The Great Man’s Dirty Linen (Cont’d)

Published:June 16, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


Our most popular post to date is titled “The Great Man’s Dirty Linen” (June 24, 2008), and its popularity is due less to yours truly’s searing wit than to its “racy” subject matter: Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson. Re-reading the post, which links to this episode of BackStory on race, led me to listen again to the interview of Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello (2008). I found this comment of hers to be particularly interesting and provocative:

One thing that I’ve come to see is that race remains a very, very important thing to whites. I would say that white Americans, and I think black Americans as well, some group of them as well, are still not comfortable with the idea of interracial mixture. The idea that Jefferson could buy and sell people, separate mothers from their children, and that would not appall people, but the thing that says that now his image is tarnished is that he got into bed with a black woman, I think is very instructive to me and it’s instructive to black Americans watching people have this kind of reaction. But I’m just shocked by people who think that the Hemings story in any way diminishes him as a person that we have to deal with in American history. And it’s back to what I said before about race and how important it is to people to have this notion of a white, pure Founding Father and how his engagement with her changes that.

Feel free to use the comments section if you disagree. Here, meanwhile, is Gordon-Reed (slightly uncomfortably, I think) talking about sex, sin, and Jefferson.

Gordon-Reed has been mentioned on these pages most recently here. Cool painting of half sisters Martha Jefferson & Sally Hemings here.

IMAGE: These two images from the exhibition, “200 Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson,” reflect contrasting societal depictions of African Americans in the evolution of this form of popular culture. “Topsey” (left) McLoughlin Bros., publisher, 1863, handpainted. “Sally Hemings” (right) Signed by artist Donald Hendricks, Legacy Designs, publisher, 2000. Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.


10 Comments on “The Great Man’s Dirty Linen (Cont’d)”

  1. Herbert Barger

    For a REAL reading of this Jefferson-Hemings FIASCO please read William Hyland’s, “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal”, an EXPLOSIVE expose’ of the MISHANDLING of this DNA Study from Dr. Foster, Nature, Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed, Joseph Ellis and others.

    Why would Miller Center and VFH be accepting the words of Monticello and Gordon-Reed rather than the research of the 13 member of The Scholars Commission which found NO parentage of Sally’s children by TJ? Do you not have UNBIASED researchers? Do you actually believe that TJ fathered 7 of Sally’s children as CLAIMED by Gordon-Reed?

    Please read Mr. Hyland’s book and also those listed on web pages: and www/

    The painting of a half photo of Sally and Martha is an outrage and a disgrace in my opinion and should be removed from these pages. Where is YOUR research to confirm this? Obviously you are so biased that you have failed to read Dr and Mrs James McMurry’s outstanding work, “Anatomy of a Scandal, Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story.” After exhaustive study they found NO PROOF that the long ago political lie is correct. Also please read “Jefferson Vindicated”, another study outlining the biased and inconclusive study performed by in-house researchers, Chairman, Dianne Swann-Wright a member, as are ten well known other African-Americans, including NAACP Chairman, Julian Bond of the Monticello Getting Word Project. The emphasis has now been placed upon the Monticello slaves at the expense of degrading Mr. Jefferson. Monticello removed the word, “MEMORIAL” from their original coperate title………WHY…….who are they now memoralizing?

    It is long past due that Monticello convene a panel of UNBIASED researchers to get at the REAL truth of this controversy. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society was founded to offer a level playing field for careful and unbiased reseachers which was NOPT happening at Monticello. COME ON Monticello let’s get together with ALL FACTS…..NOT political correctness. Mrs and Mrs public you are being CONNED…..BIG time……….READ “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson.”

    Herbert Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
    Asst. to Dr Foster on the DNA Study

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks as always for the comment, Mr. Barger. You ask why the Miller Center and VFH accept Monticello and Gordon-Reed over yourself. The Miller Center has nothing to do with this blog and is not affiliated with VFH (although it is hosting a live broadcast of BackStory tomorrow night and you should definitely come).

