Tag Archives: sally hemings

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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Define Character Assassination

 

Don’t Tread on Me

James T. Callender started the Sally Hemings… rumors in 1802 to sully the reputation of the third President.  Jefferson had denied Callender a partisan appointment as Postmaster of Richmond.  Callender was a scandal-monger for hire who had been imprisoned in 1800 under the Sedition Act.  Despite a Presidential pardon (from Jefferson) in 1801, Callender still published the libelous story that has cleaved to Jefferson throughout the decades.  Serious scholars dismissed Callender and his antics for what they were, political pamphleteering designed to rankle moderates with salacious rumors rather than policy discussion.  Revisionists working to change our remembrance of Jefferson have embraced Callender, often citing him as a legitimate primary source.  The coordinated effort to assassinate the character of Thomas Jefferson can be seen here:

Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie–  Introducing the highly suspect field of psychobiography to the study of Jefferson, Brodie’s book stands in stark contrast to the actual scholarship of Dumas Malone (their books were published a  year apart.)  Brodie found it revealing that Jefferson used the word ‘mulatto’ to describe brown rocks-obviously this meant he had taken Sally Hemings as his concubine.  The book sold well and was a discussion piece in the Summer of 1974;  Callender would have been proud.  True scholars rightfully rejected Brodie’s fraudulent conclusions.

The Inspiration

Jefferson’s Secrets by Andrew Burstein– More psychobiography from a Jefferson scholar, Burstein symbolizes the trend of reasonable scholars who have been bullied into revisionism.  Jefferson owned books by an Enlightenment era physician who proposed that sex was healthy.  For Burstein, this constitutes primary documentation.  Burstein has written excellent studies of Jefferson’s beliefs, but he has fallen victim to the politically correct expectations placed upon Jefferson scholars.

Jefferson was 64 in 1809

Slavery and the Founders; Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson by Paul Finkelman– Jefferson owned slaves and did not free them all when he died.  To Finkelman, this should eliminate Jefferson as one of our truly great founders.  Finkelman falls into a dangerous trap for historians,  judging historical figures by our standards.  All of Jefferson’s documented arguments are merely lip service in this analysis, for Jefferson really loved slavery.  The contradiction of Jefferson’s slave-owning has been discussed in far more significant studies; Finkelman’s  angry rant doesn’t measure up.

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Riddle Me That !

 

“I hope my days will end, at Monticello”

Revisionists perpetuating the allegation that Thomas Jefferson… fathered all of Sally Hemings’ children now believe history is on their side.  The pressures of political correctness have relegated reasonable discourse on the issue to the fringe.  A scholar who questions the findings of writers like Annette Gordon-Reed, must be prepared to be labeled a racist.  The discipline of history demands that consensus never be granted immunity, regardless of social convention or political correctness.  A fair evaluation of the evidence provides reasonable doubt in the revisionists’ narrative.  Thus far, they show little interest in fielding these questions:

  • Where was Sally ?  Jefferson was at Monticello nine months before the birth of her children (so was the rest of his extended family) but there is almost no evidence showing she was there.  Jefferson often leased his slaves to other farms in the Charlottesville area. 
  • Can we really trust the “conception windows?”   There is no way of proving that Sally Hemings carried her children full term.  Birth records from the 19th century make it difficult to see six full term pregnancies for one woman. 
  • Is the oral history truly reliable?  Madison Hemings was the only child to claim Jefferson was his father.  His descendents will not submit to DNA testing.  Eston Hemings descendents have the male Jefferson gene, but have never claimed to be descendents.  Confused yet?
  • Can we stop talking about secret passages?  It is well documented that revisionists have misquoted or ignored critical evidence proving no servants could have entered Jefferson’s bedroom without being seen. 
  • Are we ready to acknowledge the inconsistencies in the DNA testing?  There were 25 Jeffersons who possessed that Y-chromosome within 100 miles of Monticello.  Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother needs further scrutiny. 
  • Why did Sally stop having children in 1808?   Jefferson took up full-time residence at Monticello in 1809, shouldn’t there be more children?  Jefferson was 64 years old when he allegedly fathered Eston Hemings in 1808. 
  • Can we throw Callender’s reputation back on the ash heap of history, where it belongs?  There is no proof he ever visited Charlottesville, the DNA test proved there was no ‘Tom’ Jefferson conceived in France, and no one can identify a shred of credibility in his reporting. 

