JWR Jeff JacobyBen WattenbergTony Snow
Mona CharenDr. Laura
Linda Chavez

Paul Greenberg Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellMUGGERWalter Williams
Don FederCal Thomas
Political Cartoons
Left, Right & Center

Click on banner ad to support JWR

Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 1999 /2 Shevat 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Was Jefferson libeled by DNA?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) HEADLINES THE WORLD over proclaimed the news: Thomas Jefferson had illicit sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings and was certainly the father of her youngest son. Science, in this situation DNA analysis of the principals' descendants, sealed the case. Gray beards wagged their heads on television and speculated about what this does to our understanding of Jefferson and of America. Those who had always believed the Fawn Brodie version of events were triumphant.

The media buzz was intensified by the timing of the Nature magazine article that purported to solve this historical mystery. It was published just before the election, offering a ripe opportunity for President Clinton's flacks to launch the ultimate "everybody does it" defense. Nature magazine editorialized that "our heroes -- and especially presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all the frailties and imperfections that this entails."

The only trouble is, the data did not support the conclusion.

"Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child" read the title of the article in Nature, a headline the authors have since acknowledged was misleading.

A quick review. Sally Hemings was a mulatto slave widely believed to be the illegitimate half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Martha's father had sired several children with his black slave. After Martha's early death, it is said, Jefferson followed the lead of his father-in-law and began a sexual relationship with the then 14-year-old Sally that would continue for 38 years.

The Sally controversy has been swirling for almost two centuries, making it, in the phrase of historian Joseph J. Ellis, "the longest running soap opera" in American history.

Before the DNA tests had been conducted, the debate had taken many turns. Black descendants of Sally Hemings trusted oral history. According to this tradition, Sally's fourth child, Madison Hemings, said his mother told him before she died that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of her children.

Further implicating Jefferson was the scuttlebutt around Virginia at the time suggesting that Sally's children bore a physical resemblance to the tall redhead. Further, Dumas Malone, one of the definitive Jefferson biographers, was able to determine from the historical record that Jefferson was present at Monticello nine months before the births of each of Sally's children.

Enter science. Because it is now possible to trace markers on the Y chromosome from generation to generation, a team of geneticists decided to try to solve the Sally question by testing her male descendants and comparing the DNA to male descendants of the Jefferson line.

The DNA analysis suggested that Jeffersoncould have been the father only of the youngest of Sally's children, Eston. But since the test was comparing only a marker found on the Y chromosome from the Jefferson line (and not from any direct descendant of Jefferson himself since he left no male children), other possibilities cannot be ruled out.

As a follow-up letter to Nature points out, any male ancestor in the Jefferson line could have fathered Eston, as could Jefferson's brother, Randolph, or any of his five sons, who were frequent visitors to Monticello. Further, any entanglement of the Hemings and Jefferson lines in the past 200 years would have left the telltale Y chromosome in the mix.

Perhaps DNA analysis will one day provide the definitive answer. But it has not yet done so. The authors of the study write, "We know from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings."

Not exactly. 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 is estimated to have begun when he was 65 years old. Possible certainly, but likely?

While the DNA data add 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.

But don't hold your breath for the corrections. They will be found on Page 47, if they appear at all.


