Hemings-Jefferson: Telling One Side of the Story

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.

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Published in: on January 16, 2007 at 3:24 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. It is possible that you are naive about the control that the academics and the MSM have imposed on the Jefferson-Hemings paternity claim. With the slave studies academics in the vanguard, there is a concerted effort to quash debate. Could not a man, their dismissive question goes, who owned human beings, have sexual relations with a woman who was his property. And the answer to that question is yes. But what the question does is change the correct issue from “did he?” to a substitute “could he have?” And that question can be answered by their belief. They take that belief into their classrooms, only assigning books and monographs by the paternity believers, ignoring the “Suggested Reading” listed by the Times Dispatch in the recent article, and dismissing serious debate. The RTD, almost alone among major papers, has granted a forum to the voices that say, “no,” the evidence isn’t there to the “did he” question.

  2. (What a great thing, to have a blog that holds the RTD to account. I wish we had one in Tidewater for the Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot.)

    Please accept a few belated comments from the author of one of the Jan. 14 RTD Hemings-Jefferson commentary pieces. Mine was about what I call Hemings-Jefferson science abuse, though unfortunately the RTD chose to headline it “Have Scientific Data Proved Hemings-Jefferson Link?”

    That headline may have misled you into saying that my “piece attempted to cast doubt on scientific evidence,” which is only partly true, and into saying that Cynthia Burton and I made “the same argument,” which is not true at all.

    Cyndi argued against what the media portray as — and what, at least to some extent, probably is — a general belief among historians that Hemings and Jefferson were parents together.

    I don’t know if they were parents together or not. What I argued is that whether or not they were, it matters that scientific participants in the controversy — not historians, not reporters, but people from the international science enterprise — blatantly abused science’s special authority.

    Does anyone disagree that in the modern West we accord to science a special kind of authority in civic discussions? Does anyone disagree that science ought to be held to account, especially in blatant cases of easily avoidable error?

    Certain historians offer what R. B. Bernstein calls three “pillars” of Hemings-Jefferson parenthood proof: historical evidence plus two kinds of scientific evidence — the famous DNA evidence and a formal statistical study of the coincidences between TJ’s presences at Monticello and estimated dates when Sally Hemings could have conceived.

    In fact I did not “attempt to cast doubt” on the DNA evidence. I criticized misreporting of the DNA evidence — misreporting that hobbled public understanding.

    I reported that the editors of the international science journal Nature, contradicting the very authors whose work they were publishing, misled much of the world, and crippled public discussion, by falsely reporting that DNA alone had proven the paternity.

    In fact, the DNA had not — as any historian will tell you, and as the DNA scientists will tell you. It only contributed some useful evidence to a discussion, a debate, that remained historical, not scientific.

    But because of authoritative misreporting from the prestigious magazine, science-trusting people worldwide missed the chance to assess what historians actually say about the evidence. That’s an intrinsically bad thing.

    Nor did I attempt to cast doubt on the second scientific “pillar,” the statistical study, unless you define the following as merely attempting to cast doubt: What I did was claim that the study contributed nothing, that it is not even evidence, that it has no merit whatsoever, and that it contsitutes an abuse of the special authority of science.

    Yes, the fact that TJ was around for some of the days when each Hemings child was conceived is important qualitatively. But that’s not what the statistical study claimed. Its claim was quantitative. Its claim invoked the full authority of science itself. It said that statistical science proved that Thomas Jefferson definitely fathered six children by Sally Hemings.

    Well, maybe TJ did. As I say, I don’t know. But statistical science didn’t prove it, or even contribute to proving it.

    The fatal blunders of the statistical study are obvious, but because the study appeared in a history journal, sequestered from scientific scrutiny, no one said so publicly until I got two statistical experts to give it a look.

    Meanwhile, credulous prominent historians not only believe the study, but consider it a pillar of parenthood proof. That too is an intrinsically bad thing — even if Sally Hemings and TJ were parents together, as maybe they were, for all I know.

