Annette Gordon-Reed Reviews Alan Taylor’s New Book on Jefferson and Education

Taylor JeffersonWhen a Pultizer-Prize-winning American historian reviews a new book from another Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian it is worth a separate post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Taylor’s book is titled Thomas Jefferson’s Education.  Here is a taste of Gordon-Reed’s review at The Atlantic:

The Revolution and the creation of the United States of America broadened Jefferson’s vision in many ways, and by his mid-40s, he had taken to insisting that the job of reforming Virginia—above all, ending slavery, a system in which he participated—would fall to “the rising generation.” He and his fellows in the revolutionary generation had done their service by founding a new country. It was now up to the young people who inherited that legacy to carry the torch and continue the advancement of what he considered Enlightenment values. But Jefferson could not totally bow out of the quest to transform the place he was born and had long thought of as his “country.” After 25 years in national public service, he was at last able to return to the project in 1809, and he did so decidedly in his own way.

Improving Virginia’s system of education, Jefferson believed, was the foundation upon which progress would be built, and the foundation had to be laid properly. If publicly supported primary and secondary schooling was not possible, he would shift his focus. He filled his time in retirement writing and answering letters, and playing host to the hordes of visitors who came up the mountain to see him. But his main mission was planning for a university that would rival the great universities in the North. No longer would the sons of Virginia be limited to attending his alma mater, William & Mary, or traveling north to Harvard or Yale—choices that disconcerted him for different reasons.

In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Alan Taylor—the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia—probes that ambitious mission in clear prose and with great insight and erudition. He explains why Jefferson found those educational choices so intolerable, what he planned to do about the situation, and how his concerns and plans mapped onto a growing sectional conflict that would eventually lead to the breakup of the Union that Jefferson had helped create.

Read the entire review here.

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

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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.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Jortner

Blood From the Sky.jpgAdam Jortner is Associate Professor of History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Blood from the Sky?

AJ: I was trying to write about conversion, and I kept running into miracles. Reports of supernatural occurrences pop up all over the early republic, but historians usually write about these things as color commentary, not as a subject.

So I wondered what would happen if I gathered all these reports together and took them seriously—does the presence of an emergent supernaturalism tell us something about life in the early U.S.? And it turns out it does.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Blood from the Sky?

Miracles mattered: as the meaning of the supernatural changed in the early republic, religious thought and practice adapted to a revitalized world of wonders and prodigies. At the same time, there was a political response that denied the validity of miracles and sought to expunge them from the body politic, so that the rise of miracles prompted the growth of American sects and a forgotten age of political invective against supernatural belief that sought to destroy those sects.

JF: Why do we need to read Blood from the Sky?

AJ: Blood from the Sky asks questions about religion and citizenship, and America is once again at a crossroads regarding religion and citizenship. What did the founding generation think about religious beliefs? What kinds of beliefs were beyond the pale? What kind of beliefs percolated and organized under conditions of religious freedom? And under what conditions does dislike of a religion translate into violence against that religion? I think it’s a very timely book, although I wish it wasn’t.

But Blood from the Sky is not just a book about politics. It’s also an effort to demonstrate that a vast corpus of historiography on miracles and the supernatural is applicable to American history. I think American historians have largely pushed the supernatural out of our post-revolutionary narrative, but while interpretations of the supernatural changed, they remained a critical part of American religious and cultural life. Blood from the Sky is therefore also an effort at historical reclamation, trying to demonstrate that healings, angelic visitations, visions, and mystical turnips are not just humorous anecdotes, but important sites of historical analysis.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AJ: I was an actor for several years before I became a historian, so I can say I went into academia for the money.

JF: What is your next project?

AJ: I’m continuing my work on religion and citizenship, trying to understand how states and localities defined religious liberty and how they enacted ideas of the United States as a “Christian nation.” To do that, you really need to look at how non-Christian whites in the U.S. practiced their religion and sought to establish their freedom—which essentially means you need to look at the story of the Jews in early America. My next project examines Judaism and citizenship in the early republic, with particular emphasis on the famed Jew Bill of Maryland, which sought in 1818 to give Jews the right to hold public office. It didn’t pass.  

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Author’s Corner with Padraig Riley


Padraig Riley is Assistant Professor of History at Dalhousie University. This interview is based on his new book, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: I wrote Slavery and the Democratic Conscience to understand how white men in the early national North came to terms with American slavery.  Specifically, I wanted to know why democratic partisans in the 1790s and early 1800s joined forces with slaveholders to create the Democratic-Republican coalition, which governed the United States from the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 to the collapse of the first party system in 1824. I suspected that the Jeffersonian coalition might explain some long-term patterns and problems in American political culture: the willingness of white non-slaveholders to tolerate the anti-democratic authority of American masters; the ties between white supremacy and American nationalism; and the difficulty of building an antislavery political movement in the United States, given the partisan and ideological compromises with slaveholding that sustained American democracy. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: Democracy in the United States was built through accommodation of slaveholder power.  That accommodation had significant costs for later attempts to oppose slavery and establish political equality within the American nation-state.      

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: This book reframes Edmund Morgan’s idea of an “American paradox” between freedom and slavery by asking how and why early American democrats came to terms with mastery, rather than by asking how Virginian slaveholders built a quasi-egalitarian community of white men.  In my story, democratic ideology has roots in northern and transnational struggles against arbitrary rule—against the Federalist party in the North, the British state in Ireland, and aristocratic regimes throughout Europe.  These struggles embodied a real egalitarian and cosmopolitan potential, one that at times incorporated antislavery sentiment.  But northern democrats foundered when it came to slavery in the United States.  They made considerable allowance for the anti-democratic authority of southern masters and they turned to racial exclusion to justify their political acts and choices.  The contradictory ties between freedom and slavery that shaped American democracy were not the result of an elite project of social control led by slaveholders, they were produced by the ethical and political and compromises made by democratic subjects.  Examining the problem slavery from this perspective emphasizes the crucial role of non-slaveholders in both accommodating American masters as well as resisting their authority. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PR: I became a historian as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley because I was obsessed with old photographs.  That led me into a project on the history of early photography which led me to the Bancroft Library, where I spent a semester studying family photograph albums from the early twentieth century.  I didn’t know much American history at that point, but I knew I wanted to keep working with archival material as long as possible.  Thanks to some great advisors I found my way into graduate school and eventually to the history of slavery and democracy in the early United States.   

JF: What is your next project?

PR: I am writing a series of essays on slavery and American nationalism and I am developing a book project about slaveholder power and American democracy in the nineteenth century.     

JF: Thanks, Padraig!

Where Do You Skimp in Your United States Survey Course?

I spent about 7 minutes in today’s lecture discussing the Louisiana Purchase

I wish I could say that every aspect of early American history gets equal coverage in my United States History survey course.  (I teach the first half of the survey). 

Today I covered the entire period between 1800 and 1812 in one lecture.  I usually devote two lectures to this period, but I was behind schedule.  This means that I discussed the Election of 1800, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, the Embargo Act of 1807, the War Hawks, the Madison presidency, Tecumseh and the Prophet, and the War of 1812 in 50 minutes.  
I spent three lectures on the 1790s (domestic and foreign affairs, including a showing of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale) and will follow today’s Jefferson coverage with lectures on the Southern economy and the northern economy in the early republic.

I usually spend a couple of lectures on Jackson and about five or six lectures on the period between 1848 and 1865.
As someone who specializes in the colonial and revolutionary periods, I tend to spend a lot more time on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than I do on the nineteenth century.  
How about you.  Where do you skimp?