President's sex saga stirs fresh slavery debate

WHEN THE science journal, Nature, published an article this month supporting the theory that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave, Sally Hemings, its editors were well aware of the fuss it would stir.

They released the findings in advance, they waived the usual embargo on newsworthy articles, and they stood by as one of the two researchers said that it all went to prove that President William Jefferson Clinton's liaison with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was not such a deviation from the norm after all: even the revered author of the United States Constitution had had his peccadilloes.

What neither editors nor authors apparently anticipated was that their learned article might succeed where Alex Haley's Roots, Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Oprah Winfrey's Beloved and a spate of books and documentaries have failed - in pushing slavery to the fore and goading whites as well as blacks to talk about it. But once the immediate excitement over the parallels between Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton had ceased to titillate, that is precisely what happened.

For many black Americans, the likelihood, based on DNA evidence, that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's son, Eston, born in 1808, was not news, but vindication. "Everybody knew that already," one Washington teenager said. And his teacher added: "Look at the black people in this class. We are the colour of the rainbow. Our ancestors didn't come over from Africa this way."

For blacks, the question - asked with some resentment - was why Jefferson's liaison had dismissed for so long. Patricia Williams, a law professor at Columbia University, was moved to ask: "Why was there such denial for so long among historians and many whites?"

Such direct questioning forced a response. Some historians mounted a hasty exercise in damage limitation. Gordon Wood, a Brown University historian, was quoted as saying he had thought Jefferson "too uptight and puritanical to mix with a slave". He added: "I don't think the people who doubted this did it out of racial superiority ... We all knew that slave owners were having sex with their slaves, but there was a feeling that Jefferson was not doing that."

Others, however, confirmed blacks' worst suspicions. A white visitor to Washington, interviewed at the Jefferson memorial, said it was "a sad day for the country". To which Tim Hughes, a local black resident who claims to be a Jefferson/Hemings descendant, responded: "I do not believe it was a sad day for her because she discovered Jefferson fathered a child out of wedlock ... [but] because he did this with a black woman and therefore reduced his humanity ... the black woman to her was something less than human."

What the DNA findings exposed was a gulf in historical perceptions that many found shocking. Yet the fact is that, whatever they were taught at school, blacks and whites view America's history differently, especially its early history.

The white, establishment version is that the founding fathers, including Jefferson and George Washington before him, were fine upstanding figures in every respect, including the moral one.

Anything contrary is largely dismissed - despite, in Jefferson's case, a swirl of rumours during his lifetime. Even the fact that America's first presidents owned slaves has been played down almost to vanishing point.

Among blacks, slavery - and white negation of it - are taken for granted. And what is passed down from generation to generation is not only the opinion, but the assumption, that as slave-owners, America's first presidents slept with their female slaves. The very question, much asked in the wake of the Jefferson revelation - was it rape or affection? - is tartly dismissed. "He owned her. At any moment he could sell her," said Prof Williams.

Many blacks know they have white blood in their line. They always believed Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings because they believed their fellow blacks who claimed Jefferson as an ancestor and bore his name.

When the DNA evidence came through, the eye-opener was not that Eston was found to be a likely descendant of Jefferson, but that another child of Hemings, Thomas Woodson, whose descendants had also claimed presidential ancestry, probably was not. That appeared to demolish a cherished legend: that Jefferson had taken Sally Hemings to his bed when she was only 14 years old.

There are those on both sides of the racial divide who hope that the new evidence will bring black accounts of history more acceptance and that white and black alike will find it easier to acknowledge a common history. Some feel that blacks will take more pride in their past as a result.

But already a new and potentially inflammatory dispute is brewing. The Monticello Association, the group of (white) Jefferson descendants which owns and runs the graveyard at the late president's estate, is split about whether future descendants of Hemings might be buried there.

Raw and bitter as it is, the Jefferson controversy has hit a nerve. A Thanksgiving holiday phone-in had an abundance of callers. And even a month after the initial revelation, black resentment still came through. One caller was a black woman who had visited Monticello as a tourist and noticed that a back staircase that was supposed to have led into Jefferson's bedroom was not there.

It had been removed, she was told, during routine restoration and refurbishment: a sort of architectural revision of history. "Maybe," ventured the caller hopefully, "they will build the staircase back?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

SThree: Trainee Recuitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn