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?

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