Tests Link Jefferson, Slave's Son
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 1998; Page A01
Genetic testing shows that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, according to scientists who argue that their results come as close as possible to solving one of history's most enduring and contentious mysteries.
Researchers examined blood samples collected this year from known descendants of the family of America's third president and from those who trace their ancestry to Hemings. In a paper published in the Nov. 5 issue of the journal Nature, they report that DNA comparisons all but conclusively prove that Hemings's youngest son, Eston, was fathered by Jefferson.
"The question for 200 years has been, `Did they or didn't they?' " said Eric S. Lander, a genetic researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-authored a companion essay to the Nature article.
"There is such a strong case that Jefferson had a liaison with Hemings," Lander said, "that the DNA evidence converts that possibility into a near certainty."
Word that researchers had found scientific evidence for the country's oldest presidential sex rumor has fallen like a bombshell among scholars and those who trace their family tree to Monticello. Historians, many of whom felt strongly that Jefferson was morally incapable of coupling with a slave, now find themselves preparing to revise their texts.
Some say the conclusion provides far more than a window into the sexual mores of a revered founding father. A Jefferson-Hemings affair casts new light on the president's tortured position on slavery and his public stand against racial mixing -- echoing the country's unresolved issues of race relations and racial identity.
"This story is about family and who we are as Americans," said Annette Gordon-Reed, an associate professor at the New York School of Law. Her 1997 book "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an American Controversy" argued that the oral histories of blacks were being pushed aside to protect Jefferson's reputation.
"We're not two separate people, blacks and whites," she said. "We're related by culture and by blood. That reality has been denied."
Only in recent years has genetic science reached the point at which it could offer some clues to the Jefferson puzzle. Winifred Bennett, of Arlington, an amateur historian who was taking classes at the University of Virginia, suggested the idea of DNA testing to Eugene A. Foster, a retired university pathologist.
Foster conceived of a study that would compare descendants using markers on the Y chromosome -- which is passed virtually unchanged from father to son. Because Jefferson had no surviving sons, Foster's team went to five male-line descendants of his paternal uncle, Field Jefferson, who would share the same chromosome as the founding father. They also took blood from three descendants of Samuel and Peter Carr -- the sons of Jefferson's sister -- who some historians had fingered as the more likely suspects in the Hemings affair. Coming from the female side of the family, the Carrs would not share the same chromosome as the Jefferson males.
On the Hemings side, the researchers tested five descendants of Thomas Woodson, who many believed to be the result of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, and one descendant of Eston Hemings.
The DNA analysis was conducted by British and Dutch geneticists at Oxford, Leicester and Leiden universities. The only match was between Eston Hemings's descendant and the descendants of Field Jefferson. That ruled out the Woodsons and the Carrs. Because Jefferson was present at Monticello each time Hemings conceived, and because no other Jefferson males were known to have spent substantial time there, historians said, the inescapable conclusion is that Eston was Jefferson's son.
"It is very, very likely," Foster said. "This is not just based on scientific data alone but also on historical evidence."
Scholars who have long been skeptical of a romantic link between Jefferson and Hemings were surprised by the report. "If it is true, I think it does make us reassess the man," historian and writer Garry Wills said. "We always knew there was tremendous hypocrisy among the slave-owning class. We just didn't know it involved Jefferson."
The new evidence changed the mind of one skeptic, Joseph J. Ellis, whose "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" won last year's National Book Award. He co-authored the Nature essay with Lander, writing that the scientific and historical evidence now seems to "seal the case." The co-authors add, "The jury remains out with respect to Sally's other children, but the burden of proof has clearly shifted."
The controversy over the relationship between the red-haired author of the Declaration of Independence and Hemings, a light-skinned slave who was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha, dates to his election as president in 1800. Martha died in 1782, and Jefferson never remarried.
Jefferson, then 43, was living in Paris in 1786, serving as ambassador to France, when Hemings, then 14, was sent to Paris to accompany Jefferson's youngest daughter, Mary, on the long trip overseas. She returned to Monticello with Jefferson in 1789.
While she lived on the estate, she had at least five children, most so fair-skinned they were commonly mistaken for white. Several were said to bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson. Her son Madison Hemings could not be included in the study because his line of male descendants died out about the time of the Civil War.
Robert Gillespie, president of the Monticello Association, a group of about 800 known Jefferson descendants, said he had believed that Jefferson would not have had children out of wedlock. If the results are accurate -- and he wants to have them reviewed -- Gillespie said he'd be disappointed to think that some of Jefferson's children were given more love than others.
"Maybe he was a product of the 18th century, where they could have one set of white children they gave attention to and a second set of children they could overlook," Gillespie said.
Descendants of Thomas Woodson greeted news of the DNA tests with dismay. Family members felt certain that he was Hemings's first child. But no record of him exists at Monticello, and the 1,400-member Thomas Woodson Family Association had hoped the tests would prove his link to Jefferson.
The group's president, Robert Golden, was quick to criticize Foster's study, which he said was conducted in an unusually secretive manner and may be flawed.
"I still believe very strongly in the oral history of our family," Golden said. "Unless there was testing done directly on Mr. Jefferson and family members, I don't know that I would ever be too satisfied with any result."
Byron W. Woodson, of Philadelphia, who provided blood for the study, was shocked to learn the result but said Jefferson's paternity of Eston is welcome news. "What the historians have been saying for close to 200 years is absolutely wrong," he said.
Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker whose two-part PBS series last year on Jefferson explored the Hemings controversy, called the results, if true, a "major finding" and suggested that the tests reveal society's pathological obsession with sex.
"But here is the most important thing," Burns said. "Jefferson owned her, and we've known that from the beginning. When we become preoccupied with sex -- the `did he or didn't he' question -- we forget the fact that he owned her, he controlled her life, and he could have done anything up to and including murder, and there wasn't a law to protect her. . . . We need no DNA to remind us of the stain of slavery."
The DNA results do not scientifically rule out the possibility that Eston's father was another Jefferson male, such as his younger brother Randolph, who did not live at Monticello but visited on occasion. The scientists said it is also theoretically possible that the Y chromosome marker shows up in Eston Hemings's descendants because of a liaison in a later generation.
"But in the absence of historical evidence to support such possibilities, we consider them to be unlikely," the researchers write in the Nature article.
Eston Hemings entered white society and married a white woman after he was freed from Monticello. His descendants long have believed in the link to Jefferson, but "people were doubtful," said one, Art Westerinen, 37, of Staten Island, N.Y., whose uncle provided blood for the test.
"The test just backs up what we've always known," Westerinen said. "It's always been kind of cool to tell people I'm related to Thomas Jefferson that way. It wasn't the traditional blue-blood family history. It's neat to be able to say I'm part black."
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