As a long-time reader and supporter of Chronicles, I am a little puzzled by your persistent efforts to debunk the “myth” that Thomas Jefferson took his quadroon chambermaid Sally Hemings as a concubine.  While I agree with Samuel Francis, Egon Tausch, and now Matthew Rarey (Cultural Revolutions, September) that the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is one conservatives ought to preserve, I remain unconvinced that the alleged liaison would seriously undermine that legacy.  In fact, its acceptance might go far in repairing black-white racial relations.  As Mr. Rarey concedes, sexual relations between white masters and black slaves were not that uncommon in the antebellum South.  On its face, this would appear to be a major example of racial exploitation and oppression.  Yet we have the strange spectacle of blacks today eagerly clamoring for recognition as the descendants of these illegitimate pairings, while whites steadfastly deny their claims.  The assumption seems to be that the renewed interest in the “scandal” is intended to paint the Founding Fathers as a bunch of degenerates so that we moderns, who are the genuine article, might live with easier consciences.

Yet even if everything Fawn Brodie wrote in her biography of Jefferson is true, the third president’s philanderings were a far cry from those of his namesake, the 42nd president.  Mrs. Brodie takes pains to point out Jefferson’s gallant and chivalrous attitude toward women, in contrast with the image of the stony man of reason that has been handed down to us.  His was the traditional attitude that clearly understood the different roles of the sexes, not the sort of debauchery represented by Bill Clinton and Clinton’s true presidential role model, John F. Kennedy.

According to Brodie, Jefferson, at age 39, made a vow to his wife on her deathbed that he would never remarry.  He never did, but several years later, as ambassador to France, he took his 16-year-old slave as a concubine.  The book claims she bore him four children, but there is no allegation that either he or Hemings had any other sexual relations from this time until Jefferson’s death nearly 40 years later.  Thus, there is no claim of adultery.  I hesitate even to call it fornication, inasmuch as their marriage would have been forbidden by Virginia law.  Are conservatives really so puritanical that evidence of such a discreet relationship would destroy their cherished conception of the author of the Declaration of Independence?  Those of us who would defend the institutions of the Old South should welcome Sally Hemings’ well-intentioned descendants, not offer them the back of the hand.

        —Chas Baylor
St. Mary’s, KS

Mr. Rarey Replies:

If Thomas Jefferson sired offspring by his slave Sally Hemings, I cannot conceive how this would have contributed to the racial harmony and melodrama of star-crossed lovers that Mr. Baylor imagines.  To do so would mean ignoring historical evidence and common sense. 

Certainly there were master-slave couplings in early America, as there have been in similar circumstances throughout history.  Indeed, scholarship indicates that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph had such relations, repeatedly and shamelessly.  Obviously, such behavior is unmanly; and, if Thomas Jefferson were guilty of it, it would put him—a man who so prized his upright reputation—in a baser league than that of Bill Clinton, a transparent rogue who justifies his crimes and misdemeanors by claiming, “I’m just a poor sinner like the rest of you.”

Mr. Baylor’s letter raises a few questions.  First, would an honorable man refuse to acknowledge his supposed lover (Hemings) and, according to his will, leave her and the children he purportedly sired by her in bondage, perhaps to be sold off to pay his debts?  Would such behavior evidence a “gallant and chivalrous attitude toward women” or “a major example of racial exploitation and oppression”?  Is it virtuous to promise a dying wife never to remarry if that promise excludes out-of-wedlock profligacy of an especially ignominious nature?  And is it wise to trust Fawn Brodie, whom historians have roundly panned for her sex-obsessed psychohistory?  The answers are self-evident.

It is right and proper to defend Jefferson against smears, first advanced by political enemies in the Federal-era equivalent of supermarket tabloids and nowadays pushed by persons of pernicious intent.  (Hemings’ descendants may be eager to claim Jefferson as their great white father—some have made good money selling this historical snake oil—but few actually revere him.)  Jefferson’s legacy as a Founding Father and a man of noble deeds and character must not be allowed to be warped into that of a deadbeat dad and highbrow hypocrite.  This is a cause truly worth pledging one’s sacred honor.