Second Thoughts on Race, Sex, and Thomas Jefferson by Dr. Woody Holton

Introduction: Guest Blog–Dr. Woody Holton

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.[1] 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 [1960]), 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).

[1] 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).

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15 Responses to Second Thoughts on Race, Sex, and Thomas Jefferson by Dr. Woody Holton

  1. Raffi says:

    I think that TJ fathered at least some of those kids, but one thing that often gets lost in this is why Sally Hemmings? I think part of the answer lies in the fact that she was Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister, and remember his wife made him promise never to marry again, and he lost her at a young age. Put in that light, perhaps it gives a different understanding — one that is a bit different than the usual master-slave sexual relations of the American South.

    • MCH says:

      Raffi: I see where you’re coming from with this–but I wonder how the deceased Mrs. Jefferson would have viewed TJ’s covert, sexual relationship with a slave, regardless of whether or not he slept with her to avoid breaking his promise never to remarry (which is obviously debatable in the first place)?

  2. KAH says:

    Dr. Holton,

    A great piece — thought-provoking and quite interesting! I agree with your position that people have trouble hearing negative things about their heroes. Indeed, I think the Founding Fathers pose an even greater issue for many because middle and high school history classes often put them on a pedestal rather than studying them as real, on the ground, in the flesh human beings who are capable of making mistakes. Thanks for sharing with the Roundtable!!

  3. Richard Dixon says:

    Prof. Holton’s musing on the motivation of “those people” who require more than a “what if” standard to conclude that Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children is interesting, but nonproductive. To quote his students’ attitudes as some type of proof of what the professor believes is akin to assuming that the guides at Monticello are voicing their own personal opinions about the relationship of Sally Hemings with Jefferson. Two comments warrant response, however. It is constantly raised by the paternity believers, as Prof. Holton so adroitly interjects, that since Jefferson was a slave holder, and that was a monstrous moral crime, then why not just believe he was also the father of the Hemings children. The second is the ambiguous way that Prof. Holton referred to the DNA test that “cleared” the Carr brothers. It is correct that they were eliminated as fathers to Eston. What is left unsaid is that they remain potential fathers to the three untested Hemings children. Circumstantial evidence is an odd beast. It is the only recourse when direct evidence is not available, but it also carries with it the flaw of ultimately being wrong.

  4. Angela says:

    What an interesting read! This topic has always fascinated me and is one that I always look forward to teaching and discussing with students. This past summer I visited Monticello for the first time and witnessed our tour guide tiptoe around this issue, until she was directly asked about it. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic, Dr. Holton!

  5. JHW says:

    Couldn’t agree more with KAH and Angela! Great piece that was very interesting and thought-provoking. I begin my classes every semester having students relate their “favorite” historical character (typically in US History, as that’s my focus). Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln always appear earliest and oftenest, with pedestal-worthy explanations provided as to why they are “favorites.” Presenting the real human story of all historical actors, politicians and pig-farmers, is the only way to truly convey the lasting value and importance of historical study and push beyond this distance students feel from their history. This piece certainly does so, and in a very readable and entertaining fashion to boot! Thank you for sharing!

  6. herbar1 says:

    Dr Holton, you are a knowledgable professor at one of our leading universities where you teach history and thus I wish to appraise you of a “different” approach to the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study. That approach being that I personally assisted Dr Eugene Foster with the DNA Study from “day one.” He told me repeatedly that had it not been for my extensive research of the Jefferson family and their lineage from England that he probably could not have progressed with the study, thus I offer my participation to you and NOT the Monticello “sell”.

    Possibly you may have attended the Smith Studies there at Monticello and also your friendship with Dr Jordan may have clouded your impression of this study. I was there from “day one” when Dr Foster chose me to assist and I have hundreds of critical e-mails,FAX and snail mail information between myself, Dr Foster, Dan Jordan, Cinder Stanton, Past Monticello Directors, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chairmen, Nature Journal Editor-in-Chief, Campbell, various scientific journals, editors, authors, scientific personnel, including participants in the study in England and elsewhere. In other words I am very familiar with the controversy and know first hand of what I write.

    Some have asked, “why would Monticello slant and distort the actual results of the study, aren’t they “the keeper of Mr. Jefferson’s flame?” Don’t they have most of the Jefferson information?”
    At first I also assumed this and we all know that as employees they work in the truth of Mr. Jefferson’s legacy, DON’T THEY? After reading “Jefferson Legacies” (I was searching for a reason why they are reading the study WRONG), I found it, “historical revisionism and political correctness” and in Oct 1992 it was time to “bad mouth” Jefferson because “he did own slaves and was a popular name to catch the public’s eye.” The African-American chairman of Mr. Jordan’s Monticello DNA Study was none other than Ms. Dianne Swann-Wright, who had been chosen to run the Getting Word Project there with a famous 10 man prominent African-American board headed by Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP.