    As for Encyclopedia Virginia and VFH, we don’t “accept” one version of the Jefferson-Hemings story or the other, at least not for the purposes of these pages. We link to stuff that we find interesting, and I personally find Gordon-Reed’s comments to be thoughtful and interesting. And you seem far less interested in responding to her comments than you do in fulminating at the bias of people you don’t even know.

    Gordon-Reed said: “The idea that Jefferson could buy and sell people, separate mothers from their children, and that would not appall people, but the thing that says that now his image is tarnished is that he got into bed with a black woman, I think is very instructive to me . . .”

    You seem to be intent on proving her point, but if you have some response, I’d love to hear it. Setting aside the DNA for the moment, why does Thomas Jefferson need a defense?

  3. Herbert Barger

    Please read Mr. Hyland’s book, “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal” and you will see why TJ needs a defense and from who.

    I agree that the Miller Center is only a host location for your meeting and should have mentioned The Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello where authors go for “research” on the topic. Why don’t THEY get the DNA Study results correct so that future authors are not subjected to biased and one-sided opinions?

    Thanks for your invite to your live performance but your topic does not fit within my research schedule. May I suggest that a GREAT topic for a future program would be a DEBATE from both sides of the issue. May we expect that for consideration? Get the opinions of Prof. Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed first.

    You are quoting what Annette Gordon-Reed was saying about slavery NOT about the mishandling of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study of which there is absolutely NO proof that TJ fathered ANY slave child, much less the 7 that her book cover shouts. No one has any proof that TJ fathered any of these children, AGR makes a flat MISTATEMENT and you think she is correct and a great historian.

    Mr. Wolfe, our Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( has done extensive research on the topic as well as those involved in historical revisionism and political correctness. If you will read Prof. Peter Onuf’s, “Jeffersonian Legacies”, you will see that the current “push” was started in Oct. 1992.

    If Encyclopedia Virginia and VFH have no interest in one side or the other then why not give both sides and schedule that debate as earlier proposed?

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian

  4. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks again, Mr. Barger. I don’t schedule BackStory programs, but you’re welcome to contact the show’s producers through their website. And Encyclopedia Virginia doesn’t sponsor debates, but I appreciate the invitation nonetheless.

    Your telling me to read a book is not actually answering my question. Perhaps you can tell me right here, in your own words, what it is about the possibility of Jefferson fathering children by one of his slaves that has you so agitated.

    Also, you write that “you think [Gordon-Reed] is correct and a great historian.” I never wrote that. You seem to be boxing shadows here.

  5. Kenneth Burchell

    The bottom line is that there is zero proof that Jefferson fathered any of the children of Sally Hemings. That’s the only question that has brought all this notoriety to the topic and the bald assumption to the contrary — because that is what I believe it to be — is, in great part, what Gordon-Reed has to thank for the popularity of her work. That is, I think, unfortunate for all concerned.

  6. Esther

    I love Gordon-Reed’s point. I think it echoes what Frederick Douglass tried to do for so many years: to fight the “Lost Cause” perspective of the Civil War, and remind folks that the veterans who fought for and leaders of the Confederacy wanted slavery to continue.

    I lived most of my life in Richmond and was surrounded by the Lost Cause myth for almost the entirety of my education. RE Lee and Stonewall were revered in church sermons and school lectures alike. Richmonders did not think of Monument Avenue as a tribute to second-place; they were all perceived as heroes. Except the Confederate leaders memorialized on that avenue all fought to preserve slavery. And I think all of them were slave owners, just like Jefferson and many of our founding fathers were.

    I could never get around that, no matter how many Southern preachers I heard extol the virtues of Lee’s faith or Stonewall’s eccentric ways of eating or Lee’s love letters to his wife. I would hear them say great wonderful things about these men, but always in my head, I would think, “But they owned slaves. They participated in slavery.”

