In Defense Of Thomas Jefferson
Good afternoon, welcome to Radioactivity. I'm Rob Lorei. Our guest on this first segment is William Hyland, a local attorney and adjunct professor at Stetson Law School, author of the book "In Defense Of Thomas Jefferson" published by St. Martins Press and nominated for the Virginia Literary Award for 2010.
The book investigates the historical controversy surrounding Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. According to the author "In Defense" definitively destroys the myth that Jefferson had any relationship with Ms. Hemings or fathered a child by her.
William, welcome to WMNF, good to have you here.
"Thank you for having me."
Thanks for coming on. So you are defending Thomas Jeffereson and saying that he did not really father a child by one of the African slaves that he owned but let's talk about the case for a moment, who is saying that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by Sally Hemings and what is their case?
"Well Rob, really the allegations stem from the 1800 election. One of the scandal mongering journalists of the time accused Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings. But you have to remember this was one of his political enemies. Kind of the federalists who were attacking him in the 1800's. So the rumor has been around for a good two hundred years. It was given credence, however, in 1998 when they did a DNA study and a lot of people think that based on the DNA study that the DNA matched Thomas Jefferson. That is absolutely incorrect. I prove in my book several things about the DNA. First of all the first misconception is that the DNA or the blood sample was actually taken from Thomas Jefferson. It was not taken from Thomas Jefferson, it was taken from his paternal uncle, Field Jefferson's descendants and then matched with one descendant of Sally Hemings. All the DNA showed was that a male Jefferson was the match for the descendant of Sally Hemings, not Thomas Jefferson. And when I looked at all the evidence kind of from a lawyer's perspective, I found that, really, this is the only evidence that the paternity believers had and they want the public to think that it matched Thomas Jefferson. It did not match Thomas Jefferson. And from my research, really the historians have the wrong Jefferson. It was not Thomas Jefferson who had the affair but his younger brother, Randolph, who was 12 years younger than Thomas Jefferson, who was at Monticello 9 months before the birth of the DNA baby, Eston Hemings, that matched and who had a reputation for socializing with the slaves late at night. So, in my view, and my book I think proves once and for all that the rumor is completely false. Thomas Jefferson has really been falsely accused and historians have the wrong Jefferson."
Were there eyewitnesses to any of these events?
"There was one eyewitness, in fact I quoted in the book, Jefferson's overseer was a gentleman by the name of Edmond Bacon. He worked at Monticello for 22 years. He had an interview, later, after he retired, and he wrote in the book, in his memoirs, that he saw the person, the father who was having an affair with Sally Hemings come out of the cabin early in the morning and he said it was not Thomas Jefferson, it was 'blank'. He actually named the person but it was deleted from the memoirs. But he was clear that he said it was not Thomas Jefferson. In all likelihood it was either Randolph Jefferson, the younger brother, or possibly Jefferson's n'er do well nephew, Peter Carr, because Peter Carr had been rumored for years to have also had an affair with Sally."
What was the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?
"None, except for benevolent master. You have to remember that Thomas Jefferson did not know Sally Hemings. He had inherited the entire Hemings family and the slaves from his wife's father. His father-in-law died and left the entire Hemings family to Martha Jefferson, Jefferson's wife, and that's how the Hemings came to Monticello."
How old was Jefferson and how old was Hemings when this child was born?
"Well that's another interesting thing. Thomas Jefferson was 64 years old at the time that allegedly he was having an affair with a very young Sally Hemings. And I point out in the book, one chapter deals with his whole health issues. He suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis, he was suffering from migraine headaches at the time. He had diabetes so his health, really, at the time was very, very poor. His younger brother was 12 years younger and supposedly in good health. So that was just one other argument that I found that his failing health at the time. He was the oldest paternity candidate and in all likelihood would not have been physically able to have this vibrant sexual affair."
How old was Hemings?
"Hemings at the time that people believe that they started the affair, she was in France and only 14 years old and that, again, is just an incredible allegation that Jefferson who was almost 30 years older than her, was having an affair with a 14 year old girl. And you have to realize that he was Ambassador to France at the time and had his two young daughters with him in the same house."
