Certainty of Jefferson-Hemings Affair
Is Overstated, Critics Say
By Leef Smith
Some critics of a scientific study that found Thomas Jefferson probably fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemings have mounted a campaign to challenge the study's conclusions.
Although the group has not contested the results of genetic tests performed on descendants of Hemings and the Jefferson family, members argue that the report that appeared in the journal Nature in November was misleading, particularly in its headline: "Jefferson fathered slave's last child."
The critics say the headline caused some news organizations to oversimplify the study and report that DNA showed conclusively that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's son Eston. In fact, the study concluded that the scientific evidence, combined with historical evidence, showed Jefferson to be the likely father. It is theoretically possible, though unlikely, that another Jefferson male could have been the father, the authors of the study said.
Editors at Nature have acknowledged that the headline was unintentionally misleading and have suggested that their article could have included more alternative explanations of the children's paternity. But they said this week that they stand by the accuracy of the study and its conclusion that Jefferson was the likely father.
The coalition of Jefferson buffs and scholars has scheduled a news conference today in the District to publicize its criticism of the study. The group is led by Herbert Barger, who has studied Jefferson genealogy for more than 25 years and helped recruit Jefferson descendants for the genetic study. Also scheduled to attend is historian Willard S. Randall, author of "Thomas Jefferson: A Life," and members of the God and Country Foundation, a group that states one of its aims as being a watchdog against attacks on the reputations of the Founding Fathers.
Barger and others say there is credible and overlooked historical evidence to suggest that Jefferson's cousin George Jefferson Jr., Jefferson's brother Randolph or one of Randolph's five sons could have been the father of Hemings's children.
"There are eight people who could have been the father," Barger said. "That's all we want the public to know. . . . We're holding a press conference to get out the truth. I want it correct so that our children's history books are not incorrect. So that Thomas Jefferson is not branded a hypocrite. That's the feeling of certain people today."
Nature will publish two letters from critics and a response from the study's authors in tomorrow's edition of the journal.
"This is not a correction or a retraction," said Laura Garwin, Nature's North American editor. "The study still stands. It wasn't made perhaps as clear as it could have been . . . in hindsight, we could have done a better job."
The clarification, as Garwin has termed it, is contained in the published response from Eugene A. Foster, the retired University of Virginia pathologist who coordinated the DNA study with European scientists. In his letter, Foster reiterates that the genetic results do not rule out other Jefferson males with the same marker on their Y chromosome, saying that space constraints prevented the study authors from naming all other possible candidates.
Foster's letter also criticizes the headline on the study as "misleading." He said the headline represented only the simplest explanation of the group's findings: that the DNA match with descendants of Eston Hemings was made with Jefferson's family descendants, rather than with descendants of Jefferson's nephews Samuel and Peter Carr, whom many historians had cited as the best alternative candidates for fathering Eston.
Still, Foster defended the conclusions of the study. "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," he wrote.
"When we embarked on this study we knew that the results could not be conclusive, but we hoped to obtain some objective data that would tilt the weight of the evidence in one direction or another. We think we have provided such data and that the modest, probabilistic interpretations we have made are tenable at present."
Historian Joseph J. Ellis, who won the National Book Award in 1997 for "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson," had long dismissed the possibility of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. He said the DNA study changed his mind because the scientific evidence gave weight to the historical evidence linking the couple.
"The burden of proof has dramatically shifted," said Ellis, who co-wrote a companion piece to the Nature study. "If you want to argue Thomas Jefferson is not the father, you now have a tough case to make. . . . You have to be on a crusade to rescue Thomas Jefferson to not believe it."
But Randall, who spent five years writing his 1993 biography of Jefferson, said he remains unmoved by scientific or historical evidence suggesting a liaison.
"There were 25 men within 20 miles of Monticello who were all Jeffersons and had the same Y chromosome," said Randall, who will be the main speaker at today's news conference. "And 23 of them were younger than Jefferson, who was 65 years old, at that time a very advanced age, when Eston was conceived. . . . There's too much circumstantial evidence and Jefferson's explicit denial" that he fathered children with Hemings.
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