Back to The Drawing Board on Jefferson-Hemings?

Every president has defensders and detractors, and Thomas Jefferson has had plenty of detractors. Since 1802 he has been alleged to be the father of up to six children by his half sister-in-law, Sally Hemings. That Sally was a slave of his, not to mention a relative by marriage, set tongues wagging in 1802 and they haven’t stopped.

Elsewhere in these pages I have noted my interest in alternate history and my study of the Jefferson story.

To put it into a very small nutshell I accepted the belief of most prominent Jefferson scholars (of a past generation) that Jefferson was not the father of these children, despite Fawn Brodie’s claims. There were six good reasons to believe this. One of the simplest and easiest was that Jefferson’s nephew, who resembled him, had made no secret of his illicit amours and that the family believed the nephew to be the father of the children. He had access to Sally at the appropriate times and his family did not think him the kind of man to forebear fromt taking that kind of advantage.

A bombshell exploded a dozen or so years ago when DNA testing was alleged to have proven Jefferson to be the father of one of the children and possibly all of them. Quickly the pendulum shifted and it is probable most current Jefferson scholars accept the story more or less at face value. Now, a serious book sets out to revise the revision and probably swing the argument back from settled to debatable. Likely, the nephew will re-emerge as a principal potential father.

The larger point is that all areas of knowledge are, or should be, subject to revision. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is tested regularly by scientists eager to refine, confirm or refute it and no one has yet proven Sir Isaac Newton wrong, though many have tried.

It should be so with history, science, economics and even climate science, too. It is one thing to follow closely and argue passionately, another to become angry and try to stifle debate. That will lead to no good outcome.

Meanwhile, I await the counter-revision in the Jefferson saga.




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