Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 4 · July 2001
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Jefferson

 

 

"Clearly genetics makes a poor court in such a complicated issue. If anything, it stifles more insightful discussion."

Of Racism and Remembrance
Aaron Garrett

Part I | II | III

One might hope for a resolution to such a bundle of conflicts and perspectives, but it doesn't appear forthcoming. From O.J. to death-row defenses, DNA analysis has functioned recently in American culture as a scientific meeting ground for race, sex, sin, and death. But in Jefferson's case, DNA has failed to resolve much at all, establishing only that one of Sally Hemings's children was fathered by Jefferson or his brother.

These "findings" have done little to end the bitter disputes like the current scandal over who can be buried in the Jefferson family burial ground. Just this April the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society published a group of scholarly essays attempting to establish Randolph Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings's child, Eston. But other scholars counter that these essays fail to respond to some of the basic objections to the paternity of Sally Hemings's children by anyone other than Thomas Jefferson, like the abundant statistical evidence totally independent of genetic evidence. Clearly genetics makes a poor court in such a complicated issue. If anything, it stifles more insightful discussion.

While electronic discussions continue on homepages and bulletin boards across the Web, the most sophisticated discussions of the Jefferson-Hemings affair are still to be found in print. Recently, Annette Gordon-Reed added a new "Author's Note" concerning the DNA findings to her almost immediately classic Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, 1997; Paperback reprint with Author's Note, Charlottesville, 1998). With impressive rigor and precision Gordon-Reed demonstrated that a number of eminent historians' considerations of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were distorted by hero worship, partisan jockeying, and pervasive if tacit assumptions about white supremacy.

The end result was what Gordon-Reed called "The Corrosive Nature of the Enterprise of Defense." Gordon-Reed's investigation revealed how obvious answers to nagging questions about Jefferson and Hemings were cast aside because historians assumed that black informants--particularly Madison Hemings and Jefferson's other alleged descendants--had less access to the truth than whites. Furthermore, historians had ignored reams of additional evidence which were collected as far back as 1974 in Fawn M. Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York, 1974). There were quite legitimate reasons for historians to reject Fawn Brodie's psychoanalytic approach, but Brodie's precious baby of documentary evidence was thrown out with the psychoanalytic bathwater. Instead of weighing the evidence reasonably, historians offered defenses for Jefferson of the circular He - couldn't - have - done - that! - Why? - Because - his - character - was - such - that - he - didn't - do - such - things! - Why? - Because - he - didn't - do - such - things - so - he - couldn't - have - done - that! variety. (Which is not to say that only defenses are corrupt. Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution 1785-1800 [Chicago, 1996] seems nearly as corrupted in its prosecution, placing the Hemings-Jefferson affair and Jefferson's enthusiasms for the French Revolution in salacious parallel.)

Gordon-Reed's book received excellent reviews and was quickly--perhaps too quickly--judged decisive. This positive reception unsettled the author, as she remarks in her new preface: "What I hope is not lost in all the focus on DNA is the original message of the book: the treatment of Jefferson and Hemings reveals the contingent nature of blacks' participation in shaping the accepted verities of American life . . . very few reviewers grappled with the role that the doctrine of white supremacy played in all of this. The preferred response was to focus on the carelessness of the historians discussed in the book, bypassing the central question about the source of that carelessness" (xiii).

Gordon-Reed fears her book will be treated as a detective story, the DNA test the smoking gun, and "The Corrosive Nature of the Enterprise of Defense" as merely a set of clues. Although her historical arguments for the Hemings-Jefferson affair are in many ways more convincing than the DNA tests, the purpose of the book was something more (and more important) than settling the Jefferson/Hemings question for good. Gordon-Reed notes that the complexities of the eighteenth and ninenteenth-century records, how they were read through (sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit) white supremacist assumptions, and the importance of understanding the historical record itself, threaten to be silenced by the public perception of DNA as the final truth of paternity and thus somehow, magically, explanatory of race.

But our attitudes about the whole affair, our recognition of certain claims as legitimate and others as unfounded are as much part of the corrosive nature of defense as the contortions of the historians. One of Gordon-Reed's most controversial examples is our very desire to treat the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings as rape or coercive act when, given the long-term nature of the relationship, it likely may have been something entirely different, even a loving relationship. Gordon-Reed opens her pivotal chapter on "Thomas Jefferson" by describing a mock trial of Thomas Jefferson, put on by the New York Bar, with Charles Ogletree as prosecutor, Drew Days as defense attorney, and William Rehnquist as trial judge. "The issue to be decided by the trial was whether examples of hypocrisy in Jefferson's life significantly diminished his contributions to American Society." Although the judge, and the majority of the audience (including Gordon-Reed and her husband), voted to acquit and forgive, forgiveness says little about the historical record, or its meaning. The question rather is, What is the legacy of guilt and hypocrisy?

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