    Sorry I’m not clever enough to have been briefer. Three more quick notes:

    * You seem to hold it against me that I gave Cyndi’s book five stars in an Amazon review ( http://www.amazon.com/Jefferson-Vindicated-Fallacies-Contradictions-Genealogical/dp/0976777509/sr=8-1/qid=1168906876/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-8576821-3525719?ie=UTF8&s=books ), but you didn’t report what I actually said. (ALSO: Another review appears there as well, by a well-known University of Richmond professor who classifies all paternity disbelief as a species of white supremacy. When I asked him if he had ever met the author or read the book he was reviewing, he answered no. Now, I don’t know whether Cyndi is right or not, but I know stark unfairness in a civic discussion when I see it.)

    * Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, national leader of those who believe as ardently in the paternity as Cyndi Burton disbelieves it, published a Jan. 28 RTD letter (fourth item at http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD/MGArticle/RTD_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1149192872885 ) blasting me. On Feb. 10 ( second item at http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD/MGArticle/RTD_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1149193124749 ), David R. Douglas, one of the scientists whom I had cited, answered her. I hope this “Richmond Talks Back” thread continues with comments from your readers about what Professor Gordon-Reed and Dave Douglas wrote.

    * Mr. Dixon, like you, is mistaken to classify me as a voice that says no concerning the paternity (though I don’t say yes either), and for the record, it was I who suggested to the RTD that it list Annette Gordon-Reed’s book in the suggested reading list that appeared in the print edition, as the RTD indeed did.

    Thanks very much.

    Steven T. Corneliussen

  3. Mr. Corneliussen,

    Thanks for the detailed comment.

    I only have one quibble/clarification: my initial post did not say you were a paternity denier; it simply said that your article attempted to cast doubt on the scientific evidence about the paternity claim, a description which very much squares with what you say i nthis post.

    It was, however, imprecise and perhaps misleading of me to later in the post say that your article and Burton had “the same argument”; what I meant, to clarify, is that the tendency of both articles was to undermine or challenge the view that there probably was a Jefferson-Hemings relationship.

    Likewise, the point of the post is to ask why the RTD could not have gotten a contribution from someone defending that point of view before going to press.

    Thanks for the information and links in your post.

  4. Thanks very much. From personal experience, I would agree most emphatically if you were to say that a practical effect of criticizing Hemings-Jefferson science abuse is naturally to seem, to some, to side with paternity deniers.

    To seem.

    To some.

    As to your view that the RTD could have gotten a contribution from a paternity advocate, I can’t speak for the RTD, of course, but I can report my impression that they might well believe they have been presenting both sides. Here’s why:

    Maybe your blog already engaged it, but on the Sunday before last July 4, the RTD published a commentary headlined “REMEMBERING FOUNDERS ON INDEPENDENCE DAY: Private Life of Third President Remains Important for U.S.,” by J. Harvie Wilkinson III, the well-known judge on the Richmond-based U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. (I couldn’t find the URL on the RTD’s usually useful search page, but Google yielded it: http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD%2FMGArticle%2FRTD_BasicArticle&%09s=1045855934999&c=MGArticle&cid=1149188863162&path=%21editorials%21commentary )

    Judge Wilkinson lamented that “the whole Hemings episode and the shame Americans feel over slavery” have “made the private Thomas Jefferson a man whom no one wants to defend publicly.” He asked: “Is it still possible to salvage something from the private Jefferson of present value to our public life?” Then he discussed three things he had salvaged.

    This commentary drew several letters to the editor — and, it seemed to me, the RTD’s interest in revisiting the validity of a paternity belief that’s so widespread that even Judge Wilkinson shares it. When I first pitched my related idea to Ryan Frazier during a meeting on another topic in late August (stemming from my earlier column about a threatened national treasure, http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD/MGArticle/RTD_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1137834192357 ), he said that the RTD was, as it happened, already considering a revisitation of the Hemings-Jefferson issue.

    So here’s an idea: Maybe Richmonders can get the RTD to sponsor a serialized debate between the two law professors who lead the two sides: Annette Gordon-Reed for the paternity advocates and U. Va.’s Robert F. Turner for the paternity deniers.

    I’d bring the popcorn. It’d be a great thing to watch.

    P. S.: As to “attempting to cast doubt on the scientific evidence,” if I had it to say over again in my long-winded posting from Saturday evening (not Sunday morning, as your software for some reason believes), I’d simply say this: I didn’t attempt to cast any doubt at all on the highly useful and germane DNA molecular findings, and I attempted to go way beyond merely just casting doubt on the almost comically bogus statistical study.

    Thanks yet again.

    Steven T. Corneliussen


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