The Legend of Sally Hemings

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  1. 1.

    Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1997).

  2. 2.

    Ibid., xiv.

  3. 3.


  4. 4.

    Eugene A. Foster et al., “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” Nature 396 (November 5, 1998): 27–28. A separate study would be required to evaluate the DNA testing on which the Nature article was based. Pertinent facts would include the following: Because no Y-chromosome from a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson was possible, samples derived from descendants of Field Jefferson, paternal uncle of Thomas Jefferson, were used. Randolph Jefferson, Jefferson’s brother, fathered slave children, and in the literature on Sally Hemings, as well as in the Eston Hemings family tradition, had long been suggested as the father of Eston Hemings. In 2000, Hemings descendants opposed scientific testing of genetic evidence that could be obtained from the gravesite of William Beverly Hemings, grandson of Sally Hemings, providing the first opportunity for a valid Y-chromosome DNA sample from an unbroken line of descendants. A useful introduction to the genealogical aspect of the controversy is Cynthia H. Burton, Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search (n.p., 2005).

  5. 5.

    Robert F. Turner, ed., The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001, 2010), 299.

  6. 6.

    “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account,”,

  7. 7.

    Jan Lewis, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings Redux: Introduction,” William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2000): 121.

  8. 8.


  9. 9.

    Prof. Turner was chairman of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter and editor of the report. Other members were historians Lance Banning, Robert H. Ferrell, Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Forrest McDonald, Paul A. Rahe, and David N. Mayer; political scientists Charles R. Kesler, James Ceaser, Jean Yarbrough, and Harvey C. Mansfield; economist Walter E. Williams; and biochemist Thomas Traut.

  10. 10.

    The report was available on the Internet until 2003. Publication in book form was delayed by the burden of professional duties assumed by Prof. Turner following the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

  11. 11.

    Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 18. Paul Rahe wrote a minority report stating that while he agreed that the charge against Jefferson remained unproven, he thought it more likely than not that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings. Rahe noted that lies were told long ago and even with the DNA study it was not certain who told the truth. “What we do know, however, is damning enough,” he explained. Jefferson either abused his power as a slaveholder or tolerated it among members of his extended family. Rahe concluded: “In his private, as in his public, life, there was, for all his brilliance and sagacity, something dishonest, something of the self-serving and self-indulgent about the man” (ibid., 352). It is worth noting the judgment of Forrest McDonald in an addendum to the final report. McDonald indicated that as “an unreconstructed Hamiltonian Federalist,” he was always disposed to think the worst of Thomas Jefferson, and assumed the allegations about a Jefferson-Hemings relationship were founded in fact. As a result of reading the evidence, he wrote, “I have entirely abandoned my earlier assumption. Thomas Jefferson was simply not guilty of the charge” (ibid., 311).

  12. 12.

    Eyler Robert Coates, Sr., “The Jefferson-Hemings Circumstantial Evidence,” The Jeffersonian Perspective, accessed January 8, 2012,

  13. 13.

    Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Charlottesville and London: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and University Press of Virginia, 1998) 187.

  14. 14.

    Gordon-Reed, Jefferson and Hemings, 22–23.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., 62.

  16. 16.

    Hamilton Pierson presumably omitted the name of the father and other names, not wishing “to publish facts that would give pain to any that might now be living.” Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 201n13. Among Sally Hemings’s children, Beverly Hemings (b. 1798) ran away or was permitted to leave Monticello at age twenty-four; Harriet Hemings (b. 1801) left the plantation at age twenty-one; and Madison Hemings (b. 1805) and Eston Hemings (b. 1808) were freed in Jefferson’s will.

  17. 17.

    Ibid., 201. Gordon-Reed remarks that the lack of a time frame for Bacon’s statement makes it “not useless but deficient as evidence that Jefferson was not Harriet’s father or the father of Sally Hemings’s other children. It may well be that even if there had been a relationship between them at some point Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were done with one another sexually, and someone else could have been coming from her room.” Jefferson and Hemings, 28.

  18. 18.

    Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 138. Annette Gordon-Reed, “Engaging Jefferson: Blacks and the Founding Father,” William and Mary Quarterly 52, no. 1 (January 2000): 179–81.

  19. 19.

    Gordon-Reed, Jefferson and Hemings, 195.

  20. 20.

    Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 87.

  21. 21.

    Kathryn Moore and D.M. Giangreco, “The Case of Jefferson and Hemings,” a review of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed and In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, by William G. Hyland, Jr., Claremont Review of Books, special edition (2009): 3,

  22. 22.

    Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 3.

  23. 23.

    Gordon-Reed, Jefferson and Hemings, 107.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., 227–28.

  25. 25.

    Alexander O. Boulton, “The Monticello Mystery-Case Continued,” William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 4 (November 2001):1043,

  26. 26.

    D.M. Giangreco, “Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson DNA Myth,” History News Network, July 6, 2009,; Moore and Giangreco, “Case of Jefferson and Hemings.”

  27. 27.

    Thomas Lipscomb, a journalist and member of the National Society of Washington Family Descendants, notes ironically that genealogical societies “are delighted to find eligible members that are black.” The good news for American blacks coming out of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy is “that they have been finally accepted as members of the American family. Now they can join everyone else in the traditional genealogical illusions of the striving middle class.” “The Selling of Sally Hemings,” Oregon Magazine September 14, 2003,

  28. 28.

    Gordon-Reed, “Engaging Jefferson,” 179.

  29. 29.

    Ibid., 179–80.

  30. 30.

    Ibid., 173–74.

  31. 31.

    Gordon-Reed, Jefferson and Hemings, 235.

  32. 32.

    Foster et al., “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” 27.

  33. 33.

    Eyler Robert Coates, Sr., “Jefferson’s DNA and Sally Hemings,” The Jeffersonian Perspective, accessed January 8, 2012,

  34. 34.

    Turner, Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, 396.

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Correspondence to Herman Belz.

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Belz, H. The Legend of Sally Hemings. Acad. Quest. 25, 218–227 (2012).

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