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Thomas Jefferson Might Not Have Fathered Sally Hemmings’s Children

Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 02:23 AM EDT

In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

It turns out an ugly rumor about someone I admire very much — a rumor even I had accepted as essentially proven — might not be quite ready for chiseling in stone after all.

William G. Hyland’s new book, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson (reviewed by the Wall Street Journal back on August 28 but strangely ignored by all the other major book-reviewing newspapers), is the result of a thorough survey of the scientific and scholarly work on Jefferson and Hemmings. Hyland found that, notwithstanding the DNA test results published by Nature in 1998, and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer-winning 2008 exposé, The Hemmingses of Monticello, it is far from certain that Jefferson fathered even one of Hemmings’s children, let alone all of them.

WSJ reviewer Thomas Lipscomb writes that Hyland

concludes, emphatically, that the male Jefferson family member who fathered Eston Hemings could have been any one of at least seven males. There were, he notes, “two dozen-plus Jefferson males (with DNA markers in common) roaming Virginia at the time.” The seven include Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, who had already ­fathered slave children and who had been invited to ­Monticello nine months before Eston’s birth. Mr. Hyland does not exclude Thomas Jefferson as a possible father of Eston. But he deplores the false assumption that today’s limited DNA ­evidence can answer the ­question one way or another.

For me, this revelation of information that was available all along but deliberately not widely publicized illustrates two important lessons — one about science and one about politics.

First, a scientific study is only as reliable as the people conducting it and interpreting its results. It can be tempting for even the most highly qualified of scientists to overlook the preliminary or inconclusive nature of results that might be groundbreaking (or, in this case, merely titillating). And even when the scientists themselves remain appropriately circumspect, journalists and authors still get carried away in the quest for sales. Remember in the 1970s, when they warned us that saccharin caused cancer in lab rats?

Second, politics casts a long shadow over science, and the evolution/creation educational debate is only the beginning. There are findings that rarely get disseminated outside the most arcane journals because they are so extravagantly politically incorrect as to be taboo. Similarly, the Hemmings DNA research slotted neatly with the postmodernist trend of assassinating the character of Thomas Jefferson. We already knew he was an Evil, Imperialist, Capitalist White Guy and a hypocrite to boot, so of course he had children with his slave. How could he not have?

But it appears we don’t actually know any such thing. We won’t know for sure at least until the next giant leap in genetic testing capability occurs.