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Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson DNA Myth

Annette Gordon-Reed recently received a rare feather in her cap when the former, long-time head of the of the ACLU, New York Law School’s Nadine Strossen, stated that the professor and prize-winning author fully met the criteria set out by the president for the high court seat being vacated by Justice David Souter.  Gordon-Reed was described by Strossen, interviewed in a National Law Review article, as a “self-taught historian” and “genuine intellectual” who “confronts each issue anew based on a deep reservoir of knowledge,” but Gordon-Reed’s principal claim to fame is her work advancing the theory that Thomas Jefferson carried on a decades-long affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. 

Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was published in 1997 with its ninth reprinting this spring, and last year’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family won the “triple crown,” a Pulitzer Prize for History, a National Book Award for non-fiction, and the George Washington Book Prize for the “most important book on America’s founding era.”  What appears to have escaped the notice of the awards committees, however, is that Gordon-Reed has presented diametrically opposite views in these books on the central question of whether or not Thomas Jefferson actually fathered slave children.

In the aftermath of 1998 DNA testing conducted on the descendants of Hemings; Thomas Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson; Thomas Woodson, who asserted that Thomas Jefferson was his father; and two nephews of Thomas Jefferson, Gordon-Reed rewrote the introduction to subsequent editions of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to reflect the DNA findings.  Woodson, long thought to be the best candidate for a linkage to Thomas Jefferson, proved to not be related at all, and Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston (she had seven children) was found to be connected to the Jefferson line.  Gordon-Reed, by training an attorney, was careful to state that “The DNA test does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson,” [p.X] a disclaimer maintained all the way through the most recent printing.

In The Hemingses of Monticello, published last fall, however, she returns again and again to an assumption that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered all of the Hemings children.  The work is peppered with references such as Thomas Jefferson “had a still growing number of children with Hemings” [p.591] and he is referred to throughout as “their father.”  Since Gordon-Reed presents no actual evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity beyond her previous work and rather fanciful interpretation of the thin, contradictory history of the Hemings family, how does she move from point "A" (does not prove) to point "B" (fathered everybody) in separate, but concurrent, books? 

One might say  “Well, The Hemingses of Monticello is written from the standpoint of the Heming’s family,“ but the narrative is in Gordon-Reed’s voice, is presented as a work of history, and all of its promotion is structured from the premise that, as stated on the dust jacket, Sally Hemings “bore seven children by Jefferson.”   Thus far, her lawyerly dancing on this matter has largely escaped notice.
Gordon-Reed’s New York Law School bio, updated in April of this year, makes no mention of Thomas Jefferson fathering seven slave children, stating instead that she rewrote the earlier work’s introduction to reflect “a near-certain confirmation of a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings’ youngest child.”  Similarly, her oral presentations and interviews display careful word-smithing with an eye to where her words will appear.  For example, an Australian journalist who knows little of American history came away from an April interview with her firmly convinced that “DNA evidence confirms slave Sally Hemings bore sons and daughters to the third president of the United States,” but in the Washington Post a month later, Gordon-Reed is more careful.  Here, the comments are somewhat more fuzzy: “The most you can say is that it went on for 35 years,” yet, true to the tack she takes in The Hemingses of Monticello, she buttresses an underlying shared assumption with the interviewer that Jefferson fathered everyone.  Virtually none of the press reports of her recent awards have shown any awareness of Gordon-Reed’s practiced inconsistency, and the lack of actual evidence pointing to Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Eston Hemings --- let alone all --- of Sally Heming’s many children. 

Gordon-Reed is an attorney.  She knows what DNA evidence can and cannot prove, and her conflicting published statements demonstrate that she knows quite well that she is on very shaky ground.  She is also well aware that, beyond a wide but often ignored body of historians and Jefferson scholars, there is little threat to the “powerful” story that Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children even though the proffered evidence began to fall apart virtually as soon as it was published.

It all started when a popular British science journal found itself in a rush to get an article into print.  The title was simply too good for Nature to pass up: "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child" [November 5, 1998, p.27-28].  No matter that the shell-shocked authors of the DNA study soon complained on the journal’s own pages that "The title assigned to our study was misleading" and stated that "Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings" [January 7, 1999, p.32].  It was exactly what many wanted to hear and came at the same time that a sitting president was having some very real problems with his sexual escapades in the Oval Office.

And it mattered not a whit that the journal Science received an admission from Nature that "the whole thing really was rushed through" after they learned that the "popular press" had gotten wind of the study.  Nature was reeling from criticism by the scientific community --- almost none of which was reported in the mass media --- and tried to make the best of a bad situation by not dodging questions and providing forthright, if embarrassing, answers to questions.  A spokesman for Nature sheepishly explained that the misleading headline and problems with an accompanying commentary (co-written by Joseph J. Ellis who was later suspended by Mt. Holyoke College over another matter) "probably would have gotten straightened out if there had not been this frantic rush to beat the leaks" [“Which Jefferson was the Father?” January 8, 1999, p.153].

