Did Thomas Jefferson Have Children with One of His Slaves?
By now, we all know that Thomas Jefferson had children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Or do we?
On November 5, Nature magazine published the now famous article documenting the testing of DNA taken from descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, Field Jefferson, and the descendants of Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings, Sally Heming’s first and last sons. The article was titled “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.”
This same issue included an article titled “Founding Father”, written by two historians named Eric S. Lander and Joseph J. Ellis. In this article, the authors put the DNA testing in a historical perspective: “Almost two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.”
With Jefferson’s paternity appearing to be an established fact, it was quickly broadcast in headlines around the world and later in novels and films.
Yet four days after Nature hit the newsstands, the main author of the study, Dr. Eugene A. Foster, issued a correction in a letter to the editor in the New York Times: “The genetic findings my collaborators and I reported … do not prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of one of Sally Heming’s children. We never made that claim. Nor do we believe that the Y-chromosome type we found in Hemings’s descent occurs only in the members of the Jefferson family…. This study could not prove anything conclusively….” (New York Times, November 9, 2010).
Dr. Foster further clarified matters in the January issue of Nature: “The title assigned to our study was misleading …. It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson’s family could have fathered Sally Hemings’ later children.” (Nature, January 7, 1999).
Yet by this time, everyone had read and believed the initial misleading headlines.
So was Thomas Jefferson the father of Eston Hemings? Based on the evidence, I would have to say maybe, but probably not. Here are some reasons why:
1. The DNA results published in Nature actually disproved the allegations originally made by James Callender in 1802 that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ first child, Thomas Woodson. The descendants of Thomas Woodson did not possess the distinctive Jefferson Y-chromosome, and so the DNA testing proved that Hemings’ first son was not fathered by Thomas Jefferson or any other male in the Jefferson line (The Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study as told by Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian February 12, 1999).
2. Thomas Jefferson was already an old man when Eston was born. “Thomas Jefferson was 65 years old and Sally Hemings 37 … in the year Eston [Hemings] was born” and “at that time [65 years old] was a very advanced age” (David Murray, “A Dangerous Liaison: DNA and Politics: Why the media confused suspicions about Jefferson and Hemings with fact,” Washington Post, November 23, 1998; William S. Randall, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Life).
If Thomas and Sally did have a child together, the least that can be said is that their union was not the result of the passion of youth
3. There were many other Jefferson males who lived close by Sally Hemings, nearly all of whom were younger than Thomas Jefferson. “Jefferson himself was not tested, only descendants of his paternal uncle …. The findings show a probability that the DNA of Eston shows a descent from some male in the Jefferson paternal line, rather than being a randomly occurring match from someone in the general population….” Yet “there were twenty-five men within twenty miles of Monticello who were all Jeffersons and who had the same Y-chromosome. And twenty-three of these men were younger than Thomas Jefferson.” Any one of these twenty-five Jeffersons may have been the father of Eston, and (as implied above) to me it is more likely that the father would have been a younger man that Thomas was at the time (Ibid.)
4. Thomas Jefferson’s brother Randolph Jefferson is a more likely candidate to be Eston’s father than Thomas for several reasons.
First, Randolph was “12 years younger” than Thomas and spent a lot of time socializing with Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. As Jefferson’s slave Isaac later recalled, “Old Master’s brother, Mass Randall was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn’t much more sense than Isaac.” Thomas, on the other hand, “sometimes complained that he couldn’t get to sleep because of the fiddle playing and noise in the slave quarters” (Gene Edward Veith, “The kid is not my son: Scholars argue that Jefferson didn’t father his slave’s children, World Magazine, July 21, 2001; The Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study as told by Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian February 12, 1999).
Second, historians have “found a letter from Thomas inviting Randolph, who lived 20 miles away, to come for a visit at exactly the time that Eston would have been conceived” Not only that, but Randolph visited Monticello again six days after Eston’s birth. (Gene Edward Veith, “The kid is not my son: Scholars argue that Jefferson didn’t father his slave’s children, World Magazine, July 21, 2001; Herbert Barger, letter to naturalscience.com, May 25, 1999).
Third, “Eston’s descendants never claimed that their forebear was the son of the president. According to the family tradition, his father was not Thomas Jefferson, but ‘an uncle.’ The president’s daughters and the whole household knew his younger brother as ‘Uncle Randolph’” (Gene Edward Veith, “The kid is not my son: Scholars argue that Jefferson didn’t father his slave’s children, World Magazine, July 21, 2001)
Fourth, “Randolph, named for his maternal Randolph family, was a widower and between wives when, shortly after his wife’s death, Sally became pregnant with her first child . . . . She continued having children until 1808 when Eston was born. Randolph Jefferson would marry his second wife the next year, 1809 . . .” (The Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study as told by Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian February 12, 1999).
It is hard for me to believe that Thomas and Sally had a decades long love affair (as many maintain), but somehow managed to only have children between 1795 and 1808, the very years during which Randolph was in between wives.
Fifth, “[T]hree of Sally Hemings’ children, Harriet, Beverly and Eston (the latter two not common names), were given names of the Randolph family” (Ibid.)
I suppose that we can never know for sure if Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings, but I believe a commitment to the truth requires that we be careful not to affirm conclusions that go beyond what the known facts will support.