We’re at work on our entry about Sally Hemings [see update below], and I’m pretty sure that no piece of writing in the encyclopedia has ever been so fussed over as this one. Although we received a wonderful entry from our contributor, it went through a rigorous editing process and now we’ve sent it to a number of other first-rate scholars for their review. Here’s an example of the sort of issues we’re still trying to sort out. The entry’s introduction reads:

After her return to Monticello, Hemings bore six children, whom her son Madison Hemings later claimed to have been fathered by Jefferson. Rumors to that effect had already circulated when, in 1802, a political enemy of Jefferson accused the president of keeping one of his slaves “as his concubine.”

That political enemy was James Thomson Callender. Once an ally of Jefferson, the journalist turned on the president when he (Callender) was not, by his lights, adequately rewarded for his services. The result was “The President, Again,” a story (the beginning of which you can see above) that appeared in Callender’s paper, the Richmond Recorder, on September 1, 1802. This is not where the rumors of Tom & Sally began, but it is certainly where they took flight.
Anyway, one of our reviewers highlighted this passage and wrote the following:

I find this misleading, i.e. use of “political enemy” and “accused.” It makes it sound like Newt Gingrich accused the president … on Fox News. Callender was a journalist in his newspaper, he stated that TJ was keeping SH as his concubine. It has a different ring to me.

This raises a number of questions: What does it mean that those sentences in the introduction didn’t mention that the information about “Sally” appeared in a newspaper? Is it more accurate to refer to Callender as a journalist or as a political enemy? And, perhaps most interestingly, is it reasonable to analogize between standards of journalism in 1802 and 2012? Was the Richmond Recorder more like the Washington Post or like Fox News?
The entry should be published by the end of the year. Stay tuned for our answers then.
UPDATE: Here’s our entry on Sally Hemings.


3 thoughts

  1. James Callender was proven by the DNA Study to be a liar. There was no Jefferson/Woodson match as he had claimed.
    I assisted Dr Foster with the DNA Study and he tested a known carrier of both Jefferson and Eston Hemings DNA, John Weeks Jefferson, a descendant of Eston Hemings. That family had always claimed descent from a “Jefferson uncle or nephew”, meaning Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother and his sons. With this in mind I highly recommended to Dr Foster to so notify Nature Journal and he refused and worked closely with them to perfect a FALSE and misleading headline, “Jefferson fathers slave’s last child.” He later in the Jan 7, 1999 issue clearly rectified his early remarks and said nothing proved that it was Thomas who fathered Eston Hemings. He also made these clearifications in a New York Times article.
    This false headline further served the Monticello officials needs who were deleating “MEMORIAL” from their title and memorializing the slave input there. An African-American board of 10 prominent African-Americans were advising the Getting Word project there and one of them was assigned as Chairman of Dr Dan Jordan’s Monticello DNA Study. Dr Jordan tried to “hide under the carpet” a Minority Report accusing the commitee of bias and mishandeling the study. Dr Jordan would apologize to Dr Ken Wallenborn for such drastic and unprofessional action. This dedicated and long time Monticello employee resigned along with two other highly regarded guides rather than present false information to the public.
    This Getting Word group is still consulting with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Board and the Smith Study Center there is wining and dining certain friendly authors to get their version of the misguided study before the public. The public is being greatly misinformed by Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf and other “slavery issue” writers.
    Herb Barger
    Founder, Jefferson Heritage Society
    Assistant to Dr Foster

  2. Mr. Barger has the facts of the Jefferson/Hemings “evidence” precisely correct. Please check me out on this: there exists not a scintilla of proof that Jefferson fathered ANY of Hemings children. He may have, but the DNA study proved no such thing. A match was found between the DNA of descendants of Field Jefferson and descendants of Eston Hemings only. That proves, first of all that Callender was a liar — no Jefferson fathered the child Tom Hemings. And the prime Jefferson family suspect for the one positive has always been Randolph Jefferson, not Thomas. Please take the time to get this right. I personally have no horse in this race … other than historical accuracy and fairness. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mr. Barger and Mr. Burchell.
    Mr. Burchell, you write, “Please take the time to get this right.” Here’s what we will likely say about this controversy and it is, I believe, right.
    1. Rumors existed prior to 1802 of a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves.
    2. In 1802, Jefferson was accused in print of fathering children by a slave named Sally, including a son named Tom. He never responded to the claim.
    3. In 1858, in a letter to her husband, one of Jefferson’s granddaughters suggested that either Peter or Samuel Carr may have fathered children with Sally Hemings.
    4. In 1873, interviews with two of Jefferson’s former slaves, Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, appeared in an Ohio newspaper. Hemings claimed his father was Thomas Jefferson, and Israel Jefferson corroborated that account.
    5. Probably early in 1874, Thomas Jefferson Randolph wrote a letter to that same Ohio paper disputing Israel Jefferson’s recollections. It was never published and probably never sent.
    6. One hundred years later, in 1974, Fawn M. Brodie published a biography claiming that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings. Jefferson scholars Dumas Malone and Julian P. Boyd disagreed with her conclusions.
    7. Around the same time, the scholar Winthrop Jordan established that Thomas Jefferson had been present at Monticello during the times that Sally Hemings would have conceived each of her children, and that she never conceived when he was absent.
    8. At some point, descendants of a man named Thomas Woodson (1790–1879) claimed that he was the son named Tom who was first mentioned in 1802.
    9. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published a book evaluating the evidence to date.
    10. In 1998, Foster, et al., published their DNA study in Nature magazine, arguing that “a Jefferson male” had fathered Eston Hemings, the last of Sally Hemings’s children. No links were found between the Jeffersons and Thomas Woodson. The study also ruled out the Carr brothers as possible fathers.
    11. In 1999, Gordon-Reed updated her book, concluding that the evidence tended to support Madison Hemings’s recollections more than the claims by the Jefferson family.
    12. In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, released a report accepting the probability that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Sally Hemings’s children.
    13. That same year the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society was founded to combat the Monticello report.
    14. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the consensus among historians is that Thomas Jefferson probably fathered children by Sally Hemings. Some historians and Jefferson “defenders” disagree, seeking to cast doubt on the DNA evidence and arguing that it was mostly likely Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, who fathered the children.
    Let me be clear about something: it is not the place of Encyclopedia Virginia to say that Thomas Jefferson did or did not father children by Sally Hemings. (Not even Gordon-Reed claims scientific proof in support of her conclusions.) But we can provide enough context — including a host of primary resources — so that our readers can better investigate the issue for themselves.
    And I hope that our sections of content (in progress) about Jefferson and about slavery in Virginia can also provide context on why this issue continues to matter so much to Americans.
    Thanks again for your comments.


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