Accuracy In Media
Weekly Column

CBS Movie Is A Real American Scandal

By Reed Irvine
February 16, 2000

CBS chose the sweeps rating period to bring out the mini-series, "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." The real scandal is how this movie reinforces the irresponsible claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Hemings. There is no evidence to prove this. But you would never know that from either watching the movie, or reading about it in the major media reviews.

For example, in the review in the New York Times, Caryn James wrote, "There is no question something happened between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. Two years ago, a DNA study concluded that Jefferson was definitely the father of one and very likely all six of Hemings’ children." The Washington Post review says, "There is little doubt in the age of DNA testing that our third president, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, had a liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, and that they produced children."

The evidence cited as proof was from an article in Nature magazine by Dr. Eugene Foster, involving an analysis of DNA of male-line descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle and two of Hemings’ sons. The headline and the press release said the DNA proved Thomas Jefferson fathered one of the sons, Eston Hemings. Nature later admitted that this claim was false. The DNA evidence proved only that some male Jefferson had fathered Eston.

Herbert Barger, a Jefferson family historian, says there were seven Jeffersons in addition to Thomas who might have been Eston’s father. He says that the most likely was Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, but it could have been one of Randolph’s sons or one of Jefferson’s cousins. There was no match between the Jefferson DNA or that of his nephews, the two Carr brothers who had been suspected of having fathered Tom Woodson, the first son of Sally Hemings.

Barger, who helped Dr. Foster find the male descendants of Jefferson’s uncle and of Sally Hemings that were needed to make the DNA comparisons, has made a determined effort to undo the damage done by the misleading treatment of the findings by Nature. Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Truth will defeat Error as long as it is free to combat it is being sorely tested in the struggle between Barger’s truth that the DNA proved only that some Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings and the mass media’s incessant repetition of Nature’s acknowledged error.

Barger has been far more interested in finding the truth than the descendants of Sally Hemings. He has found the grave of William Hemings, the son of Madison Hemings and the grandson of Sally, at the National Cemetery in Leavenworth, Kansas. He wants to have the body exhumed to see if the DNA matches that of the Jeffersons, but the relatives of William, none of them his direct descendants, won’t give their written consent. They apparently fear that the tests may turn out like Woodson’s and undermine their claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the guardian of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, shares the relatives’ lack of enthusiasm for a DNA test that might disprove the theory that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all Sally Hemings’ children. That would mean that Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s concubine and strengthen the claim that it was another Jefferson, not he, that fathered Sally’s youngest son, Eston.

On January 26, the foundation announced that it had concluded that there is "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." The foundation’s report has been denounced as "unprofessional, unscientific...and an offense to the memory of the great man that this foundation was chartered to memorialize."

Our big media share the foundation’s lack of interest in a scientific test that might shoot down the theory on which the CBS movie is based, but the Washington Post did find fault with the movie’s inaccuracy. It said that "the historical interpretation borders on the egregious." It asked, "How could they make a teenage Sally the initiator of this liaison?" This referred to a scene in which "Hemings submits willingly, slipping off her robe before Jefferson has so much as kissed her." The Post also objected to the fact that the producers "could not find an American actor to play a most American president." The fact that Thomas Jefferson was being slandered with gossip and hearsay of a type the Post would refuse to print about a living politician went unnoticed.

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