Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father a Child With Sally Heming? And If Not, How Did the Story Get Born?

The podcast we’re putting out next week is called “Legacy of a Jerk.” It’s about how people’s reputations change, for better or worse, after their death. We talk at some length about Ty Cobb, widely considered to be one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived — and one of the nastiest humans. Suffice it to say that his reputation gets a second look in our episode.

With that idea in mind, I read with great interest Robert F. Turner‘s essay in the Wall Street Journal today about Thomas Jefferson having supposedly fathering a child with his slave Sally Hemings. Turner, a law professor at the University of Virginia, edited The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. His Journal essay dismantles many of the arguments that seem to prove Jefferson’s paternity. Most interestingly, he provides a motivation for how the possibly untrue story was spread in the first place (and in this regard, there is a lot of overlap with the Ty Cobb story you’ll hear in our podcast next week):

The claim that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings began with James Thomson Callender, a notorious journalist and scandalmonger. Callender had demanded that Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800, appoint him postmaster of Richmond, Va. At one point during the summer of 1802, Callendar shouted from in front of the White House, “Sir, you know that by lying [in press attacks on President John Adams] I made you President!”

When Jefferson refused to make the appointment, Callender promised “ten thousand fold vengeance” and wrote a series of articles denouncing Jefferson as a French agent and an atheist. When those charges had no effect, he insisted that the president had taken a young slave girl to be his “concubine” while in Paris during the late 1780s. At the time, Sally attended to Jefferson’s young daughters, who lived in a Catholic boarding school across town in Paris that had servants’ quarters. She didn’t live at the Jefferson residence.

Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton—political rivals of Jefferson’s at the time—rejected Callender’s charges, because they knew Jefferson’s character and had bitter personal experiences with Callender’s lies.


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Rafael Prieto says:

    Similar to what happened with Pope Pius XII, the pope during WWII.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  2. Mike Palmer says:

    I have a friendly debate with colleague who is a UVA alum and insists no relationship between TJ & SH. When in doubt I’d have to lean towards scientific evidence.


    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 7
    • Jen says:

      That’s the same link I was going to add in here — they looked like his kids, he treated them differently than other slaves (freed them) and there are DNA links.

      This might not have been your best example.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2
  3. Alex in Chicago says:

    Speaking of your podcast. My iTunes downloads haven’t been working properly for Freakonomics only.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3
  4. Duke says:

    Prove it with genetic testing.
    Compare known male-line descendents of Jefferson and those descendents of Hemings.
    Use birth dates of Hemings children to find periods of time during which children were conceived and when a male line Jefferson was present.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
    • Jen says:

      Read the link above from Mike Palmer

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Herbert Barger says:


      The DNA was tested and Dr Foster, (of whom I assisted) tested a klnmown carrier of both Jefferson and Eston Hemings DNA and would NOT notify Nature 0f that family’s claim that they descended from “a Jefferson uncle or nephew” (meaning TJ’s younger brother, Randolph Jefferson, and sons.) They did not claim descent from Thomas. TJ’s grandchildren and the ir Hemings playmates knew him as Uncle Randolph. I tried to get Dr Foster to so notify Nature but he chose not to follow my suggestion and worked with Nature to perfect a false title, “Jefferson fathers slave’s last child”, a lie but it was a media frenzy and Monticello and Annette Gordon-Reed refuses to tell the public the truth.

      Herb Barger
      Fouinder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  5. Banjo says:

    If Callender were alive today we would see him on MSNBC on a regular basis.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 8
    • Jell says:

      Since he was accusing him of being French and an atheist, wouldn’t he be more at home on Fox?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 7
  6. frankenduf says:

    and so the national enquirer was born…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. TC says:

    William Safire wrote an excellent novel about Callender and his vicious pamphleteering titled Scandalmonger: http://www.amazon.com/Scandalmonger-William-Safire/dp/1441788050

    The book even includes sources and notes.

    Lastly, just because TJ didn’t father any children by Sally Hemmings, he’s still one of the most vicious hypocrites in American history.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 6
  8. tylerh says:

    If the paternity case is strong enough for Jefferson’s own white descendants, I’d say it’s settled. TJ was the father of at least one of Hemming’s male children.


    What was the research behind this? How hard is it to track down when the wiki page lists the actual micro-satellite markers?

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3
    • Herbert Barger says:

      Jefferson’s descendants (Monticello Association), voted overwhelmly to disallow the Hemings into their association bercause there was NO proof of such claims. I wholeheartidly agree with their decision and what an embarrasment it would have been to allow a “CLAIMED” ancestral grandson, to be buried there because he many times claimed on the Ken Burn’s Jefferson film that he was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The DNA Study claimed otherwise, in two different tests the Woodson claiments found NO DNA match with their Tom Woodson as claimed by the LIAR, James Callender.

      Foster knew there would be a match because the man he was testing claimed both Jefferson and Eston Hemings DNA, as the family had always claimed, but not Thomas.

      Herb Barger

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2