“There are such things as moral impossibilities…”

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Go Where the Research Takes You

Jefferson scholarship has become a topic in its own right…. The study of our most elusive Founder keeps evolving- Jefferson scholars of every stripe are prone to several mistakes- common misjudgements students of history need to be aware of….  The 5 Big Mistakes of Jefferson Scholarship

Be true, keep it real

Be true, keep it real

  • The Source- For historical convenience, James T. Callender has become a reliable journalist of the early republic.  Studies based on the notion of Jefferson fathering the children of Sally Hemings need Callender to be believable.  Trouble is, he was anything but trustworthy.  His entire muckraking career was a sham, but the mistake is to give him unwarranted credibility.
  • Psychobiography, DNA, conception windows- oh my!- No one is going to exhume Jefferson for a definitive DNA test, so the 1998 Nature analysis is not conclusive.  Fawn Brodie’s methods of historical research and interpretation were discredited long ago.  Fraser Neiman’s argument that Jefferson’s visits coincide with Hemings’s conceptions is built upon far too many assumptions.  These three ‘theories’ are the foundation of all Sally Hemings claims;  None are proven with acceptable certainty.
  • Rose colored, 3D glasses-  Historians trained in the methodology of the New Left are perfectly comfortable judging historical figures by current standards.  Political Correctness creates just the standard that no Founding Father can reach.  Jefferson was a man of his age, not Lincoln’s, and definitely not ours.  More effort should be spent studying what Jefferson did and why, not explaining what he should have done or said.
  • Love is not a river- Too much ink has been wasted attempting to explain Jefferson’s love life.  The historical record shows a deeply private and discrete man, his inner most feelings are not written down.  Scholars refuse to accept the mystery, so volumes of conjectural nonsense have been written about Jefferson’s loves, desires, and indiscretions.  We should all just admit that we know little about his feelings, and he wanted it that way.
  • Proper perspective never hurts- It is far too easy for a modern scholar to defend their work by dismissing previous scholarship.  Every writer wants their book to be read by as many as possible.  Diverting attention away from well established studies is par-for-the-course in Jefferson scholarship.  Too many writers have built their studies on the mistakes already listed here- while more deliberate historians are cast aside as ‘insufficient.’   Dumas Malone, Merrill Petersen, and William S. Randall produced what were the standard works on Jefferson for decades.  We should not be so quick to discard their insights.

images

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Go Where the Research Takes You

Jefferson scholarship has become a topic in its own right…. The study of our most elusive Founder keeps evolving- Jefferson scholars of every stripe are prone to several mistakes- common misjudgements students of history need to be aware of….  The 5 Big Mistakes of Jefferson Scholarship

Be true, keep it real

Be true, keep it real

  • The Source- For historical convenience, James T. Callender has become a reliable journalist of the early republic.  Studies based on the notion of Jefferson fathering the children of Sally Hemings need Callender to be believable.  Trouble is, he was anything but trustworthy.  His entire muckraking career was a sham, but the mistake is to give him unwarranted credibility.
  • Psychobiography, DNA, conception windows- oh my!- No one is going to exhume Jefferson for a definitive DNA test, so the 1998 Nature analysis is not conclusive.  Fawn Brodie’s methods of historical research and interpretation were discredited long ago.  Fraser Neiman’s argument that Jefferson’s visits coincide with Hemings’s conceptions is built upon far too many assumptions.  These three ‘theories’ are the foundation of all Sally Hemings claims;  None are proven with acceptable certainty.
  • Rose colored, 3D glasses-  Historians trained in the methodology of the New Left are perfectly comfortable judging historical figures by current standards.  Political Correctness creates just the standard that no Founding Father can reach.  Jefferson was a man of his age, not Lincoln’s, and definitely not ours.  More effort should be spent studying what Jefferson did and why, not explaining what he should have done or said.
  • Love is not a river- Too much ink has been wasted attempting to explain Jefferson’s love life.  The historical record shows a deeply private and discrete man, his inner most feelings are not written down.  Scholars refuse to accept the mystery, so volumes of conjectural nonsense have been written about Jefferson’s loves, desires, and indiscretions.  We should all just admit that we know little about his feelings, and he wanted it that way.
  • Proper perspective never hurts- It is far too easy for a modern scholar to defend their work by dismissing previous scholarship.  Every writer wants their book to be read by as many as possible.  Diverting attention away from well established studies is par-for-the-course in Jefferson scholarship.  Too many writers have built their studies on the mistakes already listed here- while more deliberate historians are cast aside as ‘insufficient.’   Dumas Malone, Merrill Petersen, and William S. Randall produced what were the standard works on Jefferson for decades.  We should not be so quick to discard their insights.

images

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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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The Day After….if you missed it

What we learned during An Evening of History…

  • There is more than enough reasonable doubt in the Jefferson/Hemings controversy- yet we accept the story as historical fact.
  • Reasonable scholars have endorsed the Jefferson/Hemings story out of fear- but have disguised their fear as an attempt at racial reconciliation.
  • The DNA results were not conclusive, in fact, they have made the situation more confusing
  • Oral history is rarely reliable
  • Jefferson did not father any of Sally Hemings children- her children had multiple fathers
  • Joe Ellis, Andrew Burstein, and Jon Meacham are talented historians who have produced less than stellar books about Jefferson.
  • Fawn Brodie will never be vindicated.
  • Annette Gordon-Reed has reduced vital historical discourse to tabloid level conjecture.
  • Jefferson was not a christian, but he was no atheist either- the tug-of-war over his spiritually completely misses the point.
  • We need Dumas Malone more than ever….
Moment of reflection

Moment of reflection

And now, we catch our breath….

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