Day By Day

Friday, September 02, 2011

More Historical Revisionism -- The Jefferson-Hemings Liason

More than two centuries ago, in the heat of a political campaign, it was charged that Thomas Jefferson kept a slave concubine. Generations of historians discounted the story as a standard political slur, but then the publication of Fawn Brodie's best seller, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, in 1974 rekindled the debate. Brodie argued that an analysis of Jefferson's movements showed that he could have fathered all of Sally Heming's children and posited a forbidden love affair between the President and the slave. In the iconoclastic climate of the Seventies Brody's romantic tale was seized upon by left of center scholars and race hustlers as proof of the essential hypocrisy of American culture. Then, about a decade ago, the story of the President and the slave girl got another boost from DNA tests that showed that Tom Jefferson [among others] could possibly have fathered one of Sally Heming's children. The story became conventional wisdom and any doubts expressed about its validity were denounced as evidence of a racist mindset.

Now Jefferson scholars are raising questions about Brody's tale. A new book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, has just been released. It reports the results of an investigation conducted by a panel of thirteen distinguished historians that concludes that many of the points raised by Brody are wrong, and that the evidence most clearly supports the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph, was the father of Sally Hemings' child.

I have not yet read the book and can't judge the accuracy of its claims, but some of its points are certainly worth consideration -- for instance, during Jefferson's stay in Paris when the affair supposedly began [an allegation that formed the basis for a major motion picture] Hemings did not live with Jefferson. Instead she lived with his daughters at a boarding school far from his residence. Simple geography makes the intimate relationship posited by Brody and others unlikely. The study also contradicts the oft-made allegation that Jefferson showed special favoritism toward Sally's offspring.

And so the debate goes on, and on, and on. That is the nature of historical research. Politicians and pundits denounce revisionism, but real historians know that revisionism lies at the core of the historiographic enterprise and the Rankean ideal of constructing a picture of the past "as it was" is unattainable. Historiography is an interpretive art that produces endless dialogues. The past is fluid and imperfectly known.

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