1/13/99: The backlash picks up speed
1/11/99: Who invented politics of personal destruction?
1/07/99: Shall we dance?
1/05/99: Try him!
12/30/98:The price of virtue
12/28/98: The gift of giving
12/22/98: Party of shame, party of shamelessness
12/18/98: Wag the country
12/16/98: Is this impeachment constitutional?
12/14/98: Republicans find courage
12/09/98: Nappy Hair and other racial slurs
12/07/98: Stranger in a strange land
12/02/98: Dangerous ground
11/30/98: Involuntary fatherhood?
11/24/98: Lies, damned lies, and sex lies
11/18/98: Another victory for cowardice
11/16/98: Separatism plus welfarism equals a dead end
11/10/98: Did conservatism lose campaign '98?
11/06/98: Democrat venality, Republican timidity
11/04/98: Are girls being shortchanged?
11/02/98: Believe the children?
10/28/98: What 'Measure 58' would do
10/26/98: The officers are bailing out
10/20/98: Using Matthew Shepard's murder
10/19/98: The school voucher that saved a family
10/14/98: Are powerful women different?
10/09/98: Can just sex be impeachable?
10/07/98: Repeal Miranda
10/02/98: Understanding the polls
10/01/98: What school texts teach about marriage
9/28/98: Fear of choice
9/23/98: A fork in the road: Bubba's fate and ours
9/18/98: Christianity and the Holocaust
9/16/98: The national dirty joke
9/11/98: Are we in crisis?
9/09/98: Does Burton's sin let Clinton off the hook?
9/07/98: Liar's Poker
9/01/98: One, two, three
8/28/98: Fat and folly
8/25/98: When homework is a dirty word
8/21/98: The unravelling
8/18/98: The wages of dishonesty
8/17/98: Sex, honor and the presidency
8/12/98: Pro-choice extremist
8/10/98: Switch illuminates biology's role
8/05/98: The presumption of innocence and the American way
8/03/98: An American hero
7/29/98: Lock up those who need psychiatric care
7/24/98: Making the military more like us
7/22/98: The 'Net sex hoax... and us
7/20/98: Disappointed by Cosbys
7/15/98: Feelings, not morality, rule
7/10/98: Guns as the solution?
7/8/98: Teacher preacher
7/6/98: The China behind the headlines
7/1/98: What is the First Amendment for?
6/26/98: The Republican city
6/24/98: Poison pen
6/22/98: Clinton: inventing his own reality?
6/16/98: Senator mom?
6/12/98: Wisconsin: a trail blazer?
6/9/98: These girls say no to sex, yes to excellence
6/5/98: Lewinsky's ex-lawyer would feel right at home as Springer guest
6/2/98: English? Si; Republican? No!
5/29/98: The truth about women and work
5/27/98: Romance in the '90s
5/25/98:Taxing smokers for fun and profit
5/19/98: China's friend in the White House
5/15/98: Look out feminists: here comes the true backlash
5/12/98: The war process?
5/8/98: Where's daddy?
5/5/98: The joys of boys
5/1/98: Republicans move on education reform
4/28/98: Reagan was right
4/24/98: The key to Pol Pot
4/21/98: The patriot's channel
4/19/98: Child-care day can't replace mom
4/15/98: Tax time
4/10/98: Armey states obvious, gets clobbered
4/7/98: A nation complacent?
4/1/98: Bill Clinton's African adventure
3/27/98: Understanding Arkansas
3/24/98: Jerry Springer's America
3/20/98: A small step for persecuted minorities
3/17/98: Skeletons in every closet?
3/13/98: Clinton's idea of a fine judge
3/10/98: Better than nothing?
3/6/98: Of fingernails and freedom
3/3/98: Read JWR! :0)
2/27/98: Dumb and Dumber
2/24/98: Reagan reduced poverty more than Clinton
2/20/98: Rally Round the United Nations?
2/17/98: In Denial
2/13/98: Reconsidering Theism
2/10/98: Waiting for the facts?
2/8/98: Cat got the GOP's tongue?
2/2/98: Does America care about immorality?
1/30/98: How to judge Clinton's denials
1/27/98: What If It's Just the Sex?
1/23/98: Bill Clinton, Acting Guilty
1/20/98: Arafat and the Holocaust Museum
1/16/98: Child Care or Feminist Agenda?
1/13/98: What We Really Think of Abortion
1/9/98: The Dead Era of Budget Deficits Rises Again?
1/6/98: "Understandable" Murder and Child Custody
1/2/98: Majoring in Sex
12/30/97: The Spirit of Kwanzaa
12/26/97: Food fights (Games children play)
12/23/97: Does Clinton's race panel listen to facts?
12/19/97: Welcome to the Judgeocracy, where the law school elite overrules majority rule
12/16/97: Do America's Jews support Netanyahu?

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.