Defending Mr. Jefferson

Published:September 8, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Thomas Jefferson by kamilya on

The Wall Street Journal reviews In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, a book that concludes,

emphatically, that the male Jefferson family member who fathered Eston Hemings could have been any one of at least seven males. There were, [author William G. Hyland Jr.] notes, “two dozen-plus Jefferson males (with DNA markers in common) roaming Virginia at the time.” The seven include Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, who had already ­fathered slave children and who had been invited to ­Monticello nine months before Eston’s birth. Mr. Hyland does not exclude Thomas Jefferson as a possible father of Eston. But he deplores the false assumption that today’s limited DNA ­evidence can answer the ­question one way or another.

Seems reasonable enough, although the Journal does not ask a question that the book’s title most strongly provokes: Why does Mr. Jefferson need a defense?

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 and Part 6. And for a discussion of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (2012) by Henry Wiencek, go here and here.

IMAGE: Thomas Jefferson by kamilya on


12 Comments on “Defending Mr. Jefferson”

  1. AC

    Jefferson’s wife’s father even had children with Sally Hemmings. TJ’s wife was half sister to one of her husband’s lover’s children.

  2. Tog

    He is an ancestor of these descendents as well as a slave owner. He talked out of both sides of his mouth, but alas, was a man of his time, just like Lincoln.

  3. MN

    AC you have it wrong. Jefferson’s father in law fathered Sally Hemings, making her Martha Jefferson’s 1/2 sister.

  4. southern girl

    it is what it is and it’s funny how everything was suppose to be “correct” and the owner not have relations with his servants. Well guess what? it happened. Too much time defending history instead of finding the truth

  5. Tan

    DNA markers have proven tj is the father of at least one of sally s kids also documentation historic documentation is said to have placed Jefferson at Monticello at the time of conception for all of her kids

  6. Amy

    In doing genealogy I realize that people took secrets to their graves and for so long when DNA testing was not available you could only go on what we were told. In order to survive as a freed person vs a slave there was no choice BUT to take these secrets to the grave.

    I think if we all were DNA tested we’d find our genealogy history would change.

  7. Mark

    There is no DNA evidence that Jefferson fathered any children by anyone other than his wife. There is irrefutable DNA evidence that Jefferson was not he father of Hemming’s child Thomas Woodson which is the only historical claim. Like it or not those are the facts.

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Mark, Thanks for your comment. I think that this is a more accurate statement of the facts, from our entry on Sally Hemings:

      “In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), the legal historian Annette Gordon-Reed presented what amounts to a detailed brief arguing that Jefferson was most likely the father of Hemings’s children. Then, the next year, Dr. Eugene A. Foster, et al., published the results of a genetic study concluding that ‘a Jefferson male’ had fathered Eston Hemings. That study also ruled out the Carr brothers as possible fathers and found no link between the Jeffersons and Thomas Woodson. An investigation by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which has owned and operated Monticello since 1923, accepted in January 2000 that Jefferson was probably the father of Hemings’s children.”

      You are correct that there is no DNA evidence fingering Thomas Jefferson as the father of Hemings’s children, but the DNA evidence does not rule him out. It does, however, rule out the brothers whom the Jefferson family had previously accused of being the fathers. Other evidence, meanwhile, suggests that Thomas Jefferson was probably the father of her children (e.g., testimony from one of her sons, records indicating when Jefferson was home and away, etc.).

      What we make of these facts—well, that’s what the debate is all about.

  8. Mark

    How can that be seen as credible when the newsprint shown says that Thomas Jefferson sailed in a vessel with Sally Hemings, which we know not to be true. Also, Callender is cited. Callender publicly swore vengeance against Jefferson and printed many proven lies against the other founding fathers.

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Mark, You’ll have to be more specific: what is “the newsprint shown” that you refer to? And yes, of course we cite Callender. He was one of the primary players in this particular drama, and if you want to know all the facts, then you have to cite folks like Callender. What you make of his claims is up to you.

  9. Mark

    Sorry, I used the link you referred to and a single newsprint article was prominent. It seems to me that since without Callender and Thomas Woodson their would be no reason for connecting Jefferson with his niece Sally’s children. They are both proven liars. Woodson could not even prove that Sally Hemings was his mother. The testimony of Jefferson’s daughter that said there was no way into Jefferson’s room that was not seen by the household is ignored. The whole controversy is based on the speculation that individuals known for lying may have told the truth once, and individuals known for there character may have slipped up on this rare occasion. It apparently is not what we make of facts, because the only facts are on Jefferson’s side. The other side only has fantastic speculations of what could have occurred.

  10. Mark

    I just wanted to correct my above comment where I accidently wrote that Sally was his niece when, of course, she was his sister in law.

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