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


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….
  • 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.

What Happened to Harriett Hemings?


Thomas Jefferson had four children with his slave, Sally Hemings.  One of them was a daughter.  Her name was Harriett.  According to historian Catherine Kellison, “Sally’s daughter boarded a stagecoach to freedom at age 21, bound for Washington D.C.  Her father had given her $50 for her travel expenses.  She would never see her mother or younger brothers again.”

Learn more about Harriett Hemings in Kellison’s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter.”  Here is a taste:

Since Harriet’s time, science has proved there is no difference in blood as a marker of “race.” As a biological category, racial difference has been exposed as a sham. Even skin color is not a reliable indicator of one’s origins. As one study calculated, almost a third of white Americans possess up to 20 percent African genetic inheritance, yet look white, while 5.5 percent of black Americans have no detectable African genetic ancestry. Race has a political and social meaning, but not a biological one.

This is why the story of Harriet Hemings is so important. In her birth into slavery and its long history of oppression, she was black; but anyone who saw her assumed she was white. Between when she was freed in 1822 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, she was neither free nor enslaved — yet she lived as a free person.

She does not comfortably fit any of the terms that have had such inordinate power to demarcate life in America. Her disappearance from the historical record is precisely the point. When we can so easily lose the daughter of a president and his slave, it forces us to acknowledge that our racial categories are utterly fallacious and built on a science that has been thoroughly discredited.

Read the entire piece here.

FOUND: The Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings


Slave manacles from Monticello (Creative Commons)

She was mother to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.  She was also Thomas Jefferson’s slave.  Archaeologists at Monticello have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings.

Here is a taste of a report from NBC News:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”

Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”

Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.

Read the entire news report here.

I am sure Annette Gordon-Reed‘s phone has been ringing today.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Thomas Jefferson: “I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things”



Gordon-Reed delivered the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture.  L to R: Jean Corey, Director of Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities; Gordon-Reed; and a random photo bomber

The Harvard Gazette is running a long interview with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed.  Over the course of the interview she talks about her childhood, her escape from the ashes of the World Trade Center on 9-11, and her approach to writing and teaching.

Here is a small taste:

Q: Returning to your scholarship, you once said in an interview that you had come to know several Thomas Jeffersons. Can you explain what you meant?

A: I suppose I have come to know different Jeffersons as I have become different myself, because you notice different things as you get older. And after working on “Most Blessed Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with my co-author Peter Onuf, I tend to notice vulnerability more than I did before. The book is about him through his entire life, but I would say the perspective is from the older guy looking back over his life, and from that perspective you realize how hard it is to do things.

The Jefferson that I see now is more vulnerable. When I was younger, I saw Jefferson as more powerful than any normal human being. And that tendency to attribute supernatural powers to him helps account for a lot of the anger that people have about him: “Why didn’t you end slavery? Why didn’t you do something about slavery?” And then you think about someone who was a lawyer, a governor, a revolutionary, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was an ambassador, who was a vice president, who was a president, who founded a university, and then you say, “And why didn’t you end slavery?”

I think about the people who say that, and I think about myself. What is it that I’ve done that approaches all of that? And in asking that question, I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things. I don’t think the fact that he didn’t accomplish more than he did is a reason to dismiss all the things that he did accomplish. So I think I am a bit more sympathetic, although studying a person’s life can drive you crazy at points. You yourself often wonder why did you do this, or why are you doing that?

The goal for the last book was to try to understand him on his own terms, to accept the problematic aspects of his life and work, but to also have a degree of humility in looking at a historical figure who didn’t have the advantages that we have in understanding the world. I am much more concerned about people today who harbor racial sentiments that are destructive, who have had a chance to learn more than somebody who was born in 1743…

Q: As an African-American woman was it hard to do this research on a personal level?

A: Well it comes and it goes. It came and it went, I should say. For the most part I think people who study slavery are not as sensitive to it as we should be to how other people react. People read this kind of material and are aghast. Historians understand that this was the world that was there. Still, there are always moments when you just are sort of brought up short. I remember reading about when Jefferson sells Mary Hemings, Sally Hemings’ oldest half-sister. Mary had asked to be sold to Thomas Bell, a white man she had been living with while Jefferson was in Paris. They had children together. Jefferson sells her but he doesn’t sell her older two children because they are not considered children at this point — they are 14 and 10. That moment just struck me. It was a weekend and I had been typing away in my New York office and I just started crying because I started thinking of my kids and how when they were 10 how heartbroken they would have been. Now Mary doesn’t move far from them; she is two miles up the road. But kids want to be around their mother, you know. There are moments like that that happen.

