We’ve covered quite a bit of ground on this blog. General Buford, looking a bit like Sam Elliott, might even have called it damn good ground, at that. But our thoughts on the finer points of hunting dogs, guerrilla warfare, dueling, honor, frontier medicine, electoral politics, and autobiography withstanding, it has really only ever been a matter of time before Mr. Jefferson and the “subject” you aren’t supposed to ask about on official tours of Monticello (a lesson yours truly learned the hard way from a semi-disgruntled senior citizen) made its way onto Bowtied & Fried. But, rather than bringing a knife to the historical gunfight that even DNA evidence apparently can’t stop, we decided to enlist the help of someone a bit more qualified on the matter. And that’s where Dr. Woody Holton enters the picture. The son of a governor and a Bancroft Prize winning historian, Dr. Holton is no stranger to Virginia politics—past or present. What follows are his thoughts on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy and how one of the best-known southerners of any generation might ought to be remembered.
Second Thoughts on Race, Sex, and Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Fleming is one of the best-known historians of the American Revolution, and I am trying to figure out whether I have done him wrong. In 2009, Fleming published The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, which I reviewed in the September 2011 Reviews in American History. I observed that Fleming broke no new ground in his book, but I didn’t criticize him for that, since originality was manifestly not his goal. He had set out to write an entertaining book, and I said that while he sometimes exaggerated scandalous behavior and often mishandled sources, he had largely succeeded.
With one big exception. In his chapter on Thomas Jefferson, and in an appendix called “The Erosion of Jefferson’s Image in the American Mind” (a reference to Merrill D. Peterson’s authoritative Jefferson Image in the American Mind ), Fleming emphatically denied that Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’s children. That struck me as naïve, but what really grated was the lengths Fleming was willing to go to in refuting the Hemings story. Winthrop Jordan had established long ago that Jefferson had access to Hemings during the weeks all of her children were conceived, but Fleming suggested that we should be suspicious of Jordan’s work because he was “a descendant of abolitionists” (410). Fleming also trash-talked another Jordan who happens to be a friend of mine. He claimed that back when Dan Jordan headed the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the organization that runs Monticello, he had dropped the word “Memorial” from the group’s name out of shame over the 1998 DNA study linking Jefferson and Hemings, a charge that the irreproachable Jordan flatly denies.
Annette Gordon-Reed, whose Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) convinced many people, including me, that the Hemings story was probably true, received even uglier treatment in Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. Gordon-Reed, who’s black, was the only historian in Fleming’s 420-page book who was identified by race (415).
I did not call Fleming a racist. I explicitly distinguished him from the white Jefferson descendants (or alleged white Jefferson descendants, as we would call them if we held them to the same exacting standard that they hold the African Americans who claim Jefferson as an ancestor) who have barred their alleged black cousins from the family graveyard at Monticello. But I did express wonder, and distress, at the passion with which Fleming denied the Hemings story. I noted that he invariably discussed the subject using the language of the criminal court, referring four times to Jefferson’s alleged “guilt.” Although I didn’t put it this way in my review, I was pretty disgusted to see Fleming give Jefferson a pass for owning Hemings and then melt down at the possibility that he might have loved her. This was not the vicious racism of the alleged white Jefferson descendants who are trying to keep their alleged black cousins out of the family graveyard, but it was not pretty.
Nor was it unique. Since the DNA study was published in the journal Nature in November 1998, a book denying the Jefferson-Hemings relationship has appeared, on average, every other year.
What is wrong with these people?
Last semester, I put that question to the Thomas Jefferson seminar I was teaching at the University of Richmond, and the students’ answers surprised me. One suggested that we consider the Jefferson-Hemings story in light of the recent newspaper reports of female high school teachers who had been caught having sex with their students. Some of these young men may see themselves as studs, but we adults (and the law) see them as rape victims. My students argued that even if we imagine the extreme case where Hemings consented to sex with Jefferson (we actually have no evidence regarding her feelings about him), their relationship should be defined as rape, since she had no right to say no.
I have never met Fleming, so I can’t know whether his reasoning ran along those lines. But my students’ comments do open up an alternative reading of the deniers’ motivation. Maybe what some of them can’t bring themselves to admit about Jefferson is not that he breached the taboo against interracial sex but that he was a rapist. It drives me nuts to hear the deniers say, “Mr. Jefferson would never abuse his authority in that way!”—a statement that classifies the slaveholder with the teacher, coach, and priest. But it is certainly correct that some slaveholders abused their power more than others. Few of us who study slavery think there was such thing as a good slaveholder, but we know that some of the men and women who owned their fellow humans did view themselves that way. And it is possible that some male slaveowners drew the line at rape—though I hasten to add that there is no evidence that Jefferson was one of these.
It seems plausible to me that Thomas Fleming and some of the other writers who deny the Hemings story agree with my students that all master-slave sex is rape—and that their vehement denials of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship actually arises not from discomfort with interracial sex but from an inability to accept that their hero might have been a rapist.
I am still ambivalent about this. At a conference held in response to the DNA study, the late Rhys Isaac warned his fellow scholars against assuming that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was coercive. He pointed out that before the mid-nineteenth century, even nominally free women lost most of their rights the moment they got married. If we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of love among two people who possess vastly different amounts of power, then we will have to deny that any heterosexual couple actually loved each other before about 1850. Annette Gordon-Reed agrees with Isaac that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings might well have been a loving one.
But suppose for a moment that Isaac and Gordon-Reed are wrong. Then what the deniers deny is not interracial sex but rape. I still think they are possessed. It’s hilarious, for instance, the way they pivoted to Thomas’s brother Randolph Jefferson as their preferred father of Sally Hemings’s son Eston as soon as the DNA study cleared the two Jefferson nephews who had been the official fall guys for more than a century. And do we really need a new denier book every two years? And it still saddens me that Fleming’s strong feelings about the topic led him to say such nasty things about Gordon-Reed, the two Jordans, and other scholars who believe the Hemings story. But not wanting to think Jefferson was a rapist is a lot less ugly than not wanting to think he had a black lover.
I can’t read Thomas Flemings’ mind, but now that I recognize the existence of this new category of denier, I would certainly like to think that he is in it.
But even if Flemings’ denials are rooted in his love of Jefferson rather than discomfort with interracial sex, there is still one big problem. Many of the same people who balk at viewing Jefferson as a rapist have no trouble admitting that he sometimes sold slaves away from their family members. Isn’t that crime just as bad as rape? It is if you believe black parents and children love each other as much as white family members do. In staking their affection for Jefferson on their insistence that he did not rape Hemings, while at the same time not expressing much regret that he divided black families, Fleming and the other deniers exhibit a racist disregard for those families. True, unconscious racism of this sort is much less abhorrent than the Klan variety, but it is still very much in need of reconsideration.
Dr. Woody Holton (Ph.D., Duke University) is a Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Richmond and the author of multiple books about Early America—including Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (for which he was a National Book Award Finalist) and Abigail Adams (for which he won the Bancroft Prize).
 Fleming is also the author of Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America (2000), Liberty the American Revolution (2004), The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown (2007).