A real peril of biography is being drawn into contemporary debates that involve one’s subject.
For example more than a decade ago DNA testing confirmed the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In response to this revelation, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and operates it as a museum and research center, undertook a review of the extant evidence on the question. The Monticello panel, which issued its report in January 2000, concluded:
The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.
Several months later a new organization, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS), was established. “Claiming the organization that owns Monticello,” according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress (May 7, 2000, p. 1) “has succumbed to political correctness at the expense of scholarly historical study, organizers of a new foundation announced that they will take a serious look into previous conclusions that Jefferson fathered children of one of his slaves.” The Heritage Society convened an independent “blue ribbon commission” of scholars to consider the question of whether Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children. That panel concluded that Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children was unproven. The scholars involved in that commission had published on aspects of the intellectual and political history of the Jeffersonian era, though none were specialists in slavery, social, or family history. The ‘Scholars’ Commission Report’ generated considerable media attention (it was released on April 12, 2001, the day before President George W. Bush welcomed the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to the White House) but had little impact on subsequent scholarship. Most Jefferson scholars, like the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, seem to have accepted the relationship. The important academic concern over the past decade turned on assessing what the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings tells us about issues such as slavery, race, gender relations, and politics during the early American republic, not whether Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. The result has been some wonderful scholarship including Andrew Burstein’s Jefferson’s Secrets (2005) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello (2008).
Despite an apparent scholarly consensus on the question of Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society has remained active. Recently, Carolina Academic Press published its Scholars Commission Report reviving what had seemed to have been a long-settled controversy. Several media outlets, including the Washington Times, reported the story. The position of the TJHS epitomises one of the pitfalls of biography. It seems to have crossed the line between scholarship and advocacy. In 2001 TJHS published an essay collection, The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty . Although the volume was presented in a manner to resemble a collection of academic essays it is not. The book has twelve chapters, all but one of which was written by an officer of the TJHS. Unlike the scholars’ commission which was given academic independence, The Jefferson-Hemings Myth was intended to achieve several interrelated objectives and each of its essays serves that end.
First and foremost they sought to “defend” Jefferson against the “accusation” that he had had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Second, the TJHS sought to disprove and discredit the findings of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, alleging that the Monticello committee ignored contrary evidence and suppressed dissenting opinions in an effort to promote a revisionist portrait of Jefferson as “a hypocrite, a liar and a fraud.” According to John Works, the first president of the TJHS, “In the forefront of this historical revisionist movement is the organization that owns Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.” In his introduction to the collection, Works explained the connection, as he saw it, between the Jefferson-Hemings controversy and questions of contemporary politics and culture. He wrote:
The allegations concerning [Jefferson’s] behavior do not merely provide an interesting sidelight on an otherwise great man. They are, in fact, a frontal assault on him and his principles, and have as a stated purpose by many proponents the aim to throw out those principles and replace them with something new but as yet poorly defined. These accusations have not just been leveled against Thomas Jefferson personally, but they have devolved into a denunciation of everything he stood for, and this we cannot allow to take hold.
Many scholars … have adopted the modern ‘politically correct’ propaganda that those who laid the bricks and plowed the fields were the real builders of this nation, not the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and established the University of Virginia. These scholars have begun tearing down the reputation of Jefferson and focusing instead more broadly on the lives and work done by the Negro slaves, and on their contributions to the building of this nation. (Quotations from John H. Works, “Foreword,” in Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. ed., The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001), pp. 9, 12.)
For Works and the members of the TJHS, the writing of history is a zero-sum game. One cannot write the history of Monticello’s slaves without undermining the legacy of their owner. To criticise Jefferson—for the TJHS apparently finds the thought of Jefferson engaging in sexual relations with a mixed-race woman to be repugnant—is to criticise America. The recent re-publication of the Scholars’ Commission Report seems intended to serve the broader political agenda of the TJHS. One might reasonably question the timing of its appearance, a decade after the original report first appeared, at a moment when race and the culture war seem to be at the forefront of American politics.
Perhaps biography invites the biographer to defend his or her subject from criticisms real or perceived. Such a temptation must be avoided. In the first place such an approach can distort scholarship. The responsible biographer or historian must follow the evidence with an open mind, irrespective of the results as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation did in 2000. Secondly, engaging in a discourse of attack and defense can lead the biographer into the thicket of contemporary politics and controversy, which makes it more difficult to understand our subjects in their historical contexts. We must seek to understand our subjects in the context of their lives and times not seek to deploy them in the service of political and cultural debates in our times. The members of the TJHS may be honourable people united by the notion that they somehow can protect Jefferson from the forces of “political correctness.” This is misguided, quixotic and unnecessary. One need only read the racist, hateful comments (mostly aimed at contemporary politics) that the Washington Times story on the publication of the Scholars’ Commission Report generated to realize how perilous and irresponsible it can be to attempt to drag long-dead historical subjects into contemporary political debate. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is secure and needs no protecting.
I have written on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy in my Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), chapter 6. Several paragraphs in this post are adapted from that chapter.
For the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s report on the Jefferson-Hemings matter (and supporting documentation) see:
For the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (including links to the latest edition of the Scholars’ Commission Report) see
For the Washington Times story of August 30, 2011 see: