The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson

The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson

3.7 38
by David Barton

Thomas Jefferson stands falsely accused of several crimes, among them infidelity and disbelief. Noted historian David Barton now sets the record straight. Having borne the brunt of a smear campaign that started more than two centuries ago, the reputation and character of American president Thomas Jefferson shows considerable tarnish, as lies and misunderstandings have… See more details below


Thomas Jefferson stands falsely accused of several crimes, among them infidelity and disbelief. Noted historian David Barton now sets the record straight. Having borne the brunt of a smear campaign that started more than two centuries ago, the reputation and character of American president Thomas Jefferson shows considerable tarnish, as lies and misunderstandings have gathered on his legacy. Noted early-America historian David Barton scours out the truth. -Jefferson and Sally: Did he really have children by his slave, Sally Hemings? -Jefferson and Jesus: Did he really abandon the faith of ...

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Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2012 David Barton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-459-8

Chapter One

Lie #1

Thomas Jefferson Fathered Sally Hemings' Children

In 1998 the journal Science released the results of a DNA inquiry into whether Jefferson had fathered any children through his slave Sally Hemings, specifically her first child, Thomas, or her fifth child, Eston. In conjunction with the announcement, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Professor Joseph Ellis wrote an accompanying article in the journal Nature declaring that the question was now settled—that DNA testing had conclusively proved that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered a Hemings child, thus scientifically affirming a two-centuries-old rumor.

That 1998 announcement concerning early American history was actually relevant to events occurring at the time, for it came at the commencement of President Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings for lying under oath to a grand jury about his sexual activities with a young intern inside the Oval Office. News reports immediately pounced on the fortuitous DNA announcement, arguing that if a man as great as Thomas Jefferson had engaged in sexual trysts, then President Clinton should not face questions about his sexual misbehavior. After all, such conduct had not diminished the stature of Jefferson, they argued, so it should not be allowed to weaken that of Clinton.

Professor Ellis agreed, candidly admitting, "President William Jefferson Clinton also has a vested interest in this [DNA] revelation." Significantly, just weeks before Ellis' bombshell announcement about Jefferson, he had added his signature as a cosigner of an October 1998 ad in the New York Times opposing the impeachment of Clinton. Henry Gee, a staff writer for Nature who also wrote a piece as part of the initial revelation, acknowledged that the DNA report provided much-needed cover for President Clinton:

The parallels between the story of Jefferson's sexual indiscretions and the travails of the current President are close. Thomas Jefferson came close to impeachment—but the scandal did not affect his popularity and he won the 1804 Presidential election by a landslide. And if President William Jefferson Clinton has cause to curse the invention of DNA fingerprinting, the latest report shows that it has a long reach indeed—back to the birth of the United States itself.

Dr. David Mayer, professor of law and history, was a member of an independent "Scholars Commission" later convened over the Jefferson-Hemings issue. He agreed that the timing of the DNA article had not been by accident:

Professor Ellis' accompanying article also noted, quite frankly, "Politically, the Thomas Jefferson verdict is likely to figure in upcoming impeachment hearings on William Jefferson Clinton's sexual indiscretions, in which DNA testing has also played a role." In television interviews following release of the article, Professor Ellis elaborated on this theme; and Clinton's apologists made part of their defense the notion that every President—even Jefferson—had his "sexual indiscretions."

As far as Clinton defenders were concerned (especially his supporters in the media), the announcement of Jefferson's alleged moral failings was a gift from heaven. The entire nation was bombarded with the Jefferson paternity story for weeks; and the news of his moral failings was burned deeply into the consciousness of Americans. But many groups beyond Clinton supporters also welcomed the test results as useful to their particular agendas.

For example, the Jefferson-Hemings affair became the perfect platform for the feminist movement to discuss the nature of sexual relations. Many in that movement had already asserted that any type of sexual relations between a male and a female constituted rape, but this development seemed especially to prove their point. It was questioned whether any sex could be consensual if it was between individuals from different stations in life—such as Hemings and Jefferson. Many feminist writers, including Fawn Brodie, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Annette Gordon-Reed, had even authored books about the older Jefferson and the younger Hemings.

Another movement that benefited from the Jefferson-Hemings story included those who wished to keep open the racial wounds of previous generations. They pointed to Jefferson and his sexual exploitation of the slave Hemings as proof of how all African Americans were treated by all white Americans, not only in Jefferson's day, but also throughout much of the rest of American history. The Jefferson announcement rekindled demands for restitutionary policies that would provide preferential treatment and elevation of status and opportunity as repayment for past wrongs committed.

