Throwing Stones Through Conception Windows

At the center of the Jefferson/Hemings controversy... is the contention that Thomas Jefferson was in residence at Monticello 9 months prior to the births of Sally Hemings’s  four surviving children.  These ‘conception windows’ now serve as one of the three legs of the case for Jefferson’s paternity(along with the inconclusive DNA and inconsistent oral history.)

Behind closed doors?

Behind closed doors?

Fraser Neiman’s 2000 analysis... published in William and Mary Quarterly seemed to be just the type of evidence the paternity advocates wanted, the proverbial smoking gun.  Jefferson was at Monticello when Hemings conceived her children– case closed.  This is just the kind of scholarship that sells books, but at the same time,  assails history.  When it comes to the Jefferson/Hemings controversy, minds were made up before the DNA results, Annette Gordon-Reed’s revisionism, and Neiman’s loosely connected dots…whatever circumstantial evidence produced is now seen as definitive– scholarship be damned.

Be true, keep it real

Be true, keep it real

  • Neiman bases his assumptions solely on recorded birth dates in Jefferson’s Farm Book.  Jefferson was not present for all the births and there is no way of knowing when he recorded the events.
  • The conception windows are established by Neiman counting backward 267 days- a full term pregnancy.  There is no proof Sally Hemings carried all her children to term. It seems unlikely that a woman in the 19th century would have six full term pregnancies.
  • Jefferson was present at Monticello for  long stretches where Hemings did not give birth.  Neiman implies throughout his study that Jefferson’s visits consisted of sexual liaisons. Jefferson was at Monticello for nearly two years before the birth of Harriet Hemings(there were two Harriets)  in January 1795.   There are three year gaps between two of her births- Jefferson’s visits to Monticello did not result in a Hemings pregnancy.
  • Beverly Hemings’s conception date was set prior to July 8, 1797- yet Jefferson doesn’t arrive at Monticello until July 11.  Neiman cleverly fudges the numbers in this case.
  • Hemings’s next birth was not discovered in the Farm Book, but in a letter to Jefferson’s son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes.  Jefferson relates the birth  to “Maria’s maid.”  Maria was not living at Monticello during this time (Spring of 1799.)  Sally Hemings’s residence at Monticello is never firmly established.
  • Harriet Hemings was born in May of 1801, shortly after Jefferson became President.  Evidence suggests he was in the Charlottesville area during the conception window, but also reveals he was rarely at Monticello during the crucial period of August-September 1800.
  • Madison Hemings(one of the original sources in the oral history) was conceived during April of 1804.  Neiman wants us to believe that Jefferson did this during the final days of his daughter Maria’s life(she died April 17) and her funeral–with large number of extended family present.
  • There is evidence Sally Hemings worked outside the Monticello community.  When Martha Jefferson Randolph  informed her father of Harriet Hemings’s death, she wrote the letter from her home at Bellmont.  Jefferson referred to “Polly’s maid” giving birth in 1799.  If Sally was Martha’s maid at this time- they were not living at Monticello.
  • Sally Hemings conceived her last child, Eston, when Jefferson was 64 years old.  Jefferson took up permanent residence at Monticello in 1809- Sally Hemings stopped having children.  She was 35 at that time.  Wouldn’t Jefferson’s presence mean more births?


Filed under Ephemera, News

6 responses to “Throwing Stones Through Conception Windows

  1. BRAVO on this one. I always really enjoy your posts and nominated you for the Dragon Award. You don’t have to accept but I really just wanted to share the love!


  2. Jane

    As for your comment that there is no known evidence that Sally Hemings carried six pregnancies to full-term, I imagine there is ample evidence that slave children carried to full-term were more likely, perhaps considerably more likely, to survive to adulthood as Hemings’s four surviving children did. Perhaps we can attribute at least those four children to Jefferson as their birth dates match visits Jefferson paid to Monticello at the time they would have been conceived. Hemings never was delivered of a child conceived when Jefferson was not in residence, if we concede that the four who became adults were most likely full-term.

    History and historians will dance on the heads of pins forever in attempting to prove or disprove Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children. Whatever scientific analysis may prove in the future, it was absolutely in Jefferson’s character to father six or seven children with a slave and then discard them, only occasionally singly them out for special favors. After all, he left his “beloved” daughter Martha and her large family destitute and homeless at his death. Perhaps it was better to have been one of his slave children than to be thrown on the mercy of bankers and auctioneers.

    • We know so little of his private life and that is by design. Mainstream writers accept the paternity argument out of fear of being labeled a ‘racist’. I accept the mystery and ambiguity of his life, rather than pass off conjecture as fact.

      Ms. Gordon-Reed first framed the question as a civil matter. The purpose of my post clearly shows the ‘conception window’ argument would be laughed out of court.

      What passes for Jefferson scholarship today is nothing more than authoritative conjecture- really no better than the nonsense Fawn Brodie peddled 40 years ago. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  3. Jane

    You are certainly very quick to label many historians and scientists frauds or worse. Prior to any DNA evidence you might have found some standing for your arguments, which actually appear to be based on nothing more than your “reading” of this consummately private man. I wonder how yours is so much more accurate and respectable than that of others, others whose years of study and multiple reviews by peers are certainly more thorough than yours.

    Are you an attorney? Ms. Gordon-Reed is a professor of law and most likely would know an argument with legs when she saw one. Although she takes pains to dash the specious arguments of Douglas Adair, it takes her very little time to show evidence knocking the Carr brothers off the list of potential fathers.

    In considering the type of man Jefferson was, you might want to think of James Callendar and the letters and comments dating from as early as 1790 that Jefferson was involved with a slave woman. This from neighbors who visited Monticello often and could hardly have been shocked at the thought.

    Your protection of Mr. Jefferson is moving, but I would,suggest a thorough study of his biographers and an historiographical analysis of their dealing with the Hemings allegations and with each other.

    • Never a good sign when the author of the DNA study publicly downplays its significance. All the evidence is the same- we are all reviewing it…and the DNA test is the X factor. I do not accept it as gospel- the way other historians have so quickly folded to the face of it.

      Jefferson’s visits to Monticello were never clandestine affairs- they were well planned and well attended. Randolph Jefferson lived 14 miles away, and Jefferson educated his two sons. I reject the notion that visits must be marked by some written notation by Jefferson…we are talking about his brother, slightly alienated(by his own behavior) but still his brother.

      Ms. Gordon-Reed is a lawyer and writes like one. I would hope she could acknowledge the circumstantial nature the bulk of her ‘evidence’ possesses.

  4. Evidence on both sides of the coin, eh? You have a point, but I still hold that no man is perfect.

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