Feedback: Intellectually Disappointing

Published:December 5, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Richard Dixon, of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, has read our entry on Sally Hemings and finds it wanting:

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)


2 Comments on “Feedback: Intellectually Disappointing”

  1. Richard Dixon

    Mr. Wolfe:
    I can appreciate your apologia, but you drift from my point. You permit me to remain convinced that Encyclopedia Virginia manipulates the reader into a conclusion that Jefferson fathered the Hemings children. This is accomplished by your contributor Virginia Scharff opening with her thesis that “many historians believe (Jefferson) fathered at least six of Hemings children,” and ends the first paragraph, “most historians now agree that Jefferson probably fathered the Hemings children.” Just to make sure the reader hasn’t missed the point, she ends her piece (the last line before the penultimate paragraph) “Most scholars now agree that Thomas Jefferson was the likely father of Sally Hemings’s children.” In the penultimate paragraph, “His will freed five slaves… two of them, Madison and Eston Hemings, likely his sons.”

    You point out that “the only specific historical issue” I raised was that the paternity belief and the treaty legend teetered on the unproven reliability of the Madison Hemings “interview.” I could produce an oppositional brief for you, but if you had wanted such input, you certainly could have solicited it before releasing the account. However, another example is the statement that, “(E)vidence suggests that rumors had existed for many years about Jefferson and one of his slaves. Actually, there is no evidence of such “evidence,” and the allegations of Rind and Callender identified no such “evidence.” In the “Time Line,” the births of the Hemings children are listed, and after each is the phrase that their “reputed father is Thomas Jefferson.” I assume this is based on the newspaper articles by Callender which are based on the unidentified rumors.

    Now, you counter that Professor Scharff is entitled “to have an opinion on the subject about which she writes.” Do I take this to mean that the opinions of Professor Scharff and her “many-most historians” constitute evidence in this issue?

    Which brings us to your offhand dismissal of “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission.” The question remains why, since this report was prepared by thirteen identified scholars, a number of them with national reputations. The report is over 400 pages long, and took over a year to prepare, and presents a balanced approach to all the facets of this dispute. The reader should be aware of this resource.

    I would hope that the aim of the Encyclopedia Virginia would be to present all aspects of controversial issues such as this, the truth of which cannot be decisively determined, and not try to call your own coin flip.

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Mr. Dixon,

      I’ll do my best to answer your points in order.

      You object to the Sally Hemings entry’s repeated statement that most historians believe Thomas Jefferson to have fathered Hemings’s children. You argue that this “manipulates the reader.” My response is that a) the statement is true; most historians do, in fact, believe that Jefferson probably fathered the Hemings children; and b) it’s relevant for readers to know what the collective judgment of Jefferson scholars is at the moment. Said judgment has not always been thus, and our entry is clear on that. It may change, and readers have the primary sources right there to begin making their own judgments. I trust them to do that. I question whether you do.

      You cite a line from the entry: “[E]vidence suggests that rumors had existed for many years about Jefferson and one of his slaves.” This was prior to James Thomson Callender’s allegations, made in 1802. You write that “there is no evidence of such ‘evidence,’ and the allegations of [William] Rind and Callender identified no such ‘evidence.'”

      I’m not sure that you’re reading the entry correctly here. Evidence does, in fact, suggest that rumors existed. This is unequivocally true. Rumors of a slave concubine circulated prior to 1802, and the evidence of those rumors is detailed in the entry. Here is an excerpt:

      In 1800, Jefferson, then vice president and a Democratic-Republican, ran for president against the incumbent, John Adams, a Federalist. In June of that year, William Rind, editor of the Virginia Federalist, claimed to have “damning proofs” of Jefferson’s “depravity,” though he did not provide details. The next year, another of Rind’s newspapers, the Washington Federalist, accused a “Mr. J.” of having had “a number of yellow children and that he is addicted to golden affections.”

      Do those rumors, by themselves, constitute proof that Jefferson had a concubine? No, of course not. They were rumors, and they circulated prior to Callender’s 1802 article. They suggest that Callender was not the only person, or even the first, to say this about Jefferson. What that means, if anything, is something that historians have debated and readers can consider, too.

      You go on to ask whether “the opinions of Professor Scharff and her ‘many-most historians’ constitute evidence in this issue.” That’s up to you and to our readers. Many readers may find it helpful to know what scholars who are immersed in a subject actually think about it. But what’s important is that Professor Scharff’s opinion does not disqualify her from writing on the subject, as you seemed to suggest. It does not constitute a conflict of interest any more than does your opinion.

      I am satisfied, even if you are not, that Encyclopedia Virginia has, in this instance, provided readers a fair summary of Sally Hemings’s life and the controversy surrounding claims of her children’s paternity. If we were trying to hide your viewpoint we would not feature it so prominently on this blog, and if we were interested in staking out a position on this question, we would. But we trust our readers to use the information that’s here, to follow their noses in the encyclopedia and elsewhere, to read the documents we link to, and to draw their own conclusions.

      That, I think, is what makes history exciting—not filing oppositional briefs or attempting to win arguments.

      Thanks for your comments.

Leave a Reply to Brendan Wolfe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

XHTML: You can use these tags <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>