W. Joseph Campbell

‘Accurately, it turned out’? Hardly, in the Jefferson-Hemings allegations

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal on February 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

Media critic Jonathan Alter treated as settled history the other day the disputed and probably dubious claim that President Thomas Jefferson took as a mistress a slave named Sally Hemings.

In a  column for Bloomberg News, Alter wrote:

“Politics has been a contact sport since at least the election of 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson was accused (accurately, it turned out) of having an affair with ‘Dusky Sally’ Hemings, a slave.”

Accurately, it turned out?

That may hew to the dominant narrative about the purported Jefferson-Hemings liaison. But it’s far from proven, far from “accurate.”

Indeed, it’s quite unlikely.

Key evidence in the controversy centers around DNA testing conducted in 1998. The evidence indicated that the former president was among more than two dozen Jefferson men who were in Virginia at the time Hemings’ youngest child, Eston, was conceived in 1807.

Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate.

The DNA results were widely misreported when released, giving rise to the mistaken notion that the tests had confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

However, as a detailed scholarly study published last year points out:

“The problem [in misinterpreting the DNA evidence] lies not only with a news media prone to over simplifying and sensationalizing complex stories.  Numerous prominent scholars have contributed to the misunderstanding by characterizing the DNA study as ‘confirming’ or ‘clinching’ the case for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.”

The scholarly study, an impressive work titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, further notes that the DNA tests “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 book — which has received scant attention from mainstream American media — presents a circumstantial case pointing to Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph (or his sons), in the question of Eston Hemings’ paternity.

Randolph Jefferson, the book says, was known to have socialized with the slaves at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Randolph Jefferson was a dozen years younger than the president, and the available record offers no evidence that Thomas Jefferson “enjoyed socializing at night with Monticello slaves,” the book says.

The scholars commission that compiled the volume describes the case as closed by no means.

Indeed, the scholars commission writes in The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy that a “more rational conclusion, from the totality of the evidence before us, is that Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s lover, and her children were not his children.”

To assert otherwise — to insist on the accuracy of claims about Jefferson’s purported sexual relationship with a slave — is to indulge in a sort of sloppy, take-it-for-granted kind of reporting.

Sloppy, take-it-for-granted reporting can be a factor in the emergence and durability of media-driven myths, the subject of my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong, for example, that hurried and sloppy reporting propelled the media myth of “crack babies,” in which journalists in the 1980s and 1990s “pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research. And the horrors they predicted, that ‘crack babies‘ would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class — a ‘bio-underclass’ of staggering dimension — proved quite wrong.”

Decidedly wrong.

WJC

Recent and related:

  1. […] Thomas Jefferson not being the father of some or all of Sally Hemings’ children, “Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate” does not cut it. Sixty-four year old men have sex, with women quite a bit younger than them, […]

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