Will the Real Jefferson Please Stand Up?
Raise your hand if you think the 1998 DNA study proved that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. Raise it again if you think he fathered a child by her while he was in France. Raise it again if you think it was a thirty–year love affair. Now raise it if you think it was abuse of a slave by her master.
If you are like most Americans I meet, black and white, and even some people in Europe, you will have raised your hands at least three times.
There is strong evidence to suggest that it was a Jefferson, but not Thomas, who was the progenitor of Hemings’s children, as I discovered while researching Thomas Jefferson for my play Saturday’s Children. This is the story of my quest to get to the bottom of this mystery.
In the mid-1970s, as a playwright in the Los Angeles area, I had been encouraged by the success of my play about JFK titled Kennedy’s Play to consider which American political figure I would research next. Enter Fawn M. Brodie’s stunning book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. I was captivated. As Brodie tells it, Jefferson was exciting—intellectual yet passionate. What a compelling love story he had with Hemings. And what a fascinating character was their child, Tom Hemings, conceived in France, raised at Monticello into his late teens, then allowed to “walk” into the white world and disappear from historical view. There was my character: “Tom Hemings.” A young man who could have been president if there had not been laws against miscegenation, which ended in Virginia only as recently as 1967. Even better, nothing was known about him, so I could essentially create a character from whole cloth.
In 1978, my husband, Tom, a biochemist, was offered a teaching and research position in North Carolina, and we relocated to Chapel Hill. We found a house that was a dream come true: a double octagon on pedestals connected by a glass bridge. The house affects this story because it was in a neighborhood with historians. When I told my neighbors about my Jefferson project, the response was that no one in the historical community believed Brodie’s book. It was complete conjecture.
My thought was that if I was going to live among historians, I wanted a play that could hold up to historical scrutiny. So I decided to check Brodie’s research and find out for myself.
I was shocked to find that she had omitted pieces of the story that didn’t fit her model. Moreover, one piece she left out in the body of her book appeared in the appendix: a reprinting from the Pike County Ohio Republican, dated March 13, 1873, of an interview with Madison Hemings, the second-to-last son of Sally, who remained in the black community after being freed and moving to Ohio. Madison Hemings told his interviewer that the child conceived in Paris died at age two.
Tom Hemings died at age two? Or so this piece of the story is told. My central character had just vanished.
Now I had no play. But I had something else: I had Thomas Jefferson. I was living in a uniquely suited environment to research and “call up” as it were, the character of Jefferson. I was in a town that was similar to Charlottesville in weather and seasons but far enough away to not be overwhelmed by his overshadowing fame. I could not have written the resulting play had I stayed in California. I would have had no sensual connection to the humidity, flora, and fauna of this high intellectual South.
The central conflict for the play soon emerged. Here was a most eloquent spokesperson for egalitarianism who himself was unable to end slavery—a system on which he stood. Because that struggle morphed from the American egalitarian ideal versus slavery to that same ideal versus prejudice and racism, it continued throughout my period of writing (which was by now the 1980s) and unfortunately remains relevant today.
I wanted a play as well researched as my Kennedy play had been. But I’d lived through Kennedy’s presidency. Researching Jefferson required deep study not only of the man but of his times. I needed to get a feel for what daily life was like in a time before modern technology (other than clocks) existed, so as not to impose a twentieth-century mentality on an eighteenth-century figure.
To spend six months in the wonderful Wilson Library (the main library at UNC at the time), I quit my day job. I made trips to Monticello and one to Paris, walking the streets he walked and imagining life traveling in coaches and carriages rather than cars. It didn’t take six months—it took seven years. Finally, I realized I had to stop researching and write the play. Jefferson was so layered and multidimensional that I knew I could spend my whole life researching him, and I had other plays to write as well as this one.
I began writing.
One aspect of my research that I included in the play rocked some boats. For a playwright to take on an historical character, she must consider that person’s daily life, his passions, loves, ideas, feelings so that when the factual language comes out, it has resonance with a living being.
On a trip to Monticello in the 1980s, I stopped at the bookshop and the book Thomas Jefferson and Music by Helen Cripe jumped off the shelf. How better to know a person than by the music he loved and played? In this book something even bigger stood out to me: Jefferson’s relationship with his brother. I had not known of him even having a brother. Wow, I thought. What would it have been like to have had Thomas Jefferson for a brother? Thomas had become the guardian of his twelve-years-younger brother, Randolph, when their father died. He paid for violin lessons for Randolph, but Cripes writes: “It is quite obvious from later letters that Randolph was not inclined to be scholarly.” She then quotes the slave Isaac from Memoirs of a Monticello Slave in Jefferson at Monticello, that Randolph “used to come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.”
I was mulling this over as I rehearsed another play of mine. One day, while my mind was occupied with another subject, a thought bubbled up from my depths into consciousness: “It was the brother.”
What if everyone were telling the truth? What if Madison’s mother had told him that Jefferson was his father? No one called Thomas Jefferson by his full name they called him “Mr. Jefferson.” And there were two Mr. Jeffersons.
I looked at the difference in their characters. Thomas preferred reading in his room by candlelight while Randolph danced half the night with the “servants.” (Jefferson always referred to the slaves as servants.) Thomas was deeply involved in political affairs and ideas. We know from a letter Jefferson wrote from France that Randolph had no interest in the affairs of France in 1789 (with the French Revolution looming). Most of Sally’s children conceived in the United States were conceived between Randolph’s two marriages. Her last child, Eston, was conceived when Thomas was sixty-four years old. At the age of thirty-five, Sally ceased having children at the same time Thomas retired from public life and was at Monticello most of the time. It was also at that time that Randolph remarried.
