December 2, 2011

As a history teacher at Montgomery College, I read with interest the letter doubting that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings [“A dissent on the matters of Presidents Jefferson and Cleveland,” Free for All, Nov. 26].

Richard E. Dixon, representing the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, wrote that “no contemporary witness records so much as a glance” between the two. Certainly there may have been motivation for a glance, since Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s beloved, late wife were probably half sisters.

Every semester I offer my undergraduates the opportunity to choose this topic to compose an essay. My students have found other evidence and facts in their research: The Hemings family at the time acknowledged the biological connection with Jefferson, and Jefferson never firmly denied it. Several observers, including one of Jefferson’s grandchildren, remarked on the close resemblance between Jefferson and a house slave who accompanied Jefferson. Of all the slaves in his household, Jefferson set free the Hemingses only.

In 1998, Eugene Foster concluded a useful DNA study of Hemings and Jefferson descendants. After two years of study of his scientific results, Monticello officially concluded there was “a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records.”

The institution of slavery has tarnished our admiration for several Founding Fathers, but it is debatable why Dixon should still term the possibility of a family relation “calumny.” What might the feelings have been between these two different Monticello residents?

I recommend historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s sensitive and well-researched book, “The Hemingses of Monticello.”

Caleb Kriesberg, Silver Spring