    I was also around for the controversy surrounding Arthur Ashe’s and Lincoln’s monuments in Richmond. I am relieved that both of those monuments went ahead as planned (at least I know Ashe’s did, not 100% sure about Lincoln’s).

    I could personally care less whether or not Jefferson actually fathered a child by Sally Hemmings. In all honesty, it is a high probability that he fathered a mixed-race child with at least one female slave. I mean seriously – most of the African Americans living today have white blood somewhere in their background. It either came from free African Americans mixing with whites or with the forced mixing of African Americans with whites. If that didn’t happen, then they would all still be as dark as native Africans are today.

    For me, Jefferson’s legacy is tainted by the mere fact he participated in human trafficking, just as other “great” men’s legacies are tainted by scandal or human failings. We’re all human, whether we author documents that form a nation or serve as ambassadors or found universities or own lots of land. He was a man, not a myth.

  7. David

    I have read both books now, just finishing Hyland’s. He is clearly a Southern apologist, which is an irritating thread throughout his book.

    He is also pretty clearly right about a couple important points concerning Jefferson’s personal reputation: (i) the DNA studies don’t prove conclusively that he was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children, including the only one to whom “a Jefferson male” is connected, namely Eston, born in 1808; (ii) Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, was almost certainly around Monticello at the time of Eston’s conception, and was tempermentally, behaviorally, and intellectually more likely to have been Eston’s father.

    Look, we are talking about two different things here: The institution of slavery in the South and the ways it twisted people’s behavior and the hypocrisy of Southern advocates of liberty and the rights of men in the light of their acceptance of it; and the personal reputation of Thomas Jefferson on a very specific, highly personal accusation. On the latter, it seems clear to me that the general public perception that he was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings’ children is nearly as unproven now as it was before the DNA studies. All that they added was that “a Jefferson male” was the father of Eston, and that no Jefferson male was the father of Sally Hemings’ oldest son, Thomas Woodson.

    Jefferson’s legacy is indeed tainted by his association with slavery, of that there is no doubt. And he was certainly no saint, and a complicated man, there is plenty of evidence of those things. However, Mr. Hyland’s book makes it clear to me that there is considerable doubt about his being the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children, including Eston.

  8. kmt

    I found Gordon-Reed’s implication in the comment presented in this article undoubtedly familiar, especially, after reading some of the comments on this blog and others. I also think it’s very odd that so many of you have never met Mr. Jefferson but deem the issue of “defending” the man’s “character” a national imperative. The preponderance of historical evidence supports the notion of Mr. Jefferson as a man of conflicting interests. Yes, he was a man of his time who publicly opposed enslavement and privately propagated it. Furthermore, that he most likely took to bed a ‘woman’ who was both lover and property is not at all remarkable. Maybe if we directed our focus towards Thomas Jefferson “the man” these so-called “myths” would not seem so strange…

  9. Rosie

    Why is it so important to Americans on whether or not Jefferson had a sexual relationship with one of his female slaves?

    Is it because he was the 3rd President of the U.S. and a Founding Father? What? No one is accusing Jefferson of sleeping around the slave quarter. And plantation masters (regardless of whether they were “refined” or not) having a sexual relationship with a female slave was more common than certain Americans would care to admit.

    What is the big deal? The United States is not going to explode in shame or something if Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings ever proved to be true. Or even if we finally learn that the affair never happened . . . so what? That will not erase the fact that a great number of other planters and slave owners had sex with their slaves.

    Interracial affairs of this kind happened. Face it, deal with it and move on.

  10. lisa

    I have read Ms. Gordon-Reed’s work, other scholarship, including the so called Scholarship Committee. I have also read the above historian’s constant attack of the Hemings-Jefferson liason.

    While the DNA evidence can best guarantee extreme plausibility, I do not believe that any scientific journal would stake its reputation to falsify evidence of children fathered by what his defenders view as a scapegoat.

    I maintain that the arguments in Jefferson’s defense are far more offensive, indeed to the craft of history itself. They border on appalling.

