Sunday, April 22, 2007

With Friends Like This . . .

Since I suddenly seem to be on a Thomas Jefferson kick . . .

I'm not a big fan of Thomas Jefferson. In an effort to see the other side, I did some more reading about him last year. Unfortunately, one foray -- a book entitled The Wolf By the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery by John Chester Miller (New York: The Free Press 1977) -- proved somewhat counterproductive.

This otherwise admirable book contains a chapter about Sally Hemings that is utterly appalling. In a nutshell, the author violently denies that Jefferson could possibly have had sex and children with Sally Hemings. He reviews the source of the allegations, James Callender, and correctly pronounces him utterly untrustworthy. He then reviews the allegations themselves -- that Jefferson allegedly seduced a 16 year old girl; that he never acknowledged his alleged children, to the point that they did not even realize that Jefferson was his father; that he did not free them until his death; that he did not even free Sally Hemings in his will; etc., etc.

The author concludes that, if these allegations were true, Jefferson would be the lowest sort of scum and an utter hypocrite; that Jefferson was not the lowest sort of scum or an utter hypocrite, but rather quite the contrary; ergo, the allegations could not possibly be true. Q.E.D. As a corollary, he angrily brands Madison Hemings a liar for claiming that he was Jefferson's son (and/or Sally Hemings a liar, if she in fact told Madison that he was Jefferson's son). Without a shred of evidence, he pins guilt, if any, on the since-acquitted Carr brothers. He berates others (particularly Fawn Brodie) who had found the allegations plausible and makes clear that he deems them stupid at best and malevolent at worst.

Here's a taste (at 175-76, emphasis added):
If then he is to be accused of seducing a sixteen-year-old slave girl and having children by her whom he held as slaves, it is in utter defiance of the testimony he bore over the course of a long lifetime of the primacy of the moral sense and his loathing of racial mixture. . . How can his frequent assertions that his conscience was clear and that his enemies did him a cruel and wholly unmerited injustice be reconciled with the Jefferson of the Sally Hemings story? -- unless, of course, Jefferson is set down as a practitioner of pharisaical holiness who loved to preach to others what he himself did not practice?

If the answer . . . is that Jefferson was simply trying to cover up his illicit relations . . . he deserves to be regarded as one of the most profligate liars and consummate hypocrites ever to occupy the presidency. To give credence to the Sally Hemings story is, in effect, to question the authenticity of Jefferson's faith in freedom, the rights of man, and the innate controlling faculty of reason and the sense of right and wrong. It is to infer that there were no principles to which he was inviolably committed, that what he acclaimed as morality was no more than a rhetorical facade for self-indulgence, and that he was always prepared to make exceptions in his own case when it suited his purpose. In short, beneath his sanctimonious and sententious exterior lay a thoroughly adaptive and amoral public figure . . ..


I was going to write the author, a professor of history at Stanford, to ask what he had to say now that DNA testing has proved him so terribly wrong. Would he stand by his conclusions? Unfortunately, he died in 1991, so we'll never know his response.

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