Sun 27 Nov, 2011 04:51 pm
The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission
by Robert F. Turner
Publication Date: September 1, 2011
In 2000, the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society asked a group of more than a dozen senior scholars from across the country to carefully examine all of the evidence for and against the allegations that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and to issue a public report. In April 2001, after a year of study, the Scholars Commission issued the most detailed report to date on the issue. With but a single mild dissent, the views of the distinguished panel ranged from ''serious skepticism'' to a conviction that the allegation was ''almost certainly false.'' This volume, edited by Scholars Commission Chairman Robert F. Turner, includes the ''Final Report''--essentially a summary of arguments and conclusions--as it was released to the press on April 12, 2001. However, several of the statements of individual views--which collectively total several hundred carefully footnoted pages and constitute the bulk of the book--have been updated and expanded to reflect new insights or evidence since the report was initially released.
After reading this book, you will ask yourself, "Why has this work been mostly ignored for the past decade?", September 19, 2011
By Tom (Las vegas, NV)
Two summers ago, my family and I spent a week or so in Charlottesville, Va. As part of our explorations, we decided to spend the day at nearby Monticello, which is the world-famous estate of Thomas Jefferson. The prestigious University of Virginia (UVA), which was founded and designed by Mr. Jefferson, is also located in Charlottesville and was recently voted the second-best public university in America. Incidentally, the editor of this book, Robert F. Turner, is a former professor at UVA. I consider myself an amateur Thomas Jefferson historian, and a voracious reader of early American history in general.
Although we had been to Monticello several times before, we had never visited the beautiful new Visitor's Center. As we sat down in the theatre and began to view a biographical film of Thomas Jefferson, I was surprised to learn from the film that Mr. Jefferson had fathered all of his slave Sally Hemings's children. I fully expected there to be a mention of the possibility that Mr. Jefferson had fathered one of her children based on the infamous DNA test in 1998, but I did not expect to learn from the film that he had fathered every single one of them.
Based on my knowledge of the subject, I knew that this information was factually incorrect. I was aware of the first edition of this book and its conclusions. I was also aware that the infamous DNA study established the likelihood that a Jefferson male (DNA could not specify who the father was) may have fathered "one" of Sally Hemings's numerous children. But, that there were two-dozen candidates including Mr. Jefferson's brother Randolph in the vicinity at the time of each conception. Did you know, for example, that his brother Randolph was known to "party" and play music with some of the enslaved people at Monticello? And, that even though Mr. Jefferson was present during the conceptions, many of those two-dozen family members would likely have been present as well (his presence at Monticello was noteworthy, causing family members and other people to visit and stay). Furthermore, there was flimsy or no evidence that Ms. Hemings was present at Monticello during those conception times. It wasn't unusual for slave masters to loan their slaves out to other plantations. I was also aware that the DNA study established that the "oral history" was incorrect (e.g. oral history said he had fathered a different child of hers which the DNA disproved). I became concerned that a layperson who viewed the film might very well take the incorrect information presented in the film as fact. After the film, my daughter questioned me due to her lack of knowledge on the subject.
After viewing the film, my family and I viewed the remainder of the Visitor's Center. I found numerous examples among the various exhibits that came to the same aforementioned conclusion in the film; all the children were fathered by Mr. Jefferson. Surprisingly, upon closer inspection, I also found to my dismay that several of the exhibits appeared to contradict each other and the film that I had just viewed (i.e. some were definitive about paternity, others were not). I wondered to myself, "Huh?" I was truly confused by what I had viewed up to that point. My confusion is noteworthy because I am very knowledgeable about this subject.
