QUESTION AND ANSWER WITH AUTHOR WILLIAM G. HYLAND JR
Q: This is the year of Abraham Lincoln. Why did you choose to write about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?
A: I was encouraged to write this book by my late father. He felt Jefferson’s reputation had been unfairly eviscerated by a misrepresentation of the DNA results in the Hemings controversy. And 2008 was the tenth anniversary of the misleading DNA findings. The more I researched the controversy, the more I found that the popular myth has not only deluded readers, but impoverished a fair debate. In fact, with the possible exception of the Kennedy assassination, I am unaware of any major historical controversy riddled with so much misinformation and outright inaccuracies as the sex-oriented Sally Hemings libel.
Q: What specific facts do you have to support your contention that Jefferson did not have an affair with Sally?
A: The “Sally” story is pure fiction, possibly politics, but certainly not historical fact or science. It reflects a recycled inaccuracy that has metastasized from book to book, over two hundred years. For example, some of the facts I reveal in the book are:
1) The virulent rumor was first started by an unscrupulous, scandal-mongering journalist James Callender, who burned for political revenge against Jefferson. Callender was described as “an alcoholic thug with a foul mind, obsessed with race and sex,” who intended to defame the public career of Jefferson.
2) The one, credible eyewitness to this sexual allegation was Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, who saw another man (not Jefferson) leaving Sally’s room ‘many a morning.’ Bacon wrote: “…I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early.”
3) Jefferson’s deteriorating health would have prevented any such sexual relationship. He was 64 at the time of the alleged affair and suffered debilitating migraine headaches which incapacitated him for weeks, as well as severe intestinal infections and rheumatoid arthritis. He complained to John Adams: “My health is entirely broken down within the last eight months.”
4) Jefferson owned three different slaves named Sally, adding to the historical confusion. Yet, he never freed his supposed lover and companion of 37 years, ‘Sally Hemings’ from her enslavement, nor mentioned her in his will.
5) Randolph Jefferson, his younger brother, would have the identical Jefferson Y chromosome as his older brother, Thomas, that matched the DNA. Randolph had a reputation for socializing with Jefferson's slaves and was expected at Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, Sally’s son who was the DNA match for a “male Jefferson.”
6) The DNA match was to a male son of Sally’s. Randolph had six male sons. Thomas Jefferson had all female children, except for an infant who died, within two weeks.
7) Until 1976, the oral history of Eston’s family held that they descended from a Jefferson "uncle." Randolph was known at Monticello as "Uncle Randolph."
8) Unlike his brother, by taste and training Thomas Jefferson was raised as the perfect Virginia gentleman, a man of refinement and intellect. The personality of the man who figures in the Hemings soap opera cannot be attributed to the known nature of Jefferson. Having an affair with a house servant would be preposterously out of character for him.
Q: You state in the book that there has been a rush to judgment on this issue. What do you mean?
A: For the first time, the public will gain access to personal interviews and correspondence with two Jeffersonian experts: Dr. White McKenzie (Ken) Wallenborn, a former Professor at the University of Virginia medical school and tour guide at Monticello, and genealogist Herbert Barger, who personally conducted the DNA research Both gentlemen are Jefferson “insiders” intimately involved in the distorted study and the subsequent misleading report, fueled by slave historians at official Monticello and the University of Virginia. They reveal how evidence was manipulated into a censored, predetermined “official” conclusion, giving a false stigma of Jefferson’s guilt to the American public.
Q: Professor Annette Gordon-Reed has just won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello, which accepts the Jefferson-Sally liaison. How does your book differ?
A: Two-thirds of her book is deeply researched and detailed as to the life the Hemings led at Monticello. The other one-third, which deals with the alleged affair between Jefferson and Sally belongs in the fiction aisle. She does not have any facts, documentation, evidence or writings between Jefferson and Sally to document this allegation. She "imagines,” her own words, what Sally must have thought of Jefferson without a shred of evidence. This is pure fiction and the rankest speculation. Gordon-Reed has morphed the story of Jefferson and Sally into an agenda of race and victimized slavery, and away from the most credible evidence proving Jefferson’s innocence. She even goes so far as to claim Jefferson may have “raped” Sally. Her book is creative historical imagination, but fails as biography. In short, Gordon-Reed judges the past rather than entering into it.
Q; Does it really matter if they had an affair. That can not take away from Jefferson’s accomplishments, can it?
A: Truth always matters. As a trial lawyer, I often tell my juries that the word “verdict” is a Latin word that literally means ‘to speak the truth.’ I'm confident that after you read my book and you just apply good common sense to the evidence that you will come away with the truth: Thomas Jefferson did not have a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, in fact he did not have any relationship with Sally, except benevolent employer.
Q: In the 18th century, it was common for white owners to sexually abuse their slaves? Why would Jefferson be any different?
A: First of all, after his wife’s untimely death, he had his daughters, then his grandchildren with him almost all the time living at Monticello. Someone surely would have seen something or written it down. Nothing of the kind exists. And finally, only two people know the absolute truth: one was Sally Hemings, who wrapped herself in the mantle of silence her entire life on the accusation. Perhaps, she believed that it deserved nothing more. As historian John C. Miller said: “‘[W]e know virtually nothing of Sally Hemings, or her motives [and] she is hardly more than a name.’” The other witness was Thomas Jefferson, who denied the charge to friends and colleagues, including two cabinet members. Jefferson’s granddaughter dismissed the charge as a ‘moral impossibility.’ And although the Sally rumor survives, no reasonable person hearing all the evidence has ever declared his or her belief in it.
Q: You claim in the book that Jefferson has been the victim of revisionist historians. How so?
A: History has become politicized in America, as illustrated by the widespread acceptance of the Hemings legend as historical fact. It seems that a period of self-analysis for the history profession is in order -- at least under the portico that shelters Jeffersonian scholars. As much as this controversy has been about DNA's attempt to solve a time-shrouded mystery, it should be an occasion for reflection on the all-too-human failings of a few historians. Gordon-Reed, the Jeffersonian expert du jour, is exhibit one in how scholars have misdirected the Hemings debate. The Jefferson controversy is no longer a scholarly investigation about a sexual affair, but a muscular, social analysis on slavery. That is fundamentally unfair to Jefferson’s legacy, and to the specific facts challenging the allegation. Cultural agendas are, and should be, entirely irrelevant to the historical controversy. This climate is not confined to the University of Virginia. Agenda driven courses taught at Wesleyan University and Bridgewater College require students to accept as historical fact that Jefferson fathered children by Sally.