Vindication Nation

Published:June 19, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


A reader who prefers to remain anonymous e-mailed yesterday regarding the minor Jefferson & Hemings brouhaha that has erupted on these pages:

It’s funny, I was sort of put off by [Annette Gordon-]Reed‘s statement about white people and race at first, especially the notion 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.”

Because to me, his image was tarnished when I became old enough to understand that he owned slaves, and he became more human/interesting to me when I first heard about the Hemings thing, and then he became pretty appalling when I read that he could both have this romantic relationship with Hemings and also be a fairly relentless slave owner/breeder. But to me, racial purity has never played a role in my opinions of him, as far as I can tell.

However, some of the reactions on the blog really seem to prove Reed’s point. It’s eerie. The idea that Jefferson could be somehow vindicated because he may not have fathered children by Hemings is laughable. He was still a SLAVE DRIVER. Christ.

That seems to be the key word in all of this: vindicatedHerbert Barger directs us to read Jefferson Vindicated and rails against bias, political correctness, and histories that he says are marked only by “MISSTATEMENT” and “NO PROOF.” But he stubbornly refuses to say what exactly Jefferson’s “vindication” means.

If the DNA proves he did not father children by one of his slaves, does that mean he was a better man? A better Founding Father? A better slave owner? Is it important for some reason not to admit black people into the Jefferson family? And what is it about the arguments that Mr. Barger doesn’t agree with that are biased and politically correct? And how is it that his all-caps investment in this issue—so perfectly encapsulated in that single word, vindicated—is not biased?

My bias, for what it’s worth, is not in favor of Jefferson’s paternity or Annette Gordon-Reed’s sainthood. It’s in favor of admitting what we have at stake in a certain issue and being honest about it.

NOTE: On the question of anonymity and commenting, here’s Encyclopedia Virginia‘s policy: You’re welcome to comment anonymously but only if your comment is substantive. That is not code for “you must agree with the opinions expressed on these pages”; rather, it means that you cannot use your anonymity to engage in taunting or ad hominem. You have to actually add something to the conversation or your comment will not be approved.

FOR MORE: Click on the “Thomas Jefferson” link below this post to read more on the former president. And for primary resources related to Sally Hemings, see these posts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9. And for a discussion of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (2012) by Henry Wiencek, go here and here.

IMAGE: A detail of Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson) from the series All the Presidents’ Girls by Annie Kevans (oil on paper, 50 x 40 cm; 2009)


4 Comments on “Vindication Nation”

  1. Bridge

    I’ve been writing a very extensive paper on Thomas Jefferson. He’s not what you should consider a slave driver. His best friend throughout his life was a black man named Jupiter. He bought slaves to reunite them with their families. He educated some of them and did not harshly punish them. He believed that he and his slaves were victim’s of history’s failures. He wanted them to be free but he knew that this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. He could not escape his time period and that was not his fault.

  2. Henry Wiencek

    The regime at Monticello was a lot harsher than you have been led to believe. Before you finish your paper I would suggest you take a look at the video of a TJ talk I gave in Charlottesville last spring. It has a lot of new information about slavery at Monticello.

    Here’s the link:

    I would not call Jupiter the “best friend” of Jefferson. Jupiter was one of the high-ranking slaves at Monticello but he was never more than a slave. Yes, Jefferson sometimes united families, but he split them also. Jefferson did not educate any slaves. They educated themselves. Madison Hemings persuaded one of Jefferson’s grandchildren to teach him to read and write. He did have some slaves trained in skills that were useful on the plantation. Jefferson never wanted slaves to be free unless they could immediately be sent out of the country. Of course he could escape his “time” — he was a revolutionary! He changed his time utterly. In the matter of slavery Jefferson always cast himself as the victim, but that was just one of his strategies of rationalization. In truth, he had no intention of getting rid of slavery — it was too profitable.

  3. Andre Laoce

    I followed Jefferson a bit and like you Mr. Wolfe I admired him in spite of his slave trading, something others especially some blacks couldn’t see past. I understood that he existed before Darwin when blacks were not viewed as exactly human.

    However it’s ridiculous and despicable that some could say his off-spring with Ms. Hemmings were probably his brothers. It cheapens Ms. Hemmings a great deal since her romantic relationship with Jefferson began in France where she was a free person.

    Secondly records show that Ms. Hemmings and her off-spring were passable as European. Lastly that Jefferson freed his children by her is uncharacteristic of Jefferson unless you suppose he was in dept to Ms. Hemmings.

  4. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Mr. Laoce.

    A few clarifications: I don’t believe I’ve ever gone on record regarding any admiration I may or may not have for Thomas Jefferson.

    I’m not sure what you are referring to when you write that it is “despicable that some could say his off-spring with Ms. Hemmings were probably his brothers.” His offspring with Ms. Hemings—assuming he had any—were, obviously, his children.

    You also write that Sally Hemings had a “romantic relationship” with Jefferson. We don’t know that. Let’s assume that her son Madison’s claim is true: that Jefferson was his father. Madison Hemings says that his mother was Jefferson’s “concubine.” He uses the same word to describe his enslaved grandmother Betty’s relationship with her white master, a relationship that produced Sally Hemings. There was nothing romantic about it, at least not in Madison’s telling, and there’s nothing in the historical record (that I’m aware of) to suggest romance.

    Finally, you write that Sally Hemings was “free” in France. I’m not sure that’s clear, either. It’s true that while she was in France she could have asserted her freedom and, per French law, probably have won it. But is that the same as actually being free? I’m not sure. I’ll give you that it’s a whole lot better than being black in Virginia!

    By all means read our entry on Sally Hemings, which deals with many of these issues.

    Also read the recollections of her son Madison.

    Thanks again for the comment.

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