    I don’t have time to tell you all but the gist is that: Dr Foster tested a KNOWN carrier of both Jefferson-Hemings DNA, John Weeks Jefferson, descendant of Eston Hemings, son of Sally
    as his subject. A later subject found having the Madison Hemings DNA (which may be a match with the Carrs as claimed), has been located in Kansas but Dan Jordan refused to suggest that the Hemings proceed to gather this DNA and the Hemings REFUSE to test….WHY? If there were not a Jefferson match, and they fear this, then “there goes the ball game.” I personally believe Madison descends from a Carr brother, thus Sally would have more than one father for her children just like her mother did.

    I told Dr Foster to inform Nature Journal that the man he was testing and his family had always claimed descent from “a Jefferson uncle or nephew” (meaning much younger TJ brother, Randolph Jefferson and his sons). I have a Hemings letter to this effect. Of course there would be a match and so I requested that Nature be notified. Dr Foster REFUSED to tell Nature originally for their Nov. 5, 1998 issue and the media ran wild with this WRONG information and he had worked closely with Nature for a sensational headline, “Jefferson fathers slave’s last child.” Yes, I have e-mails outlining these manipulations. After my objections to Nature they asked him to reply in a later issue (Jan 7, 1999), to my observations and at this time he made it clear that I had informed him and that DNA did not prove that it was Thomas but SOME (the Eston family claim it was “a Jefferson uncle or nephew).

    The notes regarding the exceptional work by Annette Gordon-Reed’s two books on this topic is outrageous. She claims in her latest book that 7 of Sally’s children were sired by Thomas Jefferson. If one were to look at her first book they will find that she says, “The DNA does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. This is a correct statement BUT why the lies in her second book and also how does she overlook the fact that one of the seven children she claims, Tom Woodson, was completely eleminated by the DNA test, so James Callender was a LIAR. She had also misquoted a letter from a TJ grand-daughter in which she changed the wording to indicate a complete 180 degree different meaning. For all of this MISINFORMATION she has been well rewarded by various awards and teaching positions.

    The public is being CONNED and I don’t think you wish to be part of this misinformation. I welcome your comments. This is a slavery issue NOT proof that TJ fathered slave children and MONTICELLO knows it. The displays at the Smithsonian and Monticello that claims these lies
    is a miscarriage of the truth and MUST be corrected…….NOTHING proves that Thomas Jefferson fathered ANY slave child.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

  7. paineite says:

    Unless you’ve read “In defense of Thomas Jefferson: the Sally Hemings sex scandal” by William G. Hyland you can’t really speak competently to this issue. And no, I’m not Hyland nor do I have any pecuniary interest in his book. My interest is the truth, something all you politically-correct Jefferson slanderers seems to have forgotten. Read the book, THEN we’ll talk.

  8. LB Samms says:

    Robert Turner, Lance Banning, Robert Ferrell, Jean Yarbrough, Forrest McDonald, Charles Kesler, James Ceasar, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Trout, Paul Rahe, Alf Mapp, Dave Mayer & Walter Williams—these are the leading scholars who studied the Jefferson-Hemings issue for a year and published “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission”. They said, …”our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge [that Jefferson fathered any of the Hemings children] to a conviction that it is almost certainly untrue”. Can one discuss this issue with authority, if they have not at least read this report? Why didn’t Mr. Holton mention the report? Perhaps the report and its authors are too convincing.

  9. Bill Randolph says:

    As a great grandson of Thomas Jefferson I will say that he did not father any by any of his slaves. All of the books that have been written have not been based on any facts but in hearsay and what you historian’s refer to as oral history. Well my oral history says that it never happen which has been pasted down through his daughter. So until you can prove it move on and talk about Jefferson’s works and how he helped build the greatest country ever. When you visit Monticello the emphasis should be on Jefferson not anyone else. Why would you need to talk about anyone else in his house but him. I look at those that push this issue not as historian’s but as those that just want to make a buck on someone else’s back, college socialist that have not left a campus since they were 18.

    • MCH says:

      “Why would you need to talk about anyone else in his house but him.”

