A reader who prefers to remain anonymous e-mailed yesterday regarding the minor Jefferson & Hemings brouhaha that has erupted on these pages:
It’s funny, I was sort of put off by [Annette Gordon-]Reed‘s statement about white people and race at first, especially the notion that “Jefferson could buy and sell people, separate mothers from their children, and that would not appall people, but the thing that says that now his image is tarnished is that he got into bed with a black woman.”
Because to me, his image was tarnished when I became old enough to understand that he owned slaves, and he became more human/interesting to me when I first heard about the Hemings thing, and then he became pretty appalling when I read that he could both have this romantic relationship with Hemings and also be a fairly relentless slave owner/breeder. But to me, racial purity has never played a role in my opinions of him, as far as I can tell.
However, some of the reactions on the blog really seem to prove Reed’s point. It’s eerie. The idea that Jefferson could be somehow vindicated because he may not have fathered children by Hemings is laughable. He was still a SLAVE DRIVER. Christ.
That seems to be the key word in all of this: vindicated. Herbert Barger directs us to read Jefferson Vindicated and rails against bias, political correctness, and histories that he says are marked only by “MISSTATEMENT” and “NO PROOF.” But he stubbornly refuses to say what exactly Jefferson’s “vindication” means.
If the DNA proves he did not father children by one of his slaves, does that mean he was a better man? A better Founding Father? A better slave owner? Is it important for some reason not to admit black people into the Jefferson family? And what is it about the arguments that Mr. Barger doesn’t agree with that are biased and politically correct? And how is it that his all-caps investment in this issue—so perfectly encapsulated in that single word, vindicated—is not biased?
My bias, for what it’s worth, is not in favor of Jefferson’s paternity or Annette Gordon-Reed’s sainthood. It’s in favor of admitting what we have at stake in a certain issue and being honest about it.
NOTE: On the question of anonymity and commenting, here’s Encyclopedia Virginia‘s policy: You’re welcome to comment anonymously but only if your comment is substantive. That is not code for “you must agree with the opinions expressed on these pages”; rather, it means that you cannot use your anonymity to engage in taunting or ad hominem. You have to actually add something to the conversation or your comment will not be approved.
FOR MORE: Click on the “Thomas Jefferson” link below this post to read more on the former president. And for primary resources related to Sally Hemings, see these posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9. And for a discussion of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (2012) by Henry Wiencek, go here and here.
IMAGE: A detail of Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson) from the series All the Presidents’ Girls by Annie Kevans (oil on paper, 50 x 40 cm; 2009)