Cultural Revolutions

Not an Impartial Scholar

The New York Times is still perpetuating the myth of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, despite the weight of scholarly evidence.  (See, for example, Egon Tausch’s exhaustive Chronicles article, “Tom and Sally and Joe and Fawn,”?Views, March 1999.)  The myth, first touted by a postmaster manqué who turned to yellow journalism after Jefferson denied him patronage, resurfaced with a vengeance in 1998.  Based on DNA evidence that indicated that a Jefferson male sired at least one of Hemings’ seven children, historian Joseph Ellis wrote an article in Nature claiming that the DNA fingered Thomas Jefferson himself.  The article was rushed to press during the congressional impeachment of Bill Clinton, which Ellis actively opposed.  He drew parallels in defense of Clinton, suggesting that, if Jefferson used his slaves for a harem, William Jefferson Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky seemed innocuous.

Ellis is not an impartial scholar.  In 2001, the Boston Globe exposed him as an habitual liar—e.g., he never served in Vietnam or campaigned for civil rights.  His propaganda worked, however.  Oprah Winfrey invited Sally Hemings’ descendants on her show, where they appeared with a Jefferson descendant, Lucian Truscott IV.  He, in turn, invited them to be his guests at reunions of the Monticello Association, which is...

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