In 1988 the play that became Saturday’s Children was produced at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, North Carolina, and in 1992 was listed in the Aetna Calendar of Black Theater History for having a black actor play Thomas Jefferson in 1988 (actually there were two actors playing Jefferson). We had made history.
I included the idea that Randolph was the father of Sally’s children in my play. The characters ask: What about the child conceived in France? There is no listing of such a child on the Monticello register, which Thomas kept; on the other hand, there is a child named Harriet listed as having died at the age of two. A second Harriet, listed as Harriet II, lived to maturity and was allowed to pass into the white world. The first Harriet could have been the child Madison would have heard about having died at the age of two. Clearly Madison knew of no child named Tom Hemings living to adulthood or he would have reported that. The conclusion seems to be, even assuming there was indeed such a child, that there were many white men frequenting the Jefferson household in France at the time, including white French servants, one of whom might have fathered Sally’s child. (The Monticello servants would not have known that in France even servants were white.)
My hypothesis that Randolph Jefferson was the more likely father of Sally’s children born at Monticello was presented in a public performance prior to the DNA test in 1998. This led to my becoming a consultant to the Jefferson Hemings Scholars Commission, which published its findings online in 2000 and then in a hardcover book in 2011.
The interest in the DNA test began in the 1990s when the Woodson family, descendants of Thomas Woodston, who was said to have been the child conceived in Paris, became known to the public. His descendants are a prominent African American family who claimed that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had been married in Paris because they have their names in the family Bible.
A DNA test would determine if they were linked to Jefferson. If they were, it would prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children because there were no other Jefferson family members in Paris at the time, other than his daughters.
Eugene Foster at the University of Virginia, a retired pathologist, offered to perform the test. He found Herbert Barger, whose wife was a Jefferson family descendant through Thomas’s cousins. The Y chromosome needed to be tested, and an unbroken line of male descendants was necessary to check for paternity. Because Thomas had no known male children who lived to adulthood (his only male child died in infancy), Barger helped Foster find descendants of Jefferson’s uncle Field. Foster drew blood samples from these men as well as from descendants of Sally’s last son, Eston (who passed into the white world in Ohio and whose descendants are white) and the Woodson line. The descendants of the Carr brothers, Jefferson’s nephews by his sister, who had previously been thought by some to be possible fathers of Sally’s children, were also tested. The descendants of Madison Hemings, whose families are black, were not tested because they do not represent an unbroken male line. Foster took the samples of blood drawn from these donors to England to be evaluated in a lab there.
The DNA results were published in the journal Nature in 1998.
As you can see from the DNA results below, Nature chose a title on that was completely misleading. All the results show is that it was a Jefferson who fathered Sally’s last child.
The Woodsons, the family who believed they were descended from the Paris conception, were shown not to be Jeffersons. The DNA shows that there is no known Jefferson child conceived in France, although the Woodson line is descended from a European.
The descendants of the Carr brothers also are not Jeffersons.
The Eston descendants are Jeffersons.
The last child of Sally Hemings was proved to have been conceived by a Jefferson, but which one? As I’ve written, the DNA came from descendants of Jefferson’s uncle. Thomas’s brother Randolph, Randolph’s sons, and several cousins in the area would all carry the same DNA.
In his article in Nature, Foster omitted any reference to Randolph or his sons, even leaving them off the family tree. His excuse was that there wasn’t enough room on the family tree to include them. Some suspect the real reason was to avoid the obvious conclusion that Randolph and his sons would have shared the same Y chromosome, and so one of them could have been the father.
There is no evidence of Thomas’s parenting of Sally’s children. No letters, no witnesses of a liaison. There is only a coincidence of her conceptions occurring during his residencies while he was president. His residencies are also the time when visitors came, and they didn’t just stay for an hour in those days but for weeks, sometimes months. Randolph was a frequent visitor, living only twenty miles away. When he was there, he socialized with the slaves while Thomas was in his room reading. Captain Bacon, overseer at Monticello for twenty years, claims to have seen another man coming out of Sally’s room on “many a morning” when he was up early at Monticello. When Jefferson was in Washington, Monticello was pretty much vacant except for the family and “servants.”
The list continues as to the difference in habits and interests between Thomas and Randolph. The conclusion of the thirteen scholars from the Jefferson Hemings Scholars Commission with only one dissent, and an uncertain one at that, was that it was highly unlikely that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children and that Randolph Jefferson was a person of interest.
Finally, did Thomas Jefferson abuse his power as a slave owner? As Madison Hemings reports in his interview: “He was uniformly kind to all about him.”
This from a man who believed himself to be the unacknowledged son of the “Master!”
Raise your hand if you are still certain that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. If you are like the overwhelming majority of the audience for the talks I have given over the past fifteen years, you will not raise your hand. Among those who still believe Thomas was the father are some African Americans. I asked one friend who had a famous white great-uncle why it had to be a great, great Jefferson grandfather and not a great, great Jefferson uncle? Her eyes opened wide and she said, “Oh, I get it.” Another young African American woman told me with a wry smile: “It’s better to be descended from the king than the prince.” In response, I would say: “This is America. We have no kings or princes. We have a democracy in which, thanks to Jefferson and others at our nation’s founding, as well as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, we all share in the “kingship.” Our presidents are simply our representatives.” As for the Hemings and the Jeffersons, they are all family.
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For further reading I suggest the Scholar’s Commission report, which can be found online at: http://www.tjheritage.org/scholars.html or in book form as The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, Report of the Scholars Commission, edited by Robert F. Turner (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press).