      Regardless of what you think about the Jefferson-Hemings affair or DNA results, the simple answer to your question is because **other people**–both free and enslaved–lived there. Ignoring the more unpleasant aspects of history (aka slaves) doesn’t erase them, it simply draws more attention via suspicion. This is especially true in the case of a lightning rod-figure such as Jefferson…

  10. MCH says:

    Administrative Note: Apparently WordPress automatically closes down comments after a certain period of time following publication. I’ve removed that restriction for this essay and allowed all back-logged comments to be posted in the order they were received.

  11. Wolf says:

    For those interested in learning about the biases and agenda of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and its supporters whose mission is apparently to deny the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson relationship at all costs, and the significant flaws of the Scholars Commission Report with respect to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, I recommend they consult the book, “Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy” (The University of Virginia Press, paperback edition, 2006), pages 170-198, by Francis D. Cogliano. Annette Gordon-Reed effectively challenges arguments against paternity, including the “TJ character defense,” in her book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” (The University of Virginia Press, paperback edition, 1999, [post-DNA]) and they need not be repeated here.

    I also recommend to readers the article “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: When Oral Traditions, DNA, and Corroborating Evidence Collide” by Joeline McDonald Setlock at The author reviews the historical and scientific evidence and effectively refutes the Thomas Jefferson paternity deniers. The article is particularly strong in ruling out Thomas Jefferson’s brother Randolph and/or Randolph’s sons as the father(s) of Sally Hemings’s children.

    And finally, I refer readers to “Jefferson-Hemings: A Special Issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001. An article by genealogist Helen F. Leary meticulously reviews the genealogical, historical, and scientific evidence and concludes that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings children. As with Setlock, Leary convincingly dismantles the argument that another Jefferson, including Randolph Jefferson (and/or his sons), was the father(s) of Sally Hemings’s children. In that same issue, an article by Thomas W. Jones, PhD, points out that Scholars Commission’s members with respect to Thomas Jefferson’s alleged paternity of Sally Hemings’s children “applied an inappropriate paradigm that led them to overlook prevailing standards for genealogical sources, methods, and proof–all which are essential to answering genealogical questions with confidence and credibility.”

    Yes, no one can state with certainty that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship—one that produced children. But, the opposite is also true. History and science, however, point heavily to the affirmative and not the negative. What the TJHS and its supporters apparently cannot acknowledge without devolving into hagiographic rationalizations is that Thomas Jefferson legally owned Sally Hemings—his sister in law and the aunt of his white children. This is the perhaps the most morally repugnant aspect of the controversy, not whether or not Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were in a relationship, possibly a loving one, which produced children.


  12. I assisted Dr Foster with the DNA and it was he who misled the public initially and finally as he worked with Dan Jordan, Monticello President, his remarks about “simplest conclusion” were used word for word. Yet, he told me he would leave history to others including Jordan………..WHY didn’t he??

    Foster tested a known carrier of both Jefferson-Hemings DNA, as told by the Eston Hemings family. They claimed descent from “a Jefferson uncle or nephew”, meaning Randolph and sons. Sure there wouyld be a match….and there was…….the Eston family were accurate. Now Foster REFUSED my suggestion to notify Nature and worked in close unison with them to perfect a false headline, which the media and Monticello welcomed. Monticello had dropped Memorial from their title, appointed an African-American ORAL slavery specialist to conduct their DNA Study, Jordan had “hidden under the rug” the Minority Report of Dr Ken Wallenborn, Monticello employee and one of three guides who resigned rather thjan present FALSE information to the guests.

    All this slavery talk and non essentional talk by Dr Holton is traditional slavery courses that he and others present as TRUTH to their students. Dr Holton knows NOTHING factual about the DNA Study and is just repeating what the media and Monticello want you to believe.

    I have seen some references here to the great study by the National Association of Genealogists that sickens me because I invited them to sit on the Scholars Commission Board and offer their input. They REFUSED (too busy) they said, but they were not too busy to make unfounded comments about the study and deny acceptance of a 13 person Blue Ribbon panel of noted scholars. Their bias is very obvious but the public not knowing the background would be inclined to accept their distorted writings. They knew NOTHING first hand as I did……..their agenda, in cooperation with Monticello was showing. Please read “Jefferson Legacies”, (pg 280) to gert the full reason for such deception: “setting aside questions of historical accuracy and philosophical justification in order to sustain the present-day cause of international human rights.” Now who are the manipulators of history? This book was edited by Monticello’s sponsored UVA History professor, Peter Onuf. The public is being conned by so called authorities on history.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

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