Additionally, I was perplexed by the overall tone that I felt while at Monticello; something I had not experienced the three times I had previously visited. In my humble opinion, the place had gone from an inspiring place that honored an incredible man, blemishes and all, to some sort of slavery/Hemings family museum with an anti-Jefferson tone. Something akin to a Holocaust museum with Mr. Jefferson at the helm. There is no doubt that slavery and those who were enslaved must be acknowledged and studied. And, this should be one of the many aspects of the Monticello experience. But, does this have to be the main focus? My family and I made the decision not to return, even though our daughter will likely attend the University of Virginia in the near future, until Monticello changes its focus. If you want to have a slavery museum, build a separate one. But, don't hijack Monticello, so to speak.
I ask the reader to consider this: Would a memorial at the home of the great Reverend/Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, include the fact that he plagiarized his Doctoral Thesis and was reported to be a womanizer, despite being a man of God. Let's be consistent. All great men have blemishes; some small and some large. Most people would not visit such a place with the idea of being inspired and to honor the man, only to then be bombarded with this other information. But, I suspect such a place would never even consider making visitors aware of this information.
When I arrived home, I read all of the available information that I could find; I was already aware of most of it. I wanted to be objective. Had some new information come to light? Had I missed something? Sadly, there was no new relevant information that I found. What I found consisted of more speculation and a new elevated focus on "oral history." I knew how inaccurate oral history can be. The infamous DNA study demonstrated this fact. Remember: The original paternity allegation against Mr. Jefferson made by scandelmonger James Callendar, which specifically named one of Sally Hemings's numerous children, and the subsequent oral history, were found to be incorrect by the DNA.
Incidentally, while reviewing my daughter's high school Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History textbook recently, I learned from it that it is now all-but-certain that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings's children. One whole page within this textbook is solely devoted to this particular subject. Presumably, this textbook is used in high schools across America because the AP test is a national one. It made me wonder what other liberties were taken throughout this textbook.
This updated edition, which I found to be thorough and enlightening, builds upon the previously published work from a decade ago. It also discusses and gives examples of how the controversy has been treated in the various media outlets and the academic world. The reader of this book comes away with the realization that the conclusions of these numerous accomplished scholars are valid and cannot be ignored.
Incidentally, it is not only the scholars in this book that do not agree with the currently popular view that Mr. Jefferson fathered all, or any for that matter, of Sally Hemings's numerous children.
Why does all of this misinformation exist? Call it what you will: Revisionism; Political Correctness; Post-Modernism; Right past wrongs; Intense pressure from certain groups; Social Justice. Or, it may just be that such a salacious story is extremely profitable. We must require our historians to error on the side of caution. Why aren't they in this case?
One troubling aspect of this controversy is that anyone who questions it is immediately labeled a racist. I fully expect to be attacked and accused of being a racist. Can't those African-Americans who promote this inaccuracy be accused of being racists as well?
Why does this matter? Why is it important? Did Mr. Jefferson father none, one, or all of Sally Hemings's numerous children? Paternity is not the real issue. The real issue is how misinformation has been spread for much too long, and the various reasons why this may have occurred. Would you want historians writing incorrect information about you or your loved ones? Especially if that information may cast you in a bad light with some people. Find me one person who believes this controversy to be true, and does not think less of Mr. Jefferson for it; especially African-Americans.
The opinions contained in this review are mine and mine only. Educate yourself and come to your own conclusions. I believe that you will be genuinely surprised at what you learn, especially if you have been led to believe that the allegations regarding paternity are true.
Review: By Fred A.
Robert Turner's book provides a well-researched, even-handed review of the issues resulting from James Callender's charges in 1802 that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings. In addition to providing historical information directly related to the subjects of the controversy and a clear explanation of the methodology and results of the DNA testing done in 1998, the book provides information about the treatment given this information over the years by scholars, authors and institutions such as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
The book is an easy read that appears to present all sides of the issues and leaves it to the readers to decide for themselves. There are also direct challenges to errors and misinformation written about Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and other elements of the controversy accompanied by an open invitation for public debate on the issues. The true value of this book will be realized if those invitations are accepted and the public has an opportunity to see those issues resolved based on the facts.
I find this reading interesting. I don't know a lot beyond a few things I have read.
The new information seems to be the real research.