But you can’t let your emotions overtake you so much that you can’t do the work. What you are supposed to be doing for them as a historian is telling their story. It’s like visiting someone in a hospital. It can be heartbreaking, but you’ve got to go, because they are expecting to see you. And you have to find the strength in yourself to do that, and then go off and cry or whatever. So it’s very much like that. It would be, I think, self-indulgent if I let my emotions about this get me to a point where I can’t look clearly at the problem, the issue, the situation and be able to take that and to write so that other people can see it. It’s not about me. OK, it is about me to the extent that it’s always about the writer to some degree, but it’s more about the communication, and you have to keep a presence of mind to be able to do that.

Read the entire interview here.

You can also check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf on Episode 8 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Preaching Bonhoeffer and the Uses of the Past

Eric Metaxas

Last night at Messiah College I heard Christian writer Eric Metaxas give a very entertaining, humorous, and inspiring lecture on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The lecture was based on his wildly successful book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Since I received several e-mails and Facebook messages from readers about Messiah’s decision to host Metaxas, I thought I would write a post on his talk.  I also think it would be very instructive to think about his lecture in the wake of Annette Gordon-Reed’s American Democracy Lecture from the evening before. The juxtaposition of these two lectures made for a very engaging conversation today in my Historical Methods course.

Eric Metaxas is an evangelical writer and preacher.  He employs the past–in this case the heroic story of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolph Hitler–to inspire the faithful to live better, more Christian, lives.

I do not have a problem with this, as long as Metaxas does not try to claim the title “historian.” (And I don’t think he has ever claimed to be a historian, although I do get concerned when I see him doing events with culture warriors and Christian nationalists like David Barton).  The past can be useful in our lives as a source of inspiration.  I don’t know how anyone cannot be inspired by Bonhoeffer’s story.  Frankly, Metaxas inspired me tonight to live a better Christian life.  It was a great sermon.  I am glad that he came to Messiah College.

But after listening to Metaxas, and learning more about the book’s reception from people who know a thing or two about Bonhoeffer, I have a hard time separating my identity as a historian from my identity as a Christian.  As some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home reminded me via e-mail this week, Metaxas’s book has been roundly criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars for its attempt to paint the 20th-century German theologian as an evangelical Christian.

One of the harshest critics of the book has been Clifford Green, the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works.  Back in 2010 he wrote a review of the book entitled “Hijacking Bonhoeffer.”  Another Bonhoeffer scholar, Victoria J. Barnett, called it a “badly flawed book” for many of the same reasons as Green.

The hits kept coming. Richard Weikart, an evangelical scholar at Cal-State Stanislaus, said that Metaxas “does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to interpret Bonhoeffer.”  Nancy Lukens, translator of Bonhoeffer’s works, called it an “Agenda-Driven Biography.”  Alan Wolfe, writing at The New Republic, seemed to like the book, but he is hardly a Bonhoeffer scholar.  Jason Hood summarizes many of these reviews at Christianity Today.  Finally, I heard Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia criticize the book at a lecture last year at Samford University.  Marsh, I might add, has a biography of Bonhoeffer appearing soon with Knopf.

I am not a Bonhoeffer scholar so I tread lightly, but when I see major Bonhoeffer scholars–both liberal Protestants, evangelicals, and others– being so critical of this book, it raises red flags.  So, assuming the book is flawed, I am trying to figure out why I was inspired tonight by Metaxas’s lecture.  Or to put it differently, can one still be inspired by a presentation about the life of a historical figure even when the presentation may be based on a skewed interpretation of that person’s life? Does my inspiration rest on a shaky foundation?

I think Bonhoeffer’s story–his courage and conviction–is always inspirational.  Bonhoeffer doesn’t have to be an evangelical Christian to be inspirational.  If he was a liberal Protestant I would still be inspired by him.  If Metaxas wanted to use Bonhoeffer to call the faithful to follow God in difficult times, I think he could have done that without trying to make him into something he was not.  He is a great writer and communicator.  He could have easily made it work.

Annette Gordon-Reed

Metaxas’s use of the past was strikingly different from the way Annette Gordon-Reed interpreted the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair the evening before. Gordon-Reed did not use the past to preach. (Later I learned that some folks in the audience were disappointed that she did not). While it certainly would have been easy to use the Jefferson-Hemings case to speak prophetically against the evils of slavery and the sexual behavior of Jefferson, Gordon-Reed made it clear that this was not the job of the historian.  (She reiterated this more strongly in a breakfast with students on Wednesday morning). On this point, I would highly recommend an article by my colleague Jim LaGrand entitled “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

While Gordon-Reed’s talk certainly raised a host of moral questions, and could not help but trigger the moral imagination of the people in the audience, she did not use the Jefferson-Hemings affair as a sermon illustration to inspire us (in the case of Sally Hemings) to be strong in the midst of difficult times.  She did not use her lecture to openly rail against the practices of white slaveholders like Jefferson.  It would have been easy for her to do this, but she did not. Whatever moral lessons one learned about the past were only gleaned through a thorough understanding of the topic rooted in careful and nuanced historical research.  I can’t help but think that her moral critique was richer and deeper as a result.

