore, the scholars conclude that neither Sally Hemings nor her children received "extraordinary privileges" at Monticello, and her children were not all given their freedom at the age of 21 as is often claimed. It is true that Sally's sons Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson's will, but so were all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally's mother Betty Hemings who still belonged to Thomas Jefferson at the time of his death. Sally's sons received by far the least favorable treatment of those freed in Thomas Jefferson's will.

Other evidence contained in the historic record invites the question, “Would Thomas Jefferson have entrusted his reputation to the discretion of Sally Hemings?” Dr. Turner observes that shortly before Thomas Jefferson left for Paris, he wrote his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which included one of the most eloquent denunciations of human bondage in history, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep for ever… The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” Dr. Turner specifically notes Jefferson went on to denounce the sexual exploitation of slave women by their ‘masters:’ “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal… If a parent could find no motive in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present.”

The Scholars Commission Report notes the only accounts we have of Sally Hemings as she traveled to Paris as being exceptionally immature and lacking the judgment of an eight-year-old child, and “As the servant to Jefferson’s daughters, she was presumably in their presence for hours at a time, day after day. Again, the issue is not whether Thomas Jefferson would have believed that such a child might be able to preserve his confidences, but whether he would be certain that he could entrust his cherished reputation to her discretion.” Significantly, period French Intelligence reports reveal no scandalous activities observed and recorded during his time in Paris, which would have served the French Government for the purpose of compromising Thomas Jefferson. Dr. Turner adds, we are asked to believe that Jefferson “took as his ‘concubine’ the young and immature Sally Hemings, the ladies’ maid to his beloved daughters, and apparently entrusted his reputation and their love and respect for him to her discretion. Such behavior would be totally inconsistent with everything we know about Thomas Jefferson.”

A fable has been defined as “a fictitious narrative or statement,” usually of known origin. Proponents of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Fable are asking modern Americans to believe that Thomas Jefferson became obsessed with an immature, uneducated 14-year-old slave girl while in Paris; and that he proceeded to conduct an illicit, 38-year love affair with her for the remainder of his life fathering one, or more, or all of her children. Based on everything we know in the voluminous historic record pertaining to Thomas Jefferson, such a fable is not only unthinkable, it is preposterous.

While the facts cited here are just a few examples of the significant evidence in the historic record to date which overwhelmingly vindicate Thomas Jefferson as a man of great character and moral rectitude; and as someone innocent of the charges of fathering slave children, Dr. Donald Livingston, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and President of the Abbeville Institute for the Study of Southern Culture notes there is a great deal of ideologically driven "advocacy scholarship" throughout academia and the pop culture media today, which is more interested in changing behavior than in truth. Solid scholarship and truth will eventually out those omissions of fact; intentional or unintentional errors in the transcriptions of historic documents; and other blatant falsehoods which contradict everything known about Thomas Jefferson contained in the historic record.

With the hope of promoting an informed public dialogue on this issue, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society has issued a public challenge for the most prominent scholars on the other side of the issue to engage in public debates. Dr. Turner’s recently televised appearance at a Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., which summarized the report findings, received high praise from scholars and historians alike; and was covered by national and international journalists.

There is a growing awakening across our land, a yearning by American citizens to recall and seek increased knowledge and understanding of the essential truths and guiding principles that represent our cultural, political and spiritual inheritance, much of it authored and championed by Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, with the passage of time, works by revisionist historiographers fail to withstand critical thought and scrutiny, and their efforts disintegrate before the underlying presence of the truth- their works become scorned and discredited. The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, remains faithful to the study of our American history as a never-ending search for the truth, as it masterfully examines, weighs and documents the facts contained in the historic record to date along with newer research.

Dr. Turner concludes, “It is my hope that our report will at minimum help to correct some of the mythology that has grown up around this issue in recent years. The ninety-two percent margin by which the members of the Scholars Commission concluded that the allegation is probably false should at least give those otherwise inclined to accept the charge reason to pause, as should the fact that the leading scholars who embraced the argument that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings prior to the release of our report have been unwilling to defend that position in public debate.”

Why does it matter today for Americans to study the immense character and ideals of Thomas Jefferson factually and truthfully?

Thomas Jefferson once reminded us a nation cannot remain ignorant and free. A 2009 survey of Oklahoma high school students indicated only 25% could identify George Washington as our nation's first President; only 14% could identify Thomas Jefferson as the Author of the Declaration of Independence; and only about 3% would have passed the basic Citizenship Test given to recent immigrant candidates for U.S. citizenship. Such ignorance does not bode well for the future of our republic- the federative polity bequeathed to us by our American Founders.

It matters greatly that current and future generations of Americans learn about the immense character, legacy, ideals and essential truths of Thomas Jefferson, not only as a great American Founder and Patriot worthy of our remembrance for his many noble qualities and contributions, but for his deep inspiration and enduring influence which comprise the very foundation of America. His is a legacy that current and future generations of Americans- and citizens around the world- would be well-served to learn, to honor and remember, and to keep dear in our hearts.

Robert F. Turner is a cofounder of the Center for National Security Law (1981) at the University of Virginia School of Law. Professor Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia School of Law, and is a former Charles H. Stockton Professor of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College and a Distinguished Lecturer at West Point. He has taught both in Virginia's Department of Government and Foreign Affairs and the Law School, and is the author or editor of more than a dozen books. A former president of the congressionally-established U.S. Institute of Peace, he has had a strong professional interest in Jefferson for more than four decades.

The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( is a Charlottesville, Virginia-based nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization which has a five-fold purpose: To further the honor and integrity of Thomas Jefferson, and to promote his vision and ideas, and their application in our times and in the future; to pursue truth in all matters that touch upon the legacy of Thomas Jefferson; to promote the principles of freedom, patriotism and truth, which were hallmarks of Thomas Jefferson's life; to sponsor and perform research in matters pertaining to the private and public life of Thomas Jefferson; and to stand always in opposition to those who would seek to undermine the integrity of Thomas Jefferson. Additional detailed facts documenting the work of the Scholars Commission can be referenced at the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society web site.

The Fauquier Heritage Institute was created to promote the study and love of Virginia and American history. To that end, the Institute hosts a yearly series of public lectures that seek to promote knowledge, understanding and appreciation of our local, regional and national history. The Fauquier Heritage Institute welcomes and encourages all volunteers to aid our special events programs and lecture series in a variety of capacities; and may be contacted at:


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