A new report, and more questions about an alleged affair
When the White House invited Mary Jefferson to its celebration of Thomas Jefferson's 258th birthday, no one said a word about her being the great-great-great-granddaughter of a slave. President Bush wanted the Los Angeles kindergarten teacher to attend because she is a "descendant of Thomas Jefferson"--an official endorsement that reminded her of a famous movie scene. In 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, detractors doubted that Kris Kringle, the department-store Santa, was the real thing--until his lawyer produced bags of letters, all addressed to Santa Claus and delivered to Kringle by the Post Office. Mary Jefferson, in an E-mail to friends, raised a question: "Will the affirmations of the Executive Office of this country be the final confirmation that we need?"
Multiple studies have identified the third president as the probable father of one or more of Sally Hemings's children, but questions persist. The doubts that the Hemings kin want most to erase linger within the Monticello Association, a group of 700 descendants of Thomas and his wife, Martha. Whatever the reason--racism, snobbery, or lack of evidence--the association declines to offer the Hemings clan membership, including burial rights on Jefferson's Monticello estate.
Open case. Last week, more doubts were raised. While Bush was addressing Hemings and Jefferson kin--"Like many great men, Thomas Jefferson leaves behind a complex legacy"-- the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society held a news conference to report findings of still another paternity study. The society--formed by admirers to oppose "those who would seek to undermine the integrity of the name of Thomas Jefferson"--made two points: "The allegation is by no means proven," and "public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people."
The report was signed by 12 scholars. "Our individual conclusions," they said, "range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false." A lone dissent came from the University of Tulsa's Paul Rahe, who found it "somewhat more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings."
The claim that Jefferson had a slave mistress made headlines in 1998 when the journal Nature pronounced it almost certainly true, a verdict based on a pairing of historical records with DNA evidence tracing father-to-son Y chromosomes. Since Jefferson had no adult sons, male descendants of Jefferson's paternal uncle were tested. A link was found with a descendant of Eston Hemings.
Critics soon noted, however, that DNA showed only that a Jefferson--not necessarily Thomas Jefferson--fathered Eston. More than a score of Jefferson men lived in Virginia in that era. But a study by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, saw little evidence that any except Thomas was at the estate when Hemings's pregnancies began. His own records put him at Monticello nine months before each Hemings birth. There is a "high probability" he fathered Eston, the Monticello study concluded, and he "most likely" was the father of five other Hemings children.
Not so, says the new report. It points to a Jefferson note inviting younger brother Randolph to Monticello just before Eston was conceived. (Unknown is whether he went.) Also cited is a memoir of a Monticello slave, who said Randolph "used to come out among black people, play the fiddle, and dance half the night." The case that Randolph sired Eston, the professors say, "is many times stronger than the case against the President."
Dan Jordan, the historian in charge of Monticello, counters that the latest report is merely "a different way of looking at the same evidence." Even so, the 565-page study prompted the Jefferson family association to delay until autumn a decision on admitting Hemings's kin.
Mary Jefferson, whose 19th-century Hemings kin changed their name to Jefferson and lived as whites, says the association is denying the obvious. "The Holocaust did happen. Elvis is gone. And Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children."
This story appears in the April 23, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.