Did Thomas Jefferson Father Slave Children?

by | Aug 12, 1999

The recently publicized DNA evidence claiming to show Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with his black slave, Sally Hemmings, illustrates the difference between the way evidence is handled in a court of law and the way it is handled by the popular press.

The recently publicized DNA evidence claiming to show Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with his black slave, Sally Hemmings, illustrates the difference between the way evidence is handled in a court of law and the way it is handled by the popular press.

Nature magazine announced this evidence in a headline reading: “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child.” It editorialized: “our heroes and especially presidents are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all the frailties and imperfection that this entails.”

The evidence does not support these broad statements. Scientists compared DNA samples from descendants of Field Jefferson, an uncle of Thomas Jefferson, with samples from descendants of two of Sally Hemmings’ children: the eldest, Thomas Woodson, and the youngest, Eston Hemmings. They focus on a marker on the Y chromosome which is passed only from father to son.

The markers on the Y chromosome of the descendants of Thomas Woodson are different from those of Field Jefferson. The marker on the Y chromosome of the lone descendant of Eston Hemmings is the same as that of the descendants of Field Jefferson. This means that some Jefferson, not necessarily Thomas, was the father of Eston Hemmings.

In the words of the authors 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 Sally Hemmings.” In fact, historian Williard S. Randall notes, “There were 25 men within 20 miles of Monticello who were all Jeffersons and had the same Y chromosome. And 23 of them were younger than Jefferson, who was 65 years old when Eston
was conceived.”

In a trial, he who claimed that Jefferson had actually fathered Sally Hemmings sons, would be required to produce an expert witness to support his position. The witness would be expected to be able to explain reasons for this conclusion. And the opponent would have the opportunity to establish, by cross-examination and by producing his own evidence, any weaknesses in the case. In this way, all the facts would be exposed to judge and jury. Not so in the popular press.

Copyright © The Association for Objective Law. All rights reserved. Republished in Capitalism Magazine by permission of TAFOL.

The Association for Objective Law is a non-profit corporation whose purpose is to advance Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, as the basis of a proper legal system.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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