Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 16, 2008

Jefferson Whitewashers for Clinton and McCain

Filed under: 2008 elections,Black history,Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:13 pm

Thanks to reader Ben Carp for pointing out the following item from The Politico that needed to be mentioned in this space:

Ben Smith’s Blog: From Jeffersons vs. Hemingses to McCain vs. Obama

A key organizer of John McCain’s meeting Saturday with former supporters of Hillary Clinton is best known for her role in another bitter American fight: The effort by some white descendants of Thomas Jefferson to keep his possible African-American descendants out of family gatherings.

Paula Abeles emailed Politico yesterday to complain that her group had gotten short shrift in a blog item, writing, “I initiated the teleconference with McCain on Saturday and was solely responsible for the guest list.” Another Clinton backer at the event, Will Bower, confirmed that she was “integral” to assembling the group.

But Abeles first made the news in 2003, when she and her husband, then-Monticello Association President Nat Abeles, led the fight to keep members of the Hemings family — descendants of Jefferson slave and, some historians believe, mistress Sally Hemmings — out of a gathering of the Monticello Association, which is made up of lineal descendants of the third president.

Abeles drew national attention for her role in an episode of online espionage.

The AP reported in May of 2003:

The wife of a Thomas Jefferson family association official said Friday that she masqueraded as a 67-year-old black woman on an Internet chat room in a bid to keep descendants of a reputed Jefferson mistress out of this weekend’s family reunion.

“It might have been somewhat unethical,” said Paulie Abeles of Washington, D.C., who participated for eight months in the Yahoo! message board created for relatives of Jefferson slave Sally Hemings.

“It might have been childish, but I really think I was working in the best interest of the majority of the family members to make the reunion a calm and civilized gathering,” she said.

The story goes on a bit from there. Many of The Politico‘s commenters made the obvious point that this would seem to confirm what many Obama supporters have suspected about the racial views of some of Clinton’s more diehard supporters. Abeles and her ilk probably don’t think of themselves as racists, but their fury at the very idea of connecting African Americans with something they revere like the presidency or their own family heritage says it all.

Also, one correction to Smith’s post is in order: the “some historians” are on the other foot. Perhaps people are just keeping quiet about it, but my sense is that the vast majority of historians (especially under age 60 or 70) now accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered some or all of Sally Heming’s children. And not just scholars who are bent on trashing Jefferson.

The turning point for me personally was Annette Gordon-Reed’s 1997 case history Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. In a very even-handed work written before the DNA testing, Gordon-Reed reached their conclusions by sifting carefully and logically through the then-available written records and the various arguments that had been made over the years. The clincher for me was the fact that Sally Hemings never conceived a child when Jefferson was not living on the same premises, during the height of his political career when he was away from home, and Sally, much of the time. The DNA testing just confirmed what already seemed very, very likely. Even the modern-day custodians of the Jefferson legacy at Monticello basically accept the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, if that is the term. Why some white Jefferson descendants cannot accept it, and why they would switch parties to support McCain, I leave to the reader to decide.

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