Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

From the eighteenth century to the present, Thomas Jefferson’s advocates have endeavored to deny that he could have had a long-term intimate relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. In THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS: AN AMERICAN CONTROVERSY an intriguing new study, law professor Annette Gordon-Reed re-examines their arguments and finds them seriously flawed.

A number of respected historians and biographers turn out to have been careless or cavalier about evidence that ran counter to the image of the man they desired to project. Gordon-Reed finds that material contained in memoirs, letters, birth records, and historical accounts was often manipulated to serve political ends. Her reappraisal of this record reveals that those determined to “prove” that Jefferson could not have been the father of Sally Hemings’ children allowed stereotypes about slaves, carpetbaggers, former slaves, and slave narratives to cloud their judgment as they spun increasingly complex and improbable epicycles to make their case.

Although the case against these Jefferson defenders may not be as strong as biographer Fawn Brodie argued in THOMAS JEFFERSON: AN INTIMATE HISTORY in 1974, it is more compelling than generally acknowledged, providing answers to such enigmas as why Sally Hemings conceived only when Jefferson was at Monticello, why her children were given relatively privileged treatment, why they looked just like Jefferson (even according to family members with an interest in denying that fact), why they were freed by Jefferson (either directly or de facto) when they attained adulthood, and why all but one bore family names of people connected to Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon-Reed’s refusal to offer a verdict on the truth or falsity of the Jefferson-Hemings story may frustrate some readers; but her lawyerly caution and balanced tone make her lacerating indictment of the case mounted by the defense over the last two hundred years all the more effective.