This week at Messiah College we witnessed, on consecutive nights before very large crowds, two ways of using the past.  Metaxas should not be criticized for using the past to preach–that’s what he does. In fact, I have done this on occasion as well. The past is always useful. Whatever criticism we cast on Metaxas should focus on his apparently skewed portrayal of Bonhoeffer.  If you are going to use the past to preach, at least make sure you get it right.  I would not be doing my job as a historian if I did not point this out.

As we discussed Metaxas’s lecture (and his corresponding chapel talk on William Wilberforce) in Historical Methods today, we found ourselves ambivalent about what to make of it.  On the one hand, we were glad to see so many people talking about a figure from the past and thinking about how the past might have implications for their lives in the present.  On the other hand, we wondered if the people in Hostetter Chapel last night, or the people who have bought or read Metaxas’s book, left the lecture with an accurate portray of the man.

I think the lecture opened the door to a conversation–in the dorms, at the seminar table, in the hallways, and on this blog–about the uses of the past. (Students were calling up reviews of the book on their laptops and referencing them during our discussion today.  It was great!).  Without the lecture, people on campus would not be talking about history today.

Gordon-Reed enters the past as a historian with the goal of understanding it. She is not primarily interested in preaching or political activism.  She may not have been as funny or inspirational as Metaxas (although most people who heard her talk thought it was excellent), but she has a very different vocation–the vocation of historian.

As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have argued, the past is all around us.  We are constantly feeling its “presence” in our lives.

Pics From 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture

Annette Gordon-Reed delivers 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College
l to r: Jean Corey (Director of Center for Public Humanities), Annette Gordon-Reed, John Fea
Hostetter Chapel was packed for the lecture.
Annette Gordon-Reed speaking on Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Slavery
Some guy got the privilege of introducing Annette Gordon-Reed

For my post on the lecture click here.

Annette Gordon-Reed Will Deliver the Messiah College 2012 American Democracy Lecture

I hope you join us for this lecture.

The Messiah College History Department and the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities will be hosting Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed on Tuesday night for the college’s annual American Democracy Lecture.  Previous lecturers in this series have included James McPherson, Peter Onuf, Patrick Allitt, Harry S. Stout, Wilma King, Wilfred McClay, E.J. Dionne, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Seymour Martin Lipset.

Here is the press release:

GRANTHAM, Pa. (Oct. 18, 2012) — The Center for Public Humanities and the Department of History at Messiah College will host Annette Gordon-Reed to lecture about “Thomas Jefferson, Slavery and Sally Hemings” on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. in Hostetter Chapel on the college’s Grantham campus. Gordon-Reed will sign books after the lecture. The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Jean Corey at or 717-766-2511, ext. 2097. 

About Annette Gordon-Reed
Becoming interested in Thomas Jefferson after reading a biography of him, Gordon-Reed’s curiosity about Jefferson’s life began when she was a child. Graduating from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, Gordon-Reed’s research and writing about Jefferson has given insight into the private life of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In her book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: an American Controversy,” Gordon-Reed focuses on the voices and lives of the Hemings family and their impact on our nation’s third president. Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” published in 2008, won a Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award. In 2010, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Gordon-Reed is currently a Carol K. Pforzheimer professor of history and professor of law at Harvard Law School.  

About Messiah College
Messiah College, a private Christian college of the liberal and applied arts and sciences, enrolls 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Established in 1909, the primary campus is located in Grantham, Pa., near the state capital of Harrisburg. A satellite campus affiliated with Temple University is located in Philadelphia.

Annette Gordon-Reed Coming to Messiah College

Annette Gordon-Reed, the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor of History at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, will be the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecturer.  Reed’s book, The Hemingses of Monticello, has won numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and George Washington Book Prize.

Professor Gordon-Reed’s talk is entitled “Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Sally Hemings.”  She will speak on Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 7:00pm in Hostetter Chapel.  The lecture is free and open to the public.  It is sponsored by the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities and the Messiah College Department of History.

We are thrilled to have Professor Gordon-Reed on campus for this annual lecture.  Stay tuned for more information, but make your plans now to attend.