The mainstream news media have largely shunned a significant new book that disputes the notion Thomas Jefferson had a long, loving relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings.
The drawbacks of ignoring the book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: A Report of the Scholars Commission, are suggested by a Politico item posted yesterday.
“Most historians have concluded that, as a widower, Jefferson may have had as many as six children with Hemings, maintaining a 38-year relationship with her until his death in 1826.”
That’s a stretch, as The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy suggests.
It’s a collaborative work of 13 scholars, 12 of whom are either historians of Jefferson and his times or experts on politics and government. The outlier, as it were, is a biochemist, an expert on DNA testing.
The members of the scholars commission — empaneled by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which seeks to protect the reputation of the third president — describe in the book their collective credentials, writing:
“Most of us have studied Thomas Jefferson and his era for at least two decades, and we have held teaching or research appointments at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Bowdoin, and many other respected institutions of higher learning.”
They also state that “after a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation [against Jefferson] is by no means proven. … With the exception of one member … our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.”
But it’s “by no means proven.”
An important reason for the misinterpretation stems from DNA test results reported in 1998. The tests were widely misreported as identifying Jefferson as the father of Hemings’ youngest son, Eston.
The results were published in the journal Nature, which placed this erroneous headline above the article:
“Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”
The Nature headline and its misreported findings had significant agenda-setting power.
The scholars commission, which was chaired by Robert Turner of the University of Virginia, note in the book that “much of the public has been misled about the significance of the DNA tests … reported in the journal Nature in November 1998.
“While the tests were professionally done by distinguished experts, they were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.”
The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy addresses the DNA evidence in some detail, noting that the tests “did no more than establish that Eston Hemings’ father was almost certainly a Jefferson.”
More than two dozen Jefferson men, including Thomas, could have been the father.
By then, though, Thomas Jefferson was 64-years-old — scarcely a leading paternity candidate.
The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy offers an intriguing hypothesis about why the DNA tests of 1998 were so widely misunderstood.
“Most Americans,” the book points out, “learned about DNA testing during the period leading up to and during the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and they read in USA Today and other major papers than DNA ‘genetic fingerprints’ are ’99.9 accurate’ or even ’99.99 percent accurate.’
“When the Jefferson-Hemings story broke [nearly] four years later, it was not surprising that many people assumed scientists had matched Thomas Jefferson’s DNA with that of Sally Hemings’ children, and conclusively established Jefferson’s paternity by this remarkable new technology.
“But that is clearly not the case.”
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- As if it were toxic: Media ignore exculpatory Jefferson-paternity study
- Why they get it wrong
- Every good historian a mythbuster
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- On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism