Accuracy In Media
Weekly Column

Correcting the Jefferson Record

By Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid
January 8, 1999

A news conference by Jefferson scholars was held in Washington on January 6, one day before Nature magazine was due to come out with an issue in which it would acknowledge that its earlier Jefferson article was flawed because it had failed to mention that there were at least eight other Jeffersons who might have fathered children by Sally Hemings. By printing three letters that pointed this out in its January issue, Nature acknowledged that it went too far in stating categorically that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ youngest son. Some, but not all, of the media have reported this.

But what has yet to be corrected is the impression that Jefferson was hypocritical on the slavery issue. Willard S. Randall, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Life, pointed out at the press conference that Jefferson’s anti-slavery record dated back to 1769, when he tried to introduce a bill to abolish the importation of slaves into Virginia. He was shouted down. Jefferson’s efforts to get an anti-slavery clause included in the Declaration of Independence was defeated. In 1784, he got Congress to ban slavery on all Federal lands, and his effort to extend that to the 13 states was defeated by a single vote. In 1808, as president, he signed into law a bill banning the slave trade with Africa.

Prof. Randall acknowledges that Jefferson did not free all his slaves on his death, but he points out that in 1806 Virginia passed a law that required that the state legislature pass a special bill that would attest to the exemplary behavior of each slave to be freed. If freed, the slave had to leave the state without his or her family. He points out that Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to get this law changed. Jefferson trained his slaves in skills that would be useful when they were freed. Randall says, "To free them first, he believed, was irresponsible. They would be homeless. Each of the slaves he freed in his lifetime was dead within a year, homeless, forced by Virginia law to leave the state without their families within a year."

An article that omitted important facts has resulted in serious damage to the reputation of a great man, Thomas Jefferson. It will be hard to slay the lie that DNA proves that Jefferson fathered children by a slave. It may be even harder to set the record straight about his views and actions on slavery.

Here are some of the statements that have appeared in the media that cry out for corrections and apologies.

The DNA tests proved that Jefferson was not the father of the boy said to be Sally Hemings’ first child, Thomas Woodson. Despite this exoneration of Jefferson, Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, wrote, "He took her (Hemings) to Paris when she was 13 (actually 14) and when she returned two years later, she was pregnant," implying that Jefferson had impregnated a 15-year-old girl.

Jefferson was compared with Bill Clinton in terms of their sexual behavior. Historian Joseph Ellis and biologist Eric Lander noted in an article in Nature that both men had "improper" relationships with women about 28 years younger, adding, "(T)here is a world of difference between a slave and a master at the close of the eighteenth century and a White House intern and a married man at the end of the twentieth." Bill Clinton has admitted having an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Thomas Jefferson, whose word is certainly far more believable than Bill Clinton’s, denied any improper relationship with Sally Hemings, and there is no evidence that proves he did.

With the polls showing that most people look upon sex in the Oval office between a president and an intern as a private affair, the heaviest criticism of Jefferson was tied more to his alleged hypocrisy for owning slaves even though he had written, "All men are created equal." Brent Staples, a New York Times columnist, wrote of Jefferson, "He started out as a cautious believer in abolition, but retreated steadily from that position, thinking that slavery needed to be kept intact, in part to preclude race mixing."

Donna Britt, a Washington Post columnist, wrote, "I’ve felt Jefferson’s stirring words quicken my heartbeat and moisten my eyes. Yet I knew that any man who could write, ‘All men are created equal,’ while buying and selling others must have been a hypocrite."

Those words, "all men are created equal," have been an enormous force in helping this country move closer to equal rights for all, but no one man could have accomplished that overnight.

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