Jefferson, Thomas, Paternity Issue (World of Forensic Science)
Thomas Jefferson (1743836), the third president of the United States, has long been considered to have fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Slaveowners were notorious for taking sexual advantage of slaves and, if he did so, Jefferson would not have been unusual among the men of his time and place. A 1998 DNA test attempted to resolve the issue, but could not establish with certainty the paternity of Hemings' descendents.
Sally Hemings (1773835), one of Jefferson's slaves for most of her life and the probable sister of Jefferson's wife, gained notoriety when one of Jefferson's political opponents charged that she was also Jefferson's mistress. In 1787, Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris where he served as the U.S. minister to France. While in Paris, Hemings received a modest wage from Jefferson because the French did not permit slavery. Jefferson and Hemings returned to Virginia in 1789. Over the next two decades, Sally had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. After Jefferson's death in 1826, his daughter Martha granted Hemings her freedom, and she lived with her sons Eston and Madison in Charlottesville, Virginia, until her death.
In 1802 Hemings became famous as the subject of a rumor promoted by a frustrated office seeker, James T. Callender. Angry because he had failed to secure a government appointment from Jefferson, Callender published a story in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper charging that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children. Based upon gossip gathered in the neighborhood around Monticello, the story spread quickly as other newspapers reprinted the allegations. Although his friends and political associates denied the story and condemned Callender, Jefferson remained silent, unwilling to give further fuel to the controversy.
After a time, interest in the story flagged until Hemings's son Madison granted an interview in 1872 to an Ohio newspaper. Madison, who had been freed in Jefferson's will and subsequently moved to Ohio, contended that his mother became Jefferson's mistress while they were in France.
In 1998, Eugene Foster, a retired professor of pathology who taught at Tufts University and the University of Virginia, released the results of a study of Jefferson's DNA. Foster had decided to use DNA to resolve the Jefferson/Hemings controversy because historians had come to standstill with traditional sources.
Foster compared the Y-chromosomal DNA from the living male-line descendants of Jefferson and Hemings. He used Y-chromosomal DNA exclusively, because the Y-chromosomal DNA is passed unchanged from generation to generation, and is passed from father to son only. The rest of a person's DNA is diluted by at least half with every generation.
The DNA study was complicated by the shortage of male descendents. Thomas Jefferson did not have a son surviving long enough to reproduce, so it was necessary to locate the male-line descendants of Thomas Jefferson's paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. Five such descendants were found. Foster discovered three male-line descendants of Samuel and Peter Carr, the sons of Thomas Jefferson's sister, who also could have possibly been the fathers of Sally Hemings's children. Only male-line descendants of two of Sally Hemings' sons, Thomas Woodson (the oldest) and Eston Hemings (the youngest) were available. Madison Hemings had two sons who died without children and one who vanished into the western United States in the early twentieth century.
The DNA results showed that the five descendants of Field Jefferson have identical Y-chromosomal DNA alleles except for one microsatellite DNA. This difference is most reasonably accounted for by assuming that a mutation occurred. The descendant of Eston Hemings has the same set of Y-chromosomal DNA alleles as the descendants of Field Jefferson. The Carr descendants have similar DNA among them, but are clearly different from either the Jefferson or Hemings descendants. Four of the descendants of Thomas Woodson are quite similar among themselves, but different from Jefferson and Hemings although they do have similarities to the descendants of the Carr line. One of the Woodson descendants is quite different from all of the other individuals, which suggests that one of the genetic ancestors was not in the direct line from Thomas Woodson.
The DNA supports the claim that Thomas Jefferson could have been the father of Eston Hemings although it does not provide definitive proof, as the father could have been any male who had the same Y chromosome as Thomas Jefferson who was living in the Monticello region. Historical evidence implicates Randolph Jefferson, Thomas' brother, as the more likely father of Eston Hemings. With the paternity issue unresolved, the debate over Jefferson's relationship with Hemings continues, particularly among Hemings' descendents.
SEE ALSO DNA; DNA sequences, unique; STR (short tandem repeat) analysis.