III. Review of Documentary Sources

Report of the Research Committee
on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson Foundation
January 2000

III. Review of Documentary Sources

All members of the committee read or reread relevant primary documents and secondary works, including those listed below, plus a compilation of the most pertinent statements about the issue (Appendix F) by over a dozen of Jefferson's contemporaries.

 

1802 James Thomson Callender, extracts of articles in Richmond Recorder, September through December
1850s Extracts of journal of John Hartwell Cocke, January 26, 1853, and April 23, 1859, University of Virginia Library
1858
 
 
Letter of Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge to her husband, Joseph Coolidge, October 24, 1858, Ellen Coolidge Letterbook, pages 98-102, University of Virginia Library; also printed in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, 1997), pages 258-260
1862
 
Recollections of Edmund Bacon, former Monticello overseer (original unlocated), printed in James A. Bear, Jr., ed., Jefferson at Monticello (Charlottesville, 1967), pages 28-117 (relevant page is 102)
1868
 
Letter of Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868, Harvard University Library; also printed in Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, 1951), pages 236-239
1873
 
Recollections of Madison Hemings, Pike County [Ohio] Republican, March 13, 1873; also printed in Gordon-Reed, pages 245-248
1873
 
Recollections of Israel Gillette Jefferson, former Monticello slave, Pike County Republican, December 25, 1873; also printed in Gordon-Reed, pages 249-253
1874
 
Letter of Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph to editor of Pike County Republican, undated, University of Virginia Library, Accession Number 8937

Primary Sources (see Appendix E):

 

These primary sources include: the first public allegation of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship, by a Richmond journalist us; a Jefferson letter viewed by some historians as a denial of the relationship; the transcribed interviews of a former Monticello overseer and two former slaves; the diary extracts of one of Jefferson's friends; and letters of two of Jefferson's grandchildren and a biographer who spoke to or corresponded with those grandchildren. Each document was examined with its context and audience in mind. What follows is a distillation of the committee's best understanding of each of these sources.

1802. Journalist James T. Callender, although his account is obviously sensationalized, stated that he was repeating what he had heard from others; he included some details that can be verified, and others that cannot.
1805. In the absence of the letter enclosed with it, the cover letter to Robert Smith remains somewhat ambiguous. Most historians interpret Jefferson's statements in the cover letter as his denial of all Federalist allegations against him, except for improper advances made forty years earlier to John Walker's wife, Elizabeth. These allegations included the relationship with Sally Hemings.
1850s. Jefferson's friend John Hartwell Cocke expressed his belief in the relationship many years after Jefferson's death.
1858, 1868, 1874. Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph was the source of three versions of his family's explanation, which implicated one of Jefferson's Carr nephews, an explanation that is contradicted, in the case of Eston Hemings, by the DNA evidence.
1862. The published account of former overseer Edmund Bacon-indicating but not naming another man as the father of Sally Hemings's daughter Harriet (born 1801)-has problems of chronology: Bacon was not employed at Monticello until five years after Harriet Hemings's birth.
1873. The account of Madison Hemings, who stated that he and three of his siblings-Beverly, Harriet, and Eston-were the children of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, is taken as an authentic reflection of his observations and beliefs. Former Monticello slave Israel Gillette Jefferson, in a statement in the same year, corroborated Madison Hemings's assertion that Jefferson was his father. Madison Hemings also stated in the interview that his mother had no children by anyone other than his father.

Secondary Sources:

Douglass Adair, "The Jefferson Scandals," Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York, 1974), pages 160-191.

Fawn M. Brodie, "The Great Jefferson Taboo," American Heritage, XXIII, no. 4 (June 1972), 48-57, 97-100. See also her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography (New York, 1974).

Virginius Dabney and Jon Kukla, "The Monticello Scandals: History and Fiction," Virginia Cavalcade, XXIX (Autumn, 1979), 52-61.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, 1997).

Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), pages 461-481.

Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 (Boston, 1962), pages 213-216, 494-498. See also Dumas Malone and Steven H. Hochman, "A Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings," Journal of Southern History, XLI, No. 4 (November 1975), 523-528.

Dumas Malone, whose work is notable for its scholarship, doubted the likelihood of a relationship and accepted the Carr explanation. The other secondary sources disputing a relationship (Adair and Dabney-Kukla), although useful for the purposes of review, are uneven in their standards of assessment. This characteristic of their work was critically analyzed in Annette Gordon-Reed's book. While Fawn Brodie's work is at times farfetched, much of her scholarship has stood the test of time. Winthrop Jordan noted the correlation between Sally Hemings's conception windows and Thomas Jefferson's presence at Monticello and is helpful in interpreting the larger implications of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship.

Subsequent to the deliberations of the committee, the following work has been published: Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf, eds., Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture (Charlottesville, 1999). An issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, scheduled to appear in January 2000, will include a number of relevant essays.

 

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