What the Editor Argued

Published:November 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In part 6 of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider “Life Among the Lowly,” an editorial published in the Waverly (Ohio) Watchman on March 18, 1873. (Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.) In it the paper’s editor, John A. Jones, attacks the recollections of Madison Hemings, titled “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” which five days earlier had appeared in the Pike County Republican, edited by S. F. Wetmore.

Madison Hemings had claimed that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson and the Waverly Watchman replied: “No, you’re not!”

What evidence does the newspaper provide on behalf of that assertion?

1.  Black people are always exaggerating the quality and reputation of their parents. “We have no doubt but there are at least fifty negroes in this county who lay claim to illustrious parentage,” the editorial states. “This is a well known peculiarity of the colored race.”

2.  Just because Hemings said it does not mean it’s true. (Which, in and of itself, is true but perhaps does not constitute evidence, per se.)

3.  Hemings “is not supposed to be a competent witness in his own behalf.” Why? His relative youth at the time of his birth “prevent[ed] him from knowing all the facts connected with that important event.” (You think I’m kidding.)

4.  Jefferson, at age 62, was too old to have fathered Hemings.

The editor then scolds Hemings for making his claim only after Jefferson’s death and, for good measure, compares him (Hemings) to a “scrubby” horse yearning for a better pedigree.

In a previous installment in our series featuring primary resources, the Jefferson-defender Herbert Barger commented on the “contempt for the white people” exhibited by Madison Hemings‘s claim that Dolley Madison had once promised him a gift and not delivered. One wonders why a very specific claim made about a single person must translate for Mr. Barger into contempt for an entire race. But it sure does feel as if the Waverly Watchman—in comparing Hemings to “the scrawniest ‘plug,'” in suggesting that all African Americans have certain (negative, as it happens) peculiarities, and in suggesting that Hemings is not competent to comment on the identity of his own parents—is not showing a lot of love for black people.

Does racism invalidate your argument? No, of course not. But most of the above “evidence” does.

IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); “Life Among the Lowly,” Waverly Watchman, March 18, 1873 (Ohio Historical Society)