The New York Times is still perpetuating the myth of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, despite the weight of scholarly evidence.  (See, for example, Egon Tausch’s exhaustive Chronicles article, “Tom and Sally and Joe and Fawn,”?Views, March 1999.)  The myth, first touted by a postmaster manqué who turned to yellow journalism after Jefferson denied him patronage, resurfaced with a vengeance in 1998.  Based on DNA evidence that indicated that a Jefferson male sired at least one of Hemings’ seven children, historian Joseph Ellis wrote an article in Nature claiming that the DNA fingered Thomas Jefferson himself.  The article was rushed to press during the congressional impeachment of Bill Clinton, which Ellis actively opposed.  He drew parallels in defense of Clinton, suggesting that, if Jefferson used his slaves for a harem, William Jefferson Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky seemed innocuous.

Ellis is not an impartial scholar.  In 2001, the Boston Globe exposed him as an habitual liar—e.g., he never served in Vietnam or campaigned for civil rights.  His propaganda worked, however.  Oprah Winfrey invited Sally Hemings’ descendants on her show, where they appeared with a Jefferson descendant, Lucian Truscott IV.  He, in turn, invited them to be his guests at reunions of the Monticello Association, which is made up of those who can trace direct lineage to Jefferson.  For the next three years, they would descend on Charlottesville and demand admittance as fellow members.  

In the meantime, a group of distinguished scholars was convened by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to examine the Hemings family’s case.  After a year-long investigation, the panel’s 550-page report concluded that the case rested on flimsy and even false evidence.  The DNA merely showed that Hemings’ youngest son, Eston, was fathered by one of more than two dozen Jefferson males in Virginia at the time.  The most likely culprit was Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph.  According to a contemporary slave’s account, Randolph spent his evenings at Monticello among the slaves, “dancing half the night.”  There is also evidence that he fathered children by his own slaves.  Furthermore, the oral history passed down by Eston’s descendants claimed he was the son of “an uncle.”  (Jefferson’s brother was known at Monticello as Uncle Randolph, because of his relationship to the president’s daughters.) 

Thomas, on the other hand, was in his 60’s and in declining health.  Even if he were young and hale, however, it is hard to imagine that a man so jealous of his reputation would risk it so wantonly.

Based on these findings, the Monticello Association in 2002 voted against admitting the members of the Hemings family.  The reaction, unlike Monticello’s founder, was not reasonable.  (I was at the meeting as a guest and as a reporter for the Washington Times.)  One woman even accused the KKK of funding the report.  The panel’s chairman, University of Virginia law professor Robert Turner, wearily rolled his eyes.  “We didn’t get paid a dime” for the work, he replied.

The truth never mattered to the myth’s proponents, however, and so the charade continues.  Some Hemings family members continue to profit from hawking books and riding the lecture circuit.  And this July, Mr. Truscott and his former guests made sure the press knew that they were boycotting the Monticello Association in favor of a private reunion of Monticello’s slave descendants.  The Times fawningly covered the event and quoted Joseph Ellis as its historical expert.  It also ran an op-ed by Mr. Truscott, who imputed racist motives to the Monticello Association and stated the myth as plain fact.  (When I met the Hollywood screenwriter at a Monticello wine-and-cheese reception, he gave this explanation for why his ancestor’s relations, such as brother Randolph, would not have messed with Sally: “If they knew that she was his top slave, she’d be the last piece of a- – they would have gone for.  You don’t go after the big guy’s woman.”)  

A week later, the Times agreed to run a brief letter to the editor from Monticello Association member Sal Pace, who attempted to set the record straight.  (It took a while to convince the paper that Ellis might be unreliable.)  “The Times tally was one guest op-ed, one in-house op-ed, one front page news story, and three letters to the editor against us, and one for us,” he said.  “I guess that’s something.”