Campus News

Yarbrough Discusses Report of the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission

Story posted December 06, 2001

It has been widely reported, and many people believe, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of his slave Sally Hemings's children.

The 1998 results of DNA evidence published in a Nature magazine article strongly suggested Sally Hemings's youngest son Eston was fathered by someone with the same Y chromosome as Thomas Jefferson. The news media jumped all over this story, and in much of the press it was presented as conclusive evidence. In January 2000 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (which runs Monticello) issued a statement that there was a "strong likelihood" that Thomas Jefferson had fathered "perhaps all" of Hemings's children.

As a result, it has become a firm part of the American public mindset that our third president "conclusively" had a 38-year love affair with Hemings, and fathered at least one, if not all six, of her children.

But did he really?

Whether it says something about our society, about the media, or about both, the 2001 report by the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Scholars Commission - which casts serious doubt on the 1998 claims - received very little press coverage. The report barely generated enough buzz to merit a few paragraphs buried in the back of some newspapers.

As a result, the findings of the Commission - which is skeptical Jefferson was the father - are virtually unknown by the public at large.

Jean Yarbrough, the Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin, was one of 13 who served on the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission. She spoke about the commission's report at a recent Community Lecture Series event.

"I was not interested in the family feud," Yarbrough explained to the audience, "but in the public reputation of the man," a reputation which has taken a serious beating in the wake of the paternity allegations.

Following the revelation of the DNA evidence, a group of Jefferson admirers formed the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society. The Society invited a group of scholars to reexamine the evidence carefully, and issue a report to the public - regardless of what they found. After the yearlong study, the report was released - on Jefferson's birthday, April 13, 2001, on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial.

"After a careful review of all the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation is by no means proven; and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people," says the report summary. "With the exception of one member...our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly untrue." (The full report of the Commission can be read at www.geocities.com/tjshcommission/.)

Professor Yarbrough's page-long statement in the report focuses on three parts of the evidence: the DNA, the oral history of Madison Hemings (Sally's second-youngest son), and the so-called "conception window," which suggests Jefferson's visits to Monticello corresponded with Sally's pregnancies.

Yarbrough states that the DNA evidence is not nearly as conclusive as it appeared, and that its value was "wildly overstated." What the DNA evidence proved was that someone in the male Jefferson line was the father of Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest son. This evidence does not prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father, nor does it prove that he wasn't. It merely proves that the father was a Jefferson male descended from Thomas Jefferson's father. The "suspects" number about twenty-five Jefferson relatives in Virginia at the time. The most likely candidates are Jefferson's brother Randolph, one of Randolph's five sons, or the sons of Jefferson sister Martha. Furthermore, Jefferson DNA is known only to have been present in Eston. DNA testing either hasn't, or cannot be, done on the other Hemings children.

Meanwhile, the oral tradition passed down from Madison Hemings - who claimed that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally's children - "is questionable," says Yarbrough. Madison first made his claim in 1873 to a biased Ohio newspaper reporter. Yet he is the sole child of Hemings to make the claim. Were it true, it seems likely that all the children would have known of their paternity. Meanwhile, Eston Hemings reported Madison's father was, in fact, a "close relative" of Thomas Jefferson's. Madison's descendents have not agreed to an exhumation for DNA testing.

The "conception window" may be the most intriguing evidence. The claim by the Jefferson Foundation was that Jefferson was in residence at Monticello at all the times Sally Hemings conceived children, thus indicating that he must be the father. The Jefferson-Hemings Commission Report points out, however, that since Jefferson locked up Monticello when he was away, and that since his times away could be lengthy, his return home was undoubtedly an opportunity for the family to gather. When they did have these reunions, they would all stay for weeks, offering ample opportunity for any of a number of male Jefferson relatives to form a liaison with Hemings. (It is known, for example, that Randolph Jefferson was present during the time Eston was conceived, and frequently socialized with the slaves.) There is also evidence disputing that Sally Hemings was monogamous.

Yarbrough - and the commission - concede that some of the evidence against Thomas Jefferson is indeed compelling. But there are simply "too many strings hanging out there" to make any irrefutable conclusions, states Yarbrough. "We just don't know" who fathered Sally Hemings's children. "Until we have better evidence we simply can't say definitively."

Unfortunately, she says, the idea of Jefferson's having fathered Hemings's children has taken root in the public's imagination. Even if evidence surfaced proving otherwise, that firm belief may never disappear.

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email