An article in the Nature magazine makes it pretty clear that Thomas Jefferson, America's third president, did indeed sire at least one child by a slave he owned, Sally Hemings. The article, by Eugene Foster, a former professor of pathology at the University of Virginia, is accompanied by an essay from the pen of Joseph Ellis, of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, which duly makes the contemporary point: "Our heroes and especially presidents are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans."
Mr Foster used DNA analysis to uncover Jefferson's indiscretion.
Because much of the genetic material involved in DNA analysis changes
over time, he concentrated on the Y chromosome, which passes
almost unchanged from father to son. He got blood samples from 19 male
descendants of the Hemings and Jefferson families. Tests of these by a geneticist
at Oxford University, Christopher Tyler-Smith, revealed a link
based on the Y chromosome between one of five male
descendants of Field Jefferson, the president's uncle, and the
descendants of Eston Hemings, who was born to Sally
Hemings in 1808. Eston, who became a skilled carpenter, had
Jefferson-like red hair and freckles. Jefferson, 65 and a
widower, was then in the third year of his second term as president.
Hemings was 35. In a further complication,
Hemings was half-sister to Jefferson's wife, Martha, both women
having been fathered by the same plantation owner.
It is not the first time the Hemings charge has been laid at Jefferson's door. In 1802, a journalist wrote in the Richmond Recorder that Jefferson "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves," and that "by this wench Sally our president has had several children." But then too presidents were nimble-tongued in appearing to deny such accusations. Jefferson said that his enemies "have opened all their sluices of calumny." Mr Foster says he embarked on his project with "no preconceived notions" but "thought at least we might contribute something to the discourse." He acknowledges that in theory another Jefferson could have been ancestor to a male descendant of Eston Hemings, "but in the absence of historical evidence to support such possibilities we consider them to be unlikely."
In public, Jefferson strongly opposed the mixing of races. A number of younger historians, some of them black, had accepted that despite this he did sleep with Hemings. But to many of Jefferson's admirers the idea of this liaison is deeply dismaying. Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School, the author of a book on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, said that Jefferson "would never have become an icon" to Americans of his time had the country known of the affair. Mr Ellis, author of the essay in Nature, has himself called the accusation a "tin can tied to Jefferson's reputation".
To the children of Hemings, though, none of this would have been a surprise. The Hemings family moved from Virginia to Ohio and later to Wisconsin, and took the story with them. Another of Hemings's sons, who was called Madison, told an Ohio newspaper in 1873 that his mother was Mr Jefferson's lover. He was dismissed as an "old illiterate black guy", says Paul Finkleman, of the University of Akron in Ohio. Nevertheless, the belief persisted. John Jefferson of Norrisville, Pennsylvania, a presumed descendant of Eston and provider of one of the blood samples on which the Nature article is based, says: "I've known it practically all my life."
Source: The Economist, November 7th - 13th, 1998.