This biographical account of the obscure Sally Hemings is intellectually disappointing. You assigned the task for this account to an author who has a conflict of interest. Virginia Scharff has just released a book committed to the storyline that Jefferson started a relationship with Hemings in Paris that resulted in his paternity of some or all of her subsequent children.
Scharff does not cite “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission” in her suggested “Further Reading.” This work provides the most detailed examination of all of the evidence which would indicate paternity or might mitigate against it. In spite of her personal belief, or whether she was encouraged by similar beliefs among those who control history at Encyclopedia Virginia, the evidence supporting paternity is at best circumstantial, and the arguments against it are compelling.
Central to the paternity belief is the hearsay information in the Madison Hemings interview, which occurred almost 40 years after he left Monticello, does not reveal on what basis he thought Jefferson was his father, and his recollection is supported by no other person. He is also the source of the so-called treaty negotiated in Paris by a pregnant Sally Hemings, a condition that has no other evidentiary support. Unless you take it on faith that Madison Hemings alone got it right, there is no paternity.
I don’t know how Scharff counted up the “most scholars” that apparently agree with her, but this is not an issue left to counting noses. It is also not an issue that can be debated in a blog retort. The reliability of the circumstantial evidence and the assumptions that must be accepted to make this paternity claim standup should be presented in this report.
Essentially, this report adds nothing to the 12-year-old report of the Monticello staff committee, makes all of the same assumptions, and ignores any contrary voice.
Thanks to Mr. Dixon for his critique. Here’s our response:
Mr. Dixon’s suggestion that our contributor, the historian Virginia Scharff, has a conflict of interest doesn’t make sense. It is not a conflict for a historian to have an opinion on the subject about which she writes. What should matter is the quality of scholarship. Meanwhile, the organization with which Mr. Dixon associates himself is pledged “to further the honor and integrity of Thomas Jefferson, and to promote his vision and ideas …” I wonder whether Mr. Dixon ever experiences a conflict of interest when he reads Jefferson claiming, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that orangutans mated with African women, or that blacks were incapable of higher thinking? Does the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ignore those parts of Jefferson that do not satisfy their vision of his honor and integrity, and if so, how does that fit in with another of their stated goals, “to foster truth in all matters that touch upon the legacy of Thomas Jefferson”?
Mr. Dixon argues that we at Encyclopedia Virginia are attempting to “control history” by hiding the fact that “the evidence supporting paternity is at best circumstantial, and the arguments against it are compelling.” The problem with this argument is that we don’t make a claim, one way or another, regarding the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children, and we do not present the evidence except as it is: circumstantial and inconclusive. Mr. Dixon explains the context of Madison Hemings’s recollections, and that context is faithfully recorded in the entry. Most historians do not dismiss Madison Hemings in the way that Mr. Dixon does, but that is a matter of debate, not fact. And the entry does not get it wrong. That this is the only specific historical issue that Mr. Dixon brings up suggests, to me anyway, that our entry does not fail in the way that Mr. Dixon says it does.
And no, we do not have a report in our Further Reading that he thinks we should have. But we do point our readers to The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty, published by his organization. We are not attempting to hide his point of view, but it is the point of view of a small, if very vocal, minority. We respect it, and are not trying to argue against it. Our entry—unlike any other that I know of—provides full access to the primary documents and a fair assessment of their context and how historians have treated them over time. Readers are welcome to make up their own minds.
IMAGE: “R. Sally Hemings” by Dave H. (My Excellency, George Washington)