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.


Rafael Prieto

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

Mike Palmer

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.



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.

Alex in Chicago

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


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.


Read the link above from Mike Palmer


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


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


and so the national enquirer was born...


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.


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?

Herbert Barger

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

John R

Why is this in Freakonomics? The only connection I see to economics, data, or analysis is that some politicians on both sides are trying to use the Jefferson paternity for their benefits. So: the Journal finds a lawyer who is on the predictable side. If there's no interesting data, we don't care about that crap here!


Eric M. Jones.

I'm with John R.

There is a subtle whiff of racism in this Jefferson-Hemmings thing. Why should we care other than the fact that Sally was a slave? But the Bible says you can have sex with your slaves.