However, only eight weeks after the initial blockbuster DNA story was issued, it was retracted quietly and without fanfare, with the scientific researcher who had conducted the DNA test announcing that it actually had not proven that Jefferson fathered any children with Hemings. But this news exonerating Jefferson did not make the same splash in the national headlines, for it aided no agenda being advanced at that time. Since doing justice to Jefferson's reputation was not deemed to be a worthy national consideration in and of itself, the retraction story was simply buried or ignored.

Consider the damage done by this false reporting. Ask any adult today whether it has been scientifically proven that Jefferson fathered illegitimate children with Hemings, and they will likely answer with a resounding "Yes!" The nation certainly heard and still remembers the news barrage following the initial report, but the silence surrounding its retraction was deafening.

Yet notwithstanding the 1998 DNA testing results, the fact remains that charges of a Jefferson moral failure with Hemings had circulated for almost two centuries before the DNA testing was undertaken. Even without the DNA testing results, it is still appropriate to ask why such charges were originally leveled against Jefferson. Did he actually commit the sexual misbehavior with which he has long been charged? After all, we're often told that where there's smoke, there's surely fire; and if it had not been for the charges raised long ago, no one today would have even considered undertaking DNA testing.

Here is some background to this situation. Sally Hemings was a young slave girl who served Jefferson's daughters at the family home, Monticello. Jefferson had five daughters: Martha (nicknamed "Patsy"), Mary (nicknamed "Maria" but also called "Polly"), Jane (who died very young), Lucy Elizabeth I (who also died very young), and Lucy Elizabeth II. During the American Revolution Jefferson was frequently away from his beloved family, serving in the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, and as state governor.

In 1784, following the Revolution, Jefferson was sent by Congress as an ambassador to Paris. His wife had recently died, so he took Patsy, the oldest of his three remaining daughters, with him to France. The other two daughters, Mary and Lucy Elizabeth II, stayed behind with their aunt. But after Jefferson departed Monticello with Patsy, the toddler Lucy Elizabeth II unexpectedly died, so Jefferson sent for his only remaining daughter, Mary, to join him in France. Accompanying the eight-year-old Mary on the voyage as her companion was the fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings, whom Jefferson described as "Maria's maid."

Critics charge that after the girls arrived in Paris, Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Hemings, who was nearly thirty years his junior and the same age as his oldest daughter, fourteen-year-old Patsy—a relationship that produced some or all of Sally's children. (Most scholars believe that Hemings had five children.)

Following the initial DNA testing announcement that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' fifth child, Eston, some historians, including many who had previously believed Jefferson to be innocent of the paternity charges, declared Jefferson guilty, and the two-century-old debate finally closed. But the subsequent retraction certainly changed matters. Yet, regardless of the on-and-then-off DNA testing results about Eston, was there a sexual moral failure between Jefferson and Hemings?

The evidence against Jefferson may be divided into three categories:

1. The original 1998 DNA report. While this category of evidence is now discredited, it is important to understand the reason behind the retraction.

2. Oral tradition from two of Sally's children, the strongest of which involved Thomas Woodson, her first child. Two centuries ago, he claimed (and others repeated) that Sally Hemings was his mother and Thomas Jefferson his father. The fact that Sally had named the boy Thomas was used as evidence to confirm that he had indeed been fathered by Jefferson. Sally's fourth child, Madison, also made similar claims.

3. Published newspaper reports from Jefferson's day specifically charging him with fathering Hemings' children.

Consider the evidence.

Category 1: The DNA Evidence

To delve further into the story behind the retraction of the 1998 DNA testing results, begin with Professor Ellis' original announcement in Nature, which had declared:

Almost two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children [Eston].

In the two weeks following that announcement, 221 printed news articles repeated the claim, embedding it deeply in the minds of Americans. Typical articles declared:

Did the author of the Declaration of Independence take a slave for his mistress? DNA tests say yes.... The evidence here, in other words, removes any shadow of a doubt that Thomas Jefferson sired at least one son by Sally Hemings. —U.S. News Online

DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child by Slave. —New York Times on the Web

Jefferson affair no longer rumor.... The DNA tests end nearly two centuries of speculation.... The evidence has shifted so startlingly that it now appears likely that Jefferson fathered four or five children by Hemings. —USA Today

[G]enetic testing almost certainly proves that our third president fathered at least one child by Sally Hemings. —Washington Post

The opportunity to announce these results afforded many Deconstructionists in the media a welcome occasion to denigrate Jefferson. One national columnist gloated, "What a relief. Now Jefferson can be brought down off the god-like pedestal on which some have tried to elevate him." He continued, "How are we to view Jefferson now? How about 'deadbeat dad'? That's what you call fathers who run away from their responsibilities to their children."

