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William Hyland Jr. Headshot

The Politicization of a Founding Father

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In his famous book 1984, George Orwell wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." As we celebrate Thomas Jefferson's birthday, revisionist impulses have all but assassinated Jefferson's personal reputation since the distorted DNA test surfaced in 1998. The face on Mount Rushmore has been vilified as a slave-owning hypocrite, racist and father of slave children. Unfortunately, these "facts" are nothing more than the accumulation of rumors and irresponsible scholarship over the years. When facts contradict a scandalous story, it is the story that survives. Betsy Ross may have her American flag, so we can let Sally Hemings have Jefferson's love child.

The Jefferson-Hemings debate has dissolved into a second and third draft of a politicized novel. Jefferson is, as historian Virginius Dabney wrote: "...one of the principle historical victims of the current orgy of debunking" our heroes. The Hemings' true believers have turned the debate into an obsessive agenda on the color of Sally's skin and slave status. The slave historians have taken "diversity" and created a hostile environment in which scholars feel pressured to accept the Hemings myth as truth.

Thus, one statement should be made concerning our greatest founding father: Thomas Jefferson was either the most prolific, hypocritical liar in American history or the victim of the most profane, 200-year-old defamation of character allegation in legal annals.

The fevered debate about Jefferson and Hemings changed radically in 1998. The science journal Nature's distorted headline led to a worldwide misrepresentation that DNA had proven Jefferson was the father. In fact, at least two dozen male Jeffersons could have fathered the slave child, Eston Hemings. Historians understood this, but scholars marginalized evidence pointing toward any paternity candidate but Jefferson.

The "Sally" story is pure fiction, possibly politics, but certainly not historical fact or science. It reflects a recycled inaccuracy that has metastasized from book to book, giving a false stigma of Jefferson's guilt to the American public. In contrast to a mini-series version of history, layer upon layer of evidence points away from Jefferson with one inevitable conclusion: the historians have the wrong Jefferson -- the DNA, as well as other historical evidence, matches to his younger brother, Randolph, as the true candidate for a sexual relationship with Sally.

The virulent rumor was started by the scandal-mongering journalist James Callender, who burned for political revenge against Jefferson. Callender was described as "an alcoholic thug with a foul mind, obsessed with race and sex," who intended to defame Jefferson's public career.

The one eyewitness to this allegation was Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer, who saw another man (not Jefferson) leaving Sally's room "many a morning."

Randolph Jefferson had a reputation for socializing with Jefferson's slaves and visited Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, the DNA match. The DNA match was to a male son. Randolph had six male sons. Thomas Jefferson had all female children, except for a nonviable infant.

In 2001 there was little notice of a 13-member, blue-ribbon panel of prominent historians and scientists (white, black, male and female) named to re-confirm the DNA conclusions (the "Scholars Commission"). After a year of investigating history's most famous paternity case, the independent historians concluded (and I quote): "our conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false." The scholars commission were the most notable, independent Jefferson scholars who lent their expert opinions, and agreed that the accusation of an affair lacks not only credibility, but would be utterly outside the moral character of Jefferson. Said the preeminent historian Professor Forrest McDonald, from the University of Alabama and who served on the Commission: "Thomas Jefferson was simply not guilty of the charge."

Unlike his brother, by taste and training Jefferson was raised as the perfect Virginia gentleman. The man who figures in the Hemings soap opera would be preposterously out of character for him.

On the eve of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln declared, "All honor to Jefferson. His principles are the definitions and axioms of a free society." As his granddaughter proclaimed, "there are such things as moral impossibilities." Although the Sally rumor survives, no reasonable, sensible person hearing all the evidence, not just rank speculation, has ever declared his or her belief in it.

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