So Hemings was, did Hemings accompany to him to France when he was the ambassador?
"No, Jefferson had gone there first with his older daughter. His other younger daughter had died unexpectedly at Monticello so he called for the other daughter to come to France. He specifically asked for an older lady to accompany his daughter across the sea. He had no idea Sally Hemings was going to come at the time. Again, this is another myth, that he brought Sally Hemings with him to France for some sort of liason. That's completely false.'
We're talking with William Hyland, who is an attorney here in Tampa. He's written a new book called "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal". What was Thomas Jefferson's attitude towards slavery?
"He had various writings on slavery. He was a slave owner, unfortunately, but one of the first acts he did at the House of Burgess's was try to pass a bill where slave owners could free their slaves. He really thought slavery was an abominable institution. He did everything he could to try and eradicate it. But in the final analysis he and the founding fathers thought that it would naturally die out, but there was really nothing they could do about it in their lifetime. That's certainly a constructive criticism of Jefferson. He was anti-slavery but he was a slave owner."
And he never released the slaves that he owned in his lifetime.
"He did not. After his death he did free some slaves and then his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, sold about a hundred slaves because Jefferson was in really bad debt. And Monticello was in really bad debt so he had to sell the slaves, and in fact he sold Monticello."
A few years ago, you talked about the DNA study, a few years ago when Nature magazine, which is a scientific journal wrote about this, the headline I think was pretty strong that Nature was at least telling it's readers that we have pretty strong evidence linking this DNA to Thomas Jefferson.
"Yes, that was, unfortunately, completely misleading. In fact I interviewed the gentleman, Herb Barger, who actually assisted Dr. Foster with the DNA. He told Dr. Foster that would be a very misleading headline, because the headline said: 'Jefferson Fathered Last Slave of Sally Hemings' or something like that, and that was completely misleading. All the DNA showed was that a male Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings child. And really that was never disputed because it was a hundred years of saying basically from Eston Hemings descendents that they descended from an uncle of Thomas Jefferson. And Randolph Jefferson was known as Uncle Randolph."
Did Sally Hemings ever go on the record and talk about Thomas Jefferson or who was the father of this child?
"Sally Hemings is really an enigma in history. We don't even know if she could read or write. She never addressed the issue in public or in private. However Thomas Jefferson did address the issue both to his family and to several cabinet members. He denied the allegation to his Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, in a specific letter saying that these were falsehoods and he also told his family that this was a falsehood, but Sally Hemings never commented to anybody publicly about the allegation."
I wonder if you could set the political scene for us. There were the Federalists and this person who was spreading what you say was a rumor about Thomas Jefferson, was a Federalist. They were opposed to Jefferson, describe on what did they differ back then?
"It was a very vicious campaign, the election of 1800 was between Adams and Jefferson. Jefferson was what's called a Republican, basically a state's rights type of person. And there was a big dichotomy between the Federalists, like Hamilton, like Adams, who wanted a strong national government. Jefferson and Madison were completely opposed to that. So, it was a very viscious campaign in 1800 as to the direction of the country, whether it was going to go more Federalist or go towards more Republican, states rights, smaller government. So the person who actually started the Sally Hemings rumor was a Federalist, his name was James Calendar. In fact he committed suicide in a drunken stupor in Richmond. And he was really very much of a muckraker. He probably would be someone like a National Enquirer reporter today."
We're talking with William Hyland and the book is 'In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, the Sally Hemings Sex Scandal'. Since the Nature article, have there been any other attempts to scientifically prove or disprove who the father was of Sally Hemings, this child Eston, Sally Hemings child?
"No scientific proof but there was a blue ribbon commission of historians that was commissioned in 2001, and these were thirteen independent, very notable historians and they looked at all the evidence and they came to the conclusion that the allegation was simply false. And these were black, white, men, women, of all different races and culture and very different backgrounds. So they came to the conclusion, looking at all the evidence that the allegation was false. When I interviewed Mr. Barger, who had actually assisted in the DNA (analysis), he found a descendant of one of Sally Hemings children, Madison. And he asked if they could exhume the body and take the DNA to see if it could match Jefferson. The Hemings descendants refused to give them permisssion and said that they were satisfied with the results and the oral history."
