A Crack in the Pantheon

"Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," by Annette Gordon-Reed. University Press of Virginia, 279 pages, $29.95.Of all the demigods in the American pantheon, Thomas Jefferson looms the largest. The sage of Monticello personifies the American ethos: a belief that all people, being created equal, are free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The collective white mind has struggled with this precept, suffering from a racial schizophrenia. How else could race-based slavery, lynching, segregation and other "necessary" evils co-exist in a nation committed to such lofty ideals?Jefferson's own life reflects these contradictory elements. The author of one of the noblest declarations of human rights was himself a slave-owner and a defender of white supremacy. In his "Notes on the State of Virginia", Jefferson plainly declares the intellectual and mental inferiority of black people to whites.In spite of this position, rumors have circulated for two centuries that Jefferson maintained a relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, for nearly 40 years and that he fathered several children by her.But Jefferson is not on trial in Annette Gordon-Reed's recently published book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy". Instead, Gordon-Reed focuses her critique on the corps of historians chronicling Jefferson's life and their use of a methodology that has given less weight to statements made by black people than those made by whites.A professor at New York Law School, Gordon-Reed meticulously assembles the evidence of the relationship with explanations from Madison Hemings (one of Jefferson's alleged mulatto sons), Jefferson family members and historians. By weighing the evidence given without regard to race or social status, she makes a plausible case that Sally Hemings could have been Jefferson's mistress.As recorded in Gordon-Reed's book, the first allegations of a Jefferson-Hemings romance to appear in the public domain were made by James Callender, a journalist who attacked President Jefferson in 1802 after being denied a government post. These charges were dismissed as political propaganda, as were the 1873 memoirs of Madison Hemings, who claimed Jefferson was his father. Hemings was merely a tool of a former abolitionist who wished to demonstrate the downtrodden condition of ex-slaves, the historians argued. They also passionately attacked the only major historical study to support the liaison -- Fawn Brodies' "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History", published in 1974.Most historians denying the existence of a 38-year romance between the third president and a slave mistress argue that Jefferson's character renders such a relationship impossible.Dumas Malone, the pre-eminent Jefferson scholar, wrote of the charges, "They are distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson's moral standards and habitual conduct."Malone and other historians have also relied upon denials from the Jefferson family, who maintained that Jefferson's two nephews fathered Hemings' five mulatto children. At the same time, they dismissed the oral testimony of Madison Hemings and other blacks who asserted that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children. Gordon-Reed argues that such an imbalance in methodology cannot be accepted as legitimate scholarship.Unfortunately, as Gordon-Reed illustrates, historians have not accorded the testimony of black people the same amount of credibility as they have that of whites. "The standard for judging the evidence must be equally applied," Gordon-Reed writes. "It should be what the declarants say, how they say it and the amount of extrinsic evidence that exists to support their statements that counts, not their status, family background or race."This is peculiarly true in historical writing dealing with slavery. Much of the historical literature on that period seems to be more interested in upholding stereotypes rather than treating the evidence fairly. Until scholars can do this, as Gordon-Reed confirms, our understanding of Jefferson and his times will remain shrouded in myth.Victor E. Blue is a lecturer in the history department at N.C. Central University.


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