The editors at another journal, Natural Science, were unimpressed with Nature’s excuses and particularly scathing in their editorial assessment, " ‘Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child’ -- Journal Article Raises a Question of Credibility”:

Rather than accept the authority of the editor of Nature or some other journal in the determination of scientific truth, both the media and the public at large should be skeptical about all scientific claims until they have been evaluated, not only by peer-reviewed journals, but also in the open forum of scientific and public discussion. In particular, the public should be skeptical about scientific claims that support political interests.  When such claims lack intrinsic scientific significance (as in the case of those made in the [Dr. Eugene A.] Foster paper), their publication in a scientific journal should be recognized for what it is: an abuse of the scientific press. [March 19, 1999]

As for the Washington Post's retraction after more than a half-dozen articles on the subject, it might as well have been printed in invisible ink.  Ombudsman E. R. Shipp conceded that the Post’s and other papers’ reporters couldn’t help “finding irresistible the possibility of a 200-year-old presidential sex scandal on a par with President Clinton’s” and that they had failed to make clear what is fact and what is speculation in the controversy over the DNA testing which demonstrated only that "a" Jefferson fathered the fifth child of Sally Hemings --- not which Jefferson.  Shipp also recounted how the study’s principal author, Dr. Foster, “has tried to rein in these stories but to no avail.”  [“Reporting on Jefferson,” May 30, 1999, p.B6].

In “Founding Fatherhood” [February 26, 1999] the Wall Street Journal stated that "the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson," and pointed out quite rightly that there were no fewer than eight Jeffersons who were candidates for some or all of Hemings children.  This is a rather important point since two of Jefferson's nephews spoke of having sexual relations with Hemings and they were only cleared of fathering Eston Hemings.  In addition, Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph lived in the area and was known to"play the fiddle and dance half the night" down at the slave cabins. An article I co-authored with Kathryn Moore in the Washington Times,"The Myth of Tom and Sally," also noted that while it can be demonstrated that Thomas Jefferson's visits to his Monticello plantation occurred approximately nine months before the births of Hemings’s children, even this is built on numerous assumptions, while it is an undeniable fact that the births actually ended when the family patriarch retired permanently to Monticello.

But the story really was just too good to go away.  What did go away, however, were the calls by advocates of digging up the third American President to check his DNA when I located the burial site of Sally Hemings's grandson, William Hemings, for Jefferson Family historian Herbert Barger.  As noted in the Wall StreetJournal ["Uncle Tom" January 7, 2000, p.W11], "The Hemings grave provides the first opportunity for a valid Y-chromosome DNA sample from an unbroken line of descendants. The catch?  Hemings's descendants oppose the scientific tests, saying the oral tradition is good enough for them.  Seems some science is more equal than others."

History News Network has a large, diverse following that is, if the comments to its articles are any indication, a generally well-read bunch.  Yet I would wager that barely a handful of this readership is familiar with either the howl of distress that immediately arose from the authors of the DNA study on the very pages of Nature, or the confession-is-good-for-the-soul statements by Nature’s spokesperson in Science.  As for the detailed retraction in the Washington Post, (which even listed all of the problem articles they had published), it came and went with nary a mention beyond Natural Science Magazine’s pages in spite of the high level of public interest in the subject. 

The media was swept up by the story.  It’s so compelling, so seductive, to a society consumed by racial matters, that even the Wall Street Journal, which has diligently maintained a critical eye on the claims of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity, had inadvertently stamped its imprimatur onto the tale.  Much to the distress of some of the editors, the statement "DNA testing would reveal that our nation's third president had almost certainly fathered several [slave] children,” slipped by in a Leisure & Arts section book review, demonstrating just how deeply ingrained the “myth of Tom and Sally” has become ["Poisoned Quills" March 8, 2006, p.D14].

In such an environment, Annette Gordon-Reed could make almost any sensational claim --- on the narrowest or most twisted of evidence --- about a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and a female slave on his plantation, and be assured that she would find an excited reception and little scrutiny, particularly as the book’s publishing schedule also coincided with the election of a popular president of mixed heritage.  Rare is the full-length article on The Hemingses of Monticello that fails to draw any number of connections to President Barak Obama, and Gordon-Reed has both written and made public addresses on the genuine significance of Americans electing an African-American president. 

As for the sticky matter of how she moves back and forth at will between point "A" (does not prove) and point "B" (fathered everybody), despite any meaningful change in the physical evidence, Gordon-Reed is content in the knowledge that even if more people catch on to the shenanigans, she will always find a welcoming audience.  The members of the various awards committees certainly don’t appear to have noticed this.  Or, perhaps, if some did, it was of no particular concern to them. 


Comprehensive treatments of the opposing viewpoints about the paternity of Hemings's children can be found in the “Statement on the TJF [Thomas Jefferson Foundation] Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” and the “Scholars Commission Report of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society.”  A particularly intriguing development is the release this month of William Hyland, Jr.’s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal. Like Gordon-Reed, author Hyland is an attorney, but rather than holding teaching positions, he is a trial lawyer by trade who most recently wrote "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson" in The American Journal of Trial Advocacy [Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007].  Readers may wish to check out the Hyland and Gordon-Reed books, and decide for themselves which of these dueling attorneys makes the better case.