    First: totally discrediting Madison Hemings account is egregious, yes family accounts vary, and do have inconsistencies, but I can tell you who my dead relatives are in fairly decent details. Just because his account does not have Southern white approval, or is not published/edit by a journal does not make it entirely false. The ‘he is liar’ defense is a little old. Further, why would the newspaper even bother to fabricate the story–the venerated licking of TJ’s fancy boots was 100 years in practice, no one believed it, and those who did, well receive the harsh, anger-filled rebuttals similar to Jefferson’s supporters today. If Eston Jefferson had been alive, it would have given a better perspective to validate or disprove as needed. Since when are primary sources invalid?

    Secondly, the alleged daddies, the Carr brothers brothers, were shown through DNA to be less probable candidates than Jefferson; of course this means nothing to deniers–such as Mr. Barger–however, what stands out to me, is the fact that Sally Hemings and Co. were never handed over to either of them during the accusations. The removal of them during would have solved the problem, and I don’t buy Jefferson’s ‘to respond is to engage’ stance without DNA, and the family forever gone, there would be speculation, but NEVER any proof. And if they Carr troop fathered them, they quite would have said so–they as in Jefferson, et al. A reasonable person is expected to believe that, Thomas Jefferson–writer of the declaration, swindler of the Native Americans, and original trouncer of congress with the LA purchase, could not have talked his way out of a paternity scandal? To let his character protect him meant that he could be assured of fooling all anyway. If the Carr brothers were indeed bawling about their role in things, as the commission suggests, it is because they failed in the perfect cover for Jefferson.

    Furthermore that this sycophant Sally named her children after Jefferson’s friends, just because she and the nephews could think of nothing else? Simpletons all! And her children were conceived always when Jefferson was in the area–I refuse to believe that all of the jefferson’s decided that coitus occurred only at certain times. Please. TJ’s farming skills were awful, so then he was planning chattel breeding? What?

    Further the special treatment of Hemings children should have come from their ‘father’; not the alleged innocent, were he not so. Other slave children were sent to the field; not them. And if, either Peter/Sam fathered them, would not they have made a special request, which Jefferson could have documented; and further then, why did one of those men pay for Harriet Hemings relocation to Philadelphia? Not a nearly destitute third President? He was not that kind….selling families apart and flogging a man in public…tsk.

    Although portrayed an unreliable drunk, James Callander was wise in talking to the neighbors. Although bound for some discrepancy, it is certainly more believable than the specter of a neighbor who looked like Farrah Fawcett, and more widely accepted. Too bad he died, in a way that mirrored drowning in his bath tub. If I had to guess…Well, that wouldn’t be very nice to say that Jefferson had him murdered, but I should think so. To view Thomas Jefferson as anything other than flawed person and a product of his time, is horribly misleading, and fosters the very same agendas this neo-Warren commission claims to oppose.

    My biggest issue with the Scholarship Commission’s report is that, the group claimed that the allegations were the result of a liberal agenda, of course of Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration had bigger cover ups to work on than fabricating 200+ year old DNA results. I can’t imagine the time being wasted.

    The paternity of Beverly Hemings was more in question, given earlier birth timing–but the normal term window begins at 37, not 42 weeks, so really that is no less plausible. He still could have been fathered by Jefferson.

    Regardless, I find the biggest flaw in the report to be its first claim of a liberal agenda. Really? The statement in itself is suspect, and the argument presented against Hemings-Jefferson is no more persuasive than the argument in favor, except that the preface in this report, so strongly political, pushes the commissions statements to a very low degree of believability, well below the possibility of the Hemings-Jefferson liason, and there I stand.

    While it is true that Hemings-Jefferson cannot be 100% proven at this time, it is highly probable, more than the counter argument, cannot be effectively disproven, as this hero-worshipping, politicized graduate level-work proves; fair and balanced it is not. As a “family historian”, I expect that this exercise in face-saving by Mr. Barger and others will convince some, but thankfully not all.

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