Another described him as a "slave-owning, serial flogger, sex maniac." Others portrayed him as a child molester, using an innocent adolescent girl for sex:

We have recently learned through DNA testing that Jefferson was probably the father of Sally Hemings' youngest child, a boy, and maybe the father of the other four children as well.... He took her to Paris when she was 13, and when she returned two years later, she was pregnant. —Washington Post

What type of relationship could this have been, considering the profound power differences between master and slave? ... [S]he was 13 or 14 and he was 43. —Chicago Tribune

In 1789, Sally Hemings returned with the Jefferson family to Virginia. By then, Sally was 16 or 17 and pregnant. —New York Times on the Web

The hysterics against Jefferson became so great that some questioned why his image appeared on our coins; others clamored for "the dismantling of the Jefferson Memorial" in Washington, DC, and "the removal of his face from Mount Rushmore."

The DNA evidence as originally presented by Professor Ellis and reported by the media had seemed both unassailable and irrefutable, but there were several critical facts in the report that most Americans never heard.

For example, the original 1998 report contained a significant finding about which scholars and the media remained conspicuously silent:

President Thomas Jefferson was accused of having fathered a child, Tom, by Sally Hemings. Tom was said to have been born in 1790, soon after Jefferson and Sally Hemings returned from France, where he had been minister. Present-day members of the African-American Woodson family believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson, whose name comes from his later owner.... [But DNA testing shows] Thomas Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson's son. (emphasis added)

So, the longest rumored charge against Jefferson, originally printed two centuries ago in publications of the day, was now proven wrong. Jefferson had been completely exonerated of that longstanding claim.

Additionally, when Nature issued its embarrassing retraction, it sheepishly confessed, "The title assigned to our study was misleading." 31 Why? Because no DNA sample from the Thomas Jefferson family line had been used in the testing—and the public was never told of this significant omission. It does seem that if someone wanted to test Jefferson's paternity that his DNA should be used.

Genetic DNA paternity testing requires the testing of a Y chromosome from a male descendant of the subject because the Y chromosome in males remains virtually unchanged from generation to generation. But Thomas Jefferson had no male descendants from which to take a DNA sample. His only son had died at birth. Since Jefferson had no surviving male descendants, the researchers therefore chose to test the Y chromosomes from the descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas's uncle.

The researchers found that the configuration of the Y chromosomes in the descendants of Field Jefferson—a general configuration common to the entire Jefferson family—was indeed present in the descendants of Sally Hemings' youngest child, Eston. Therefore, on the basis of DNA testing, the most that researchers could conclusively say was that some Jefferson male—and there were twenty-six Jefferson males living in the area at the time—had a relationship with Sally Hemings that resulted in the birth of Eston. But which Jefferson was it?

A distinguished commission of noted authorities was convened to examine the matter, and it concluded:

There are at least ten possible fathers for Sally Hemings' children who could have passed down genetic material that might produce children physically resembling Thomas Jefferson and who are thought to have visited Monticello regularly during the years Sally Hemings was having children.

After investigating the ten possible fathers, the group concluded that the "case against some of Thomas Jefferson's relatives appears significantly stronger than the case against him." It was these other nine unaddressed paternity alternatives that made the DNA testing announcement suspect. Thomas Jefferson's own DNA was not checked, and with the exception of Field Jefferson, the DNA was not checked for the rest of the Jefferson males living in the area. World therefore correctly reported:

According to the genetic evidence, the father could have been Jefferson. Or it could have been his brother Randolph. Or one of Randolph's sons. Or, presumably, his uncle Field, or his son George or one of his sons.... Any of these men had access to Monticello and could have been culpable. (emphasis added)

National columnist Mona Charen accurately summarized the scope of the testing results:

The DNA data did rule Jefferson out as the father of Thomas Woodson, the eldest of Sally's sons, and shed no light on the rest. That leaves a scenario in which Jefferson's sexual liaison with his slave [that produced Eston] is estimated to have begun when he was 65 years old. Possible certainly, but likely? While the DNA data adds to our knowledge—it is clear that there was mixing of Hemings and Jefferson genes sometime in the past 200 years—they do not provide names or dates. They most definitely do not "prove" anything about Thomas Jefferson himself.

Herbert Barger, the Jefferson family historian and genealogist who assisted in the DNA testing, explained:

My study indicates to me that Thomas Jefferson was NOT the father of Eston or any other Hemings child. The DNA study ... indicates that Randolph [Thomas' younger brother] is possibly the father of Eston and maybe the others.... [T]hree of Sally Hemings' children, Harriet, Beverly, and Eston (the latter two not common names), were given names of the Randolph family. (emphasis added)


Excerpted from The JEFFERSON LIES by DAVID BARTON Copyright © 2012 by David Barton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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