When it comes to slavery and Thomas Jefferson, most Americans think they know the truth – Jefferson fathered children with his own slave, Sally Hemings, and he refused to free his slaves upon his death.
But the reality is those assumptions are myths.
That’s from a historian who is taking on the most persistent misconceptions surrounding America’s most enigmatic Founding Father.
David Barton, president of the pro-family organization WallBuilders and the author of “The Jefferson Lies,” says there is almost no evidence to suggest Jefferson actually fathered children with Hemings.
“To this day, most Americans think that DNA proved that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of slave Sally Hemings,” said Barton. “But how can that be when Thomas Jefferson’s DNA was never tested? It was for this reason that the 1998 announcement of Jefferson’s alleged paternity was pulled only two weeks after the story’s release. But no one heard of that recall and correction.”
The accusation Jefferson had fathered children with his slaves originated in the wild charges of James T. Callender. Callender was a onetime political ally of Jefferson who authored vitriolic attacks against Jefferson’s Federalist opponents.
However, Callender eventually demanded then-President Jefferson appoint him Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. When Jefferson refused, Callender turned his poison pen on Jefferson, accusing Jefferson of various misdeeds including fathering illegitimate children with Hemings.
Jefferson could have filed charges of libel. Instead, he trusted in God, writing, “[T]he false witness will meet a Judge who has not slept over his slanders.”
These rumors remained largely unaccepted until 1998, when the magazine Nature proclaimed in a headline, “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”
A DNA study showed a Y chromosome present in the Jefferson familial line was present in Eston Hemings, supposedly proving Thomas Jefferson had fathered the child. The supposed revelations, coming at a time when President Bill Clinton was facing his own accusations of sexual impropriety, were widely circulated, both to undermine the image of Thomas Jefferson and to make Clinton’s behavior seem less shocking.
However, as Barton notes, the study did not actually “prove” anything about Thomas Jefferson, especially because no DNA sample used in the testing had been taken from the Thomas Jefferson family line. Jefferson had no male descendants from which to take a DNA sample, as his only son had died soon after his birth. The Y chromosomes used in the test were taken from the descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas’ uncle.
What the test really proved is that some descendent of Field Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings resulting in the birth of Eston Hemings, her youngest son. There were twenty-six Jefferson males living in the area at the time.
Almost sheepishly, the authors of the study confessed in Nature a few weeks later, “The title assigned to our study was misleading in that represented only the simplest explanation of our molecular findings: namely, that Thomas Jefferson…was likely to have been the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson.”
But this isn’t the full story. Oral tradition among the slaves at Monticello held Thomas Jefferson had fathered Thomas Woodson, Hemings’ oldest son. The study did completely prove Jefferson did not father that child, thus utterly destroying what was once held to be the strongest claim.
Furthermore, as Barton notes, many scholars now believe the father of Hemings’ younger child (and possibly of some of her other children) was Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother. Some Hemings descendants had stories about “Uncle Randolph” and slave memoirs contain stories about Randolph Jefferson’s propensity to “come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.”
In contrast, no accounts have Thomas Jefferson socializing with his slaves in such a manner.
Jefferson family historian Herbert Barger argued his own study indicated Thomas Jefferson was not the father of any of Hemings’ children, but Randolph may have been the father of Eston and others. A Scholars’ Commission of respected academics with diverse views also concluded it was unlikely Jefferson had fathered any of Hemings’ children, with only one dissenting member suggesting Jefferson may have fathered Eston.
The leaves saying it’s been “proven” Jefferson fathered children with Hemings as a lie.
Barton argues the media and many historians are similarly deceptive when describing Jefferson’s views on slavery and emancipation, especially Jefferson’s supposed failure to emancipate his slaves.
“Many today who write about history spend much time in speculation and little time in researching facts,” said Barton. “They recklessly claim that Jefferson could have freed his slaves if he had wanted to; but history proves otherwise. Jefferson claimed that the laws of Virginia prevented him from freeing slaves, and records show that when other slaveholders emancipated their slaves, because of state laws they still remained in slavery even decades later.
“Numerous historians of previous generations who sought for truth rather than political correctness affirm that the laws of Virginia did indeed forbid Jefferson from doing what he wanted to do throughout his long life: free his own slaves.”
One of Barton’s most persistent critics is Warren Throckmorton, a blogger and psychology professor who was widely cited in the campaign to pull the first edition of “The Jefferson Lies” from bookshelves.
Throckmorton accused Barton of concealing the reality that Thomas Jefferson could have simply freed his slaves.
But Barton says the situation was far more complicated, and takes on Throckmorton’s claim directly in a special section of the new edition. He argues Throckmorton seems to believe only one law governed emancipation in Virginia. In fact, he argues, there were many.
Because Jefferson suffered severe difficulties throughout his life, Barton says he would be exposing his slaves to possible re-enslavement if he tried to set them free.
Barton observed: “Particularly relevant to Jefferson’s case was a law requiring the economic bonding of certain emancipated slaves… Jefferson… was unable to meet the added financial requirements of that emancipation law.”
Another law applicable to Jefferson also stated, “All slaves so emancipated shall be liable to be taken… to satisfy any debt contracted by the person emancipating them.”
As Jefferson was, in today’s standards, millions of dollars in debt when he died, freeing the slaves might simply lead to them being taken by someone else.
These are simply two of the myths Barton seeks to debunk in “The Jefferson Lies,” which he believes will reintroduce Americans to the man they thought they knew. And it’s a book Americans were almost denied the opportunity to read, as after an unprecedented smear campaign, the bestselling book was pulled from the shelves. “The Jefferson Lies” was perhaps the first book of its kind to be victimized by the scourge of political correctness.
It could only happen in an America that has forgotten its past. Its roots, its purpose and its identity all have become shrouded behind a veil of political correctness bent on twisting the nation’s founding, and its Founders, beyond recognition.
Barton says the answer is simple – the time has come to remember again, and reclaim the Man from Monticello as an American hero and a visionary.
After all, Barton told WND, whatever his critics think about it, the facts are on his side.