It’s Official: Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings

2c666-monticelloflickr

It was announced on June 6, 2018.  Here is the press release:

The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles in 1802 (when Jefferson was President) to scholarly debate well into the 1990s. It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.

A considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond) describes Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. It was corroborated by the findings of the Y-chromosome haplotype DNA study conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998. The DNA study did prove paternity of a Jefferson family member and corroborated the ample documentary and oral history evidence. Other evidence supports Thomas Jefferson’s paternity as well, including his presence at Monticello during Sally Hemings’s likely windows of conception, the names of Hemings’s surviving children, and the fact that all of her children were granted freedom – they were either allowed to leave the plantation, or legally emancipated in Jefferson’s will, a unique occurrence among Monticello’s enslaved families. The summary of the most important evidence proving Jefferson’s paternity is listed below.1

  1. Madison Hemings provided an account of his mother’s life that was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The basic outline of Madison Hemings’s account, including his mother’s “treaty” with Jefferson and the freedom granted to him and his siblings, was well known to his community before it was published. His narrative is the most important extant evidence and much of the corroborating evidence supports the outline of his narrative.
  2. The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype.  This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. This result not only corroborates Madison’s account in the Pike County Republican, it definitively refutes the claims by Jefferson grandchildren, including Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that either Peter or Samuel Carr (they could not agree on which one) was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
  3. Madison Hemings was described by a U.S. census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson in 1870.
  4. Israel Gillette Jefferson, formerly enslaved at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim in the same newspaper, referring to Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine.”
  5. Eston Hemings changed his racial identity to white and his surname to Jefferson after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1852.  Newspaper accounts in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1887 and 1902 recalled that Eston resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  6. The two oldest surviving children of Sally Hemings, Beverly Hemings (a male) and Harriet Hemings, were both allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and were described as “run away” in Jefferson’s inventory of enslaved families. In an 1858 letter to her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, (while denying Jefferson’s paternity) described Sally Hemings’s children as “all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.”
  7. Jefferson’s records of his travels and the birthdays of Sally Hemings’s children reveal that he was present at Monticello during the estimated dates of conception for all six of Hemings’s documented offspring. Statistical modeling shows the likelihood of this coincidence for any other male (if we assume that Thomas Jefferson is not the father) as 1 percent, or 1 chance in 100 — strong evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.2
  8. Oral tradition connecting the Hemings and Jefferson families was transmitted among the descendants of both Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings over many generations. Madison Hemings calls Jefferson his “father” in his 1873 recollections, a fact repeated by his descendants.  Eston Hemings’s descendants altered their family history to state that they were related to one of Thomas Jefferson’s relatives in order to hide Eston Hemings’s decision to change his racial identity when he moved to Wisconsin.
  9. Jefferson freed all four surviving Hemings children (in accordance with the terms of his negotiation with Sally Hemings, as reported by her son Madison). He did not grant freedom to any other enslaved nuclear family.
  10. The names of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children — William Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, James Madison Hemings, and Thomas Eston Hemings — suggest family ties to Thomas Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed outlines these naming connections in her book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  A man named William Beverly accompanied Jefferson’s father on an expedition through Virginia in 1746, and he was connected to Jefferson’s mother’s family by blood and marriage. There were multiple Harriets in the Randolph family, including a sister and a niece of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law. Madison Hemings was named at the request of Dolley Madison, whose husband, James Madison, was one of Jefferson’s close friends. Historian and biographer Fawn Brodie offered two possible explanations for Eston Hemings’s name: Eston was the birthplace of Jefferson’s maternal ancestor, William Randolph, in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eston Randolph was also a first cousin of Jefferson; Jefferson described their two families as being “almost as one.”3Furthermore, it was convention for Jefferson to be involved in the naming of family members. His children with Martha Jefferson were given the names of his sisters and mother, and he personally named each of his grandchildren.4

Why Remove the Qualifiers?

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings.

