Jefferson and Hemings:
History hangs on haplotype hype

"Jefferson fathered slave's last child." So declared the headline of the Nov. 3, 1998, Nature report that injected new life into the long-running controversy over Thomas Jefferson's relationship to Sally Hemings and her children. But, as human geneticist Dorothy Warburton of the College of Physicians & Surgeons puts it, "The title of the article is clearly an unwarranted deduction from the data."

In the Nature report, pathologist Eugene Foster and a team of other researchers described how they analyzed DNA from the Y chromosomes of male-line descendants of Thomas Jefferson's paternal uncle Field, finding the Field Jefferson male lineage to be distinguished by a rare haplotype, or pattern of DNA building blocks.

The researchers identified the Field Jefferson haplotype in a descendant of Hemings' youngest son, Eston Hemings Jefferson. They did not, however, find the haplotype in five male-line descendants of Hemings' son Thomas Woodson, whose descendants had long maintained he had been fathered by Jefferson. Nor did they find it in male-line descendants of John Carr, whose grandsons Samuel and Peter had been said by descendants of Thomas and Martha Jefferson to have fathered Hemings' later children, including Eston.

"The simplest and most probable explanations for our molecular findings," the researchers stated, "are that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of the Carr brothers, was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson, and that Thomas Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson's son." In conclusion, they acknowledged that they "[could] not completely rule out other explanations of our findings based on illegitimacy in various lines of descent. For example, a male-line descendant of Field Jefferson could possibly have illegitimately fathered an ancestor of the presumed male-line descendant of Eston. But in the absence of historical evidence to support such possibilities, we consider them to be unlikely." In an accompanying article, MIT biologist Eric S. Lander and Mount Holyoke historian Joseph J. Ellis contextualized the findings in terms of the recent "explosion in male-line genetic studies," analyses of Thomas Jefferson's "tortured position on slavery," and, of course, the Hemings-Jefferson controversy, declaring that "the burden of proof has clearly shifted" to those who seek to deny that Jefferson and Hemings begat children. Lander and Ellis also linked the story to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

With that context, the Nature articles sparked months of news coverage. CBS news correspondent Bill Geist called Jefferson a "media hog" (Feb. 22, 1999) as hundreds of reports appeared nationally, with considerable attention being devoted to misimpressions engendered by the tabloid-style headline. The researchers admitted in the Jan. 7 Nature that "[t]he title assigned to our study was misleading," but Warburton believes that the headline had a greater impact than that. "Looking at the way the original article was titled and published, it was asking to be sensationalized," she says. "I really feel that Nature did this rather intentionally."

Steve Ross of the School of Journalism espouses a more accepting attitude. "My philosophy," he postulates, "is that a headline should draw you in, but if you're going to have a headline that sizzles, there damn well better be some steak underneath it. I thought there was enough steak underneath it." Noting that a statue of Jefferson stands in front of the journalism school, Ross expresses general satisfaction with the reporting of the story, particularly Dennis Cauchon's Nov. 2, 1998, article in USA Today and Lucian K. Truscott IV's Nov. 5 opinion piece in the New York Times. Both items address the issue of whether Hemings' descendants will now qualify for burial at the Jefferson cemetery at Monticello.

But for Barnard history professor Herbert Sloan, the probability of a genetic link between Eston and Thomas Jefferson was already old news. "The DNA--it's gotten all this hype," says Sloan, who credits New York Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed with overturning the assumption that it wasn't in Jefferson's character to have had sex with Hemings. That position had been challenged before, but, as Sloan puts it, "the very important thing about Annette's book [Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University Press of Virginia, 1997)] was that it really reopened the question and forced loads of people, including myself, to take a very searching second look at this issue."

According to Sloan, Gordon-Reed marshals evidence with a lawyer's forcefulness, showing how "a double standard had been used in evaluating the oral history passed down in the Jefferson family and the oral history passed down in the Hemings family." By the time she summarizes her case, says Sloan, "at the least you have to agree that there's just as much reason to believe Sally Hemings' descendants as to believe Jefferson's descendants--probably more."

Sloan downplays the Foster study as "just this additional bit of evidence," observing that "while you might imagine that everybody is falling down all over themselves because the 'scientific' evidence is so overwhelming, I think for an awful lot of people involved in this issue that's not the case." Yet the press, he observes, "doesn't really know about the way in which the historiographical debate has progressed. For now, it's 'a marvel of modern science.'" A Lexis-Nexis search for the terms Hemings and Jefferson in major newspapers and magazines supports Sloan's position: Eight articles appeared in the four-and-a-half month period following the publication of Gordon-Reed's book, but 210 articles appeared over a similar time frame following the breaking of the DNA story.

What currently intrigues Sloan is the larger puzzle of what life was like at Monticello. "This notion that Monticello was just Jefferson up there all by himself being a genius has always been false," he says, "but I think this reminds us of how much more we're going to have to do." He looks forward to the fall release of a book of essays, published by the University Press of Virginia, that will include Gordon-Reed's reflections on what havoc can result from a simple haplotype.--David Marc Fischer

Related links...

  • Thomas Jefferson online resources, U. of Virginia, including the Thomas Jefferson Papers

  • Jefferson-Hemings DNA Testing: An On-Line Resource, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation

  • Response to Foster and colleagues' study by Herbert Barger, Jefferson family historian

  • Brief biography of Sally Hemings,

  • I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison (NY: Norton, 1995), reviewed on H-Net by Shalom Doron and R. B. Bernstein

  • Joseph J. Ellis, "Money and That Man from Monticello" (review of Herbert E. Sloan, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt [NY: Oxford UP, 1995], Reviews in American History 23.4 [1995] 588-592; reflects Ellis's previous skepticism toward Hemings family paternity claims)

  • Randall Kennedy, "Sexuality in Black and White," Intellectual Capital, November 5, 1998

  • DAVID MARC FISCHER is a New York City-based editorial free-lancer who has contributed to Life, Parents, Hudson Valley, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

    Photo Credits DNA: Index Stock
    Jefferson: Dover Books