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Hemings Hawing

What Tom and Sally teach us

The DNA test proving that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings was good news for the Jefferson-Hemings descendants, for a brave and stubborn lawyer-historian, and for the United States. It was bad news for some conservative pundits. And it was gratifying news for me.

More than a year and a half ago, I wrote in these pages that the existing evidence made it "difficult to avoid thinking in terms of the probability, and not merely the possibility, of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison" (see "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson," March 10, 1997). This was not, even then, the prevailing view, and I received impassioned complaints from historians. Normally, we history professors cannot count on receiving scientific proof of our interpretations and must content ourselves with what assent we can gain from colleagues. So forgive me if, just this once, I crow a little. The chromosomes are on my side.

Forgive me, too, if I crow even more on behalf of Annette Gordon-Reed. It was Gordon-Reed's book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, that reopened the Hemings-Jefferson matter and offered the most persuasive proof until now that the majority of historians were probably wrong. Her book showed that the tale of Tom and Sally's relationship need not be seen as one of a cruel oppressor and his helpless victim, but as a far more complicated matter, involving two people caught up in an absurd and long-lasting connection. It took courage for Gordon-Reed, a lawyer by training, to buck the professorial wisdom about the holy man of Monticello. It took even greater courage for her to eschew the standard left and liberal melodrama about miscegenation under slavery, and to emphasize the elements of tragedy and honor in her story, as a parable of America's marvelously mulattoized heritage.

And let us not forget to praise the Jefferson-Hemings descendants--John Jefferson and his sister, Julia Jefferson Westerinen, Shay Banks-Young, Lantz Balthazar, and dozens more around the country--suddenly thrust into prominence by their DNA. All along they knew the truth by way of the oral traditions of their family, only to see it denied by those who preferred the Jefferson family myth--chief among them the so-called Monticello Mafia in Virginia, who regarded the story as a foul slander. For more than a century, the Hemingses and their relations have been ridiculed as soft-headed darkies who were trying to filch a piece of greatness and advance themselves in the world. Deep down, the current generation's sense of revenge as well as vindication must be sweet. And yet, remarkably, since the DNA results were announced they have avoided recriminations and told only of the honor they feel.

Faced with a major story about American history and culture, conservative pundits, who are supposed to revere our heritage, reacted in a strangely narrow- and present-minded way. Writing in--where else?--The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute called the revelations part of an "October surprise" mounted by pro-Clinton historians who wanted to tilt the voting and to head off the president's impeachment. Along with a recent statement by 400 professional historians deploring impeachment (a statement I helped draft and circulate), the Hemings affair was supposed to show that even our greatest Founding Fathers made their sexual mistakes and that Clinton should be exculpated. There was a DNA test. Get it?

The idea that the sublimely named Gene Foster, the scientist who hunted down the Jeffersonian gene (itself an interesting concept), was part of the vast left-wing conspiracy is only slightly less bizarre than the idea that Jefferson and Hemings presciently mated so that, two centuries later, a president named William Jefferson Clinton could get off the hook. But, in the right-wing mind, such improbabilities never get in the way of a good column. Charles Krauthammer has not only endorsed the "October surprise" hypothesis; he has discovered an even deeper plot. For Krauthammer, the chief lesson of the Jefferson-Hemings tale is that it gives "the everybody-does-it line both pedigree and prestige." Surely it was no accident, he claims, that the story broke only two days before the election. And then he clinches his case, revealing that among the signers of the historians' anti-impeachment statement was "the co-author of the article in Nature pronouncing the DNA data definitive."

The historian in question is Joseph J. Ellis of Mount Holyoke College, the author of a recent well-received biography of Jefferson. I personally asked him to sign the historians' impeachment statement. At the time, I had no inkling of the forthcoming revelations about Jefferson and Hemings, let alone about his endorsement of the findings. In real life, accidents happen.

Nor, finally, is there any historical reason to link the Jefferson-Hemings affair with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, although, to be sure, Ellis (who, until now, had rejected the Hemings story) has tried to do so. "The dominant effect of this news," Ellis has written, "will be to make Clinton's sins less aberrant and more palatable." Krauthammer can almost be excused for his conspiracy theory. When Ellis seeks to squeeze political utility out of Jefferson's bloodlines, he exposes his limited understanding of the Jefferson-Hemings romance.

The story of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is about lust consensually expressed, and about loneliness and arrogance, and about stupidity and an astounding lack of judgment. The story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is about none of these things. It is about a slave-holding widower who, having promised his dying wife that he would never remarry, struck up a covert relationship with his wife's half-sister, of partial African descent, who was also one of his house slaves. It is the stuff of great history and great art.

Unlike the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, we know less about what the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was than what is was not. It was not a sporadic succession of foreplay-trysts. It was a decades-long connection that produced at least one child and probably more. It was not remotely a relationship of equals--a master held much more power over a slave even than a president does over an intern--and yet there is a sense in which the disparity between the appetitive ex-Rhodes Scholar and the fleshy resume-builder from Beverly Hills was greater. It is said that Hemings spoke French and, it seems, could interest her lover from the neck up, too.

And, though we may never know how much love, if any, Tom and Sally shared, the record shows at least an element of decency that was remarkably lacking in Bill and Monica's fling. Among the handful of his slaves for whom Jefferson provided at his death were Sally's children. According to the Hemings family tradition, the two had agreed that he would free her children, and she had enough influence over him, years later, to hold him to his promise.

So was the greatest egalitarian of eighteenth-century America a hypocrite? In one sense, of course: The love of a master for a slave is by definition a hypocritical love, and the egalitarianism of a slaveholder is a hypocritical egalitarianism. But hypocrisy is not all that can be made of contradictions. It is almost impossible to imagine that the relationship of Tom and Sally was an inhumane one. The conditions were ugly, but the affair was probably not. If there was love, there was not only power. The object of a long emotional and sexual engagement is not only chattel. Indeed, the knowledge that the author of the Declaration of Independence lay gladly and devotedly for decades with a black woman may shed affecting new light on the full resonance of his ardor about equality. The slave may have left the master with more than children. In which case she left the same legacy to America, too.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).