In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

  • 1.All the evidence enumerated comes from the unpublished Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, TJMF, January 2000, section IV, pp. 6-8, and Appendix F, “A Review of the Documentary Evidence,” pp. 1-7. The entire report and other resources are available online at https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/jefferson-hemings….
  • 2.Bayes’ theorem allows us to measure just how strong. To take advantage of it, we need to be willing to summarize the strength of evidence that Jefferson was the father, based on other evidence (say the DNA result and Madison’s testimony), as a “prior” probability. Bayes’ theorem allows us to rationally update this prior probability, using the 1 percent likelihood, to yield a posterior probability that Jefferson was the father of all six children. Given a prior probability of 50%, Bayes’ theorem yields a posterior probability of 99%: 99 chances out of 100 that Jefferson was the father of all six children.
  • 3.Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).
  • 4.Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) pp. 196-201.

Slavery at James Madison’s House

madison

Alyssa Rosenberg reports on efforts to tell the story of slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.  A permanent exhibit titled “The Mere Distinction of Colour” opened on June 5.

Here is a taste of Rosenberg’s piece at The Washington Post:

…The new galleries, which opened on June 5, do something radical: They treat the people who were enslaved at Montpelier as if their lives were as worthy of historical examination as that of the man who owned them.

These displays at Montpelier provide ample evidence for visitors to consider as they reckon with the fact that the same James Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights also spent considerable time trying to track down a runaway slave named Anthony. (Madison’s own enslaved valet, John, went to his grave without telling Madison anything about Anthony’s whereabouts.) But that sort of reconsideration, important as it is, still risks consigning the people who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers to a subordinate role. If museums limit themselves to those assessments, they send, intentionally or not, the message that enslaved people’s importance lies in the way they illustrate the moral frailties of great men, rather than in their own lives and accomplishments.

Montpelier does not stop there. The people who were enslaved by the Madisons emerge from the displays as lively individuals.

Read the rest here.

Montpelier to Open Exhibit on Slavery

james-madison-s-montpelier

A local CBS news outlet is reporting that James Madison’s Montpelier will soon be telling the story of the slaves who worked at the mansion.

Here is a taste:

Working in the shadow of Montpelier, kneels Terry Brock, Senior Research Archeologist for the mansion.

Brock is part of a greater effort by Montpelier to tell the story of the slaves who once lived and worked at the mansion.

“Over 100 people were enslaved on this property,” Brock said. “So that means that the vast majority of the people who lived and worked here were enslaved African-Americans.”

Finding new artifacts almost every minute, Brock and his team have been able to unearth a substantial amount of information on the slaves of Montpelier.

“We see a lot of evidence of trying to create your own space on the landscape,” Brock explained. “For example, a pipe bowl that is found in a slave quarter, therefore definitely belonged to an enslaved individual, has the word ‘liberty’ on it.”

Now, Brock’s discoveries are being used in a new, multi-million dollar exhibit at the mansion that takes a comprehensive approach to explaining and understanding slavery.

The new exhibit is called “The Mere Distinction of Colour.”

Read the rest here.

Let’s Remember the Difference Between Slavery and Race

bed14-raelSome of you may recall our July 2015 Author’s Corner interview with Bowdoin College history professor Patrick Rael on his book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.

Last week Rael published an excellent piece on the difference between race and slavery at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

…the political conflicts surrounding race at the time of the founding had little to do with debating African-descended peoples’ claim to humanity, let alone equality. It is true that many of the Founders worried about the persistence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to universal human liberty.  After all, it was difficult to argue that natural rights justified treason against a king without acknowledging slaves’ even stronger claim to freedom. Thomas Jefferson himself famously worried that in the event of slave rebellion, a just deity would side with the enslaved.

But the Framers never got to the point of debating black freedom and equality in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. They were too busy arguing over how much extra power slaveholders would have in the new form of government. As James Madison noted, of all the divides between the states, the one that came to drive debates most was that between slave states and those becoming free. But these debates were over slavery–not race.  They were about the political power of slaveholders, not the rights of those enslaved or degraded by the racial identity ascribed to them.

Slavery divided the nation; race, not so much. At the Founding, the argument over slavery was an argument between powerful elites, some of whom depended completely on slavery for their profits and some who did not. While the issue of slaveholder power eventually came to dominate the national political agenda, the question of race — and particularly the racial equality of non-Europeans — did not. Widespread consensus consigned nearly all blacks to sub-citizen status, even when they were not legal property.