Where did they get Jefferson's DNA, or Jefferson's relatives DNA?
"Actually Herb Barger was the one. He's the genealogist who lives in Virginia. He found the descendants, not of Thomas Jefferson, again, of his paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. They found, I believe, five descendents, direct descendents for Field Jefferson. They found one direct descendent from Eston Hemings that they could match the blood."
Did Jefferson leave any male descendants?
"He did not, he had all female children. Again, that's another argument that I make in the book. The DNA was matched to a male Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had all female children, but it's interesting to note his younger brother, Randolph, had all male children. So what's the more likelihood, the more probability of who would be the father of a male child? Randolph, who had six male children, or Thomas Jefferson, who had six female children?"
Is that a scientific fact, that if your a dad and you tend to have kids, you have kids, and your kids tend to be one gender no matter who you have sex with, they're going to be of that gender?
"I don't know if it's a scientific fact, but it's certainly a very persuasive circumstantial evidence. Again, as I wrote the book I kind of wanted to defend and present the most persuasive evidence to a jury. I thought that was something that I had never even thought of, that the male child, who is more likely to have a male child. the younger brother who had all male children, or Thomas Jefferson who had all female children."
The book is "In Defence of Thomas Jefferson, the Sally Hemings Sex Scandal", our guest is William Hyland who practices law here in the Tampa Bay area, so Bill, what's been the reaction to the book since it came out?
"Well, it's been varied. Really official Monticello has been very cool to the book because I do kind of attack and cross-examine and dissect their official report. It really accepts the rumor as truth and as I found out, really this, there are a lot of hole's, there are a lot of inconsistencies, and from my point of view, it's not an accepted fact, and should not be an accepted fact for the historical record. So the reaction has been mixed. It got a very favorable review in the Wall Street Journal. It's been embraced by some of the most prominent historians, Jefferson historians Forrest McDonald, for example,'...', for example, believe that the rumor is false and both have said very favorable things about the book. But official Monticello, who accepts the rumor, has been very, very cool to the book."
I think there's a degree, the Hemings family, and the modern day family members are very proud in some cases of being descendents of Thomas Jefferson and they've taken to celebrating that fact. Or what they say is a fact.
"Obviously it's very sexy to be direct descendents of Thomas Jefferson, it's not so sexy to be a direct descendent from Peter Carr or Randolph Jefferson because they were not the President of the United States, and the genius that Thomas Jefferson was, so what I try to do in the book is to look at the facts and the most persuasive evidence, I really came to the conclusion that the historians have the wrong Jefferson."
Bill, one last question, you're a scholar and you teach at Stetson, you've gone to law school, you've looked at Thomas Jefferson, at least this angle of Thomas Jefferson's life. I want to get your take, we have an ongoing discussion on this program about the Founding Fathers and what their view was on what role religion should play in our government. What's your take on what Jefferson thought about what should be or should not be the connection between religion and government?
"Well, you know he was the author of the phrase, 'separation between church and state'. In fact on his gravestone he had three things that were engraved that he wanted to be known for. One was the author of the Declaration of Independence, one was the father of the University of Virginia, and the last thing was the author of the Virginia Statutes on religious freedoms. He thought that freedom of religion, of thought, was paramount and he wrote on that extensively. His best biographer, Dumont Malone, thought he probably was in the modern sense, what we call a Deist. He believed in God, but he also believed in the Natural Law, and Reason and God is the Supreme Being that created the universe but he didn't intervene in human relations or mankind. That it's up to mankind to have morals, and reason, and things like that. So probably in a modern sense he would be considered a Deist. But he did believe in God."
Bill, thanks a lot, thanks for coming by WMNF. Is there a website for the book, "In Defence of Thomas Jefferson"?
http://www.indefenseofthomasjefferson.com/comments powered by Disqus