A conversation with a friend Monday revealed that I wasn’t the only one puzzled by the RTD’s decision on Sunday to run not one but two commentary pieces regarding whether Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children with his slave Sally Hemings.
What was curious about the pieces is that they both made similar arguments: one piece attempted to cast doubt on scientific evidence seeming to point to a Jefferson-Hemings relationship; the second piece went further and actively argued that there probably was no such paternity (or sexual relationship).
Personally, I have no detailed knowledge about this historical question. Nor do I have any particularly deep investment in what the occluded truth may be. But apparently the same can’t be said for the RTD itself.
Why else run two pieces making the same argument? Why not instead get one of the historians who has concluded that Jefferson and Hemings did have one or more children together to make that argument, so that readers get to hear both sides of this disputed question?
If the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is important enough to devote a full page of the Sunday paper to, it’s also important enough to be sure the RTD’s readers hear from both sides. It surely wouldn’t have been that hard to track down one of the four Ph.D. historians who contributed to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s 2000 report concluding that Jefferson did most likely father at least one child with Sally Hemings.
Better yet, the RTD could have asked an academic historian with some knowledge of the controversy to review Cythia Burton’s book “Jefferson Vindicated” and provide an assessment of its evidence and argumentation. (By the way, one of two 5-star reviews of this book now on Amazon was written by Steven T. Corneliussen–the author of the second piece on Hemings-Jefferson printed by the RTD on Sunday.)
It’s entirely possible Burton has indeed produced the goods to “vindicate” Jefferson. Her book hasn’t been reviewed yet (as far as I can tell) by any academic journal, however, and professional historians are unlikely to be impressed by Burton’s commitment to the idea that the “moral foundation of a Founding Father’s political principles” is at stake in this debate.
If you start from the premise that the men who produced the timeless ideas on which this country was founded were ipso facto morally upright in their personal lives and incapable of lying, then it’s hardly surprising that you reach the conclusion that Jefferson and Hemings really didn’t have a sexual relationship.