Read the entire piece here.

The Electoral College is Here to Disabuse You of Your Democratic Naivete

22c0d-united-states-constitution

If you still have questions about the Electoral College I would encourage you to read Kevin Gannon‘s piece “Some Thoughts on the Electoral College.”

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to deny–impossible if you actually read the historical record–that the Electoral College was an attempt to avoid the democratic implications involved in creating an elected executive. It’s a particularly egregious antidemocratic kludge in a document full of antidemocratic kludges. Hell, James Madison proposed the system as a way around the “difficulty…of a serious nature” that southerners would encounter trying to protect their interests against a more populous tier of non-slaveholding states (see his speech onJuly 19). And the subsequent history of presidential elections has borne that out. If you have assumed that whoever gets the most votes wins the election, the Electoral College is here to disabuse you of your democratic naivete. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not become President by virtue of the Electoral College system, including this most recent election, where Hillary Clinton will not become president in spite of the fact that she won the popular vote by a larger margin than, for example, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon did in their electoral victories. And even though the three-fifths compromise no longer affects a state’s number of Electoral College votes, the legacy of slavery in terms of race-based voter disfranchisement still haunts the electoral process, in particular when those efforts in pivotal “swing states” like Wisconsin and North Carolina tip the Electoral College balance like they did in this canvass.

Read the entire piece here.

What Constitutes a Historical Document?

Mount VernonAHA Today, the blog of the American Historical Association, is featuring the work of several history graduate students who will be writing regular posts throughout the summer.  I am thrilled to see that one of the students chosen to write for the blog is Erin Holmes, a Ph.D candidate in early American history at the University of South Carolina.  I got to know Erin and her work a little bit during my one-month residency as a visiting scholar at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  When I arrived Erin was in the midst of a longer six-month fellowship devoted to work on a dissertation on 18th-century plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados.

In her first post at AHA Today, Erin reminds us that the primary documents historians use to tell stories about the past do not have to be words on paper.

Here is a taste:

In 1953, L.P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.

“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on my belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.

Read the rest here.

Slavery and Historical Interpretation at Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn-Highland

slaveryatmonticello C-Ville, a website covering life in the Charlottesville, VA area, is running a nice piece on slavery interpretation at the homes of Virginia presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Here is a taste:

The sickeningly horrible institution of slavery was a blight on our nation until the Civil War ended it in 1865 at the cost of 750,000 American lives. Despite the passage of 150 years, however, and despite the country’s best attempts at education, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites—the presentation of the lives of those enslaved—is still controversial, emotionally charged. At some historic properties, the perceived emotional comfort of the visitors, and that of the guide staff itself, preclude the accurate retelling of the awful conditions under which slaves toiled and lived. Here in central Virginia, however—at the plantations owned by Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe—slavery interpretation is thriving. Indeed, it’s expanding.

“Slavery is an important part of the American story,” says Katherine “Kat” Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that operates Montpelier, the Orange County home of our fourth president, Madison. After his presidency from 1809 to 1817, he lived out his remaining 19 years at Montpelier.

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era,” says Imhoff, “you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us. As the leader of a cultural institution dedicated to telling a complete, accurate and human story about our country, I see the improved interpretation of slavery as crucial.”

Read the entire piece here.

Hemmings’s Cabin at Monticello

I just stumbled across this post from the Monticello website.  Really interesting.  Here is a taste:

While study of Mulberry Row has been underway for nearly 60 years, Monticello curators just discovered new important information about the furnishings of John and Priscilla Hemmings’s cabin. We could hardly believe our luck to find a very rare, first-person account about the interior of a slave dwelling. It was written by the last great-grandchild born at Monticello, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke (1826–1915). Amazingly, Martha Burke vividly remembered the interior of the Hemmngs’s dwelling because of the strong impression it made upon her at 2 ½ years of age. Written in her own hand in a lined notebook in 1889, she notes,
 “I remember the appearance of the interior of that cabin, the position of the bed with it’s white counterpane & ruffled pillow cases & of the little table with it’s clean white cloth, & a shelf over it, on which stood an old fashioned band box with wall paper covering, representing dogs running, this box excited my admiration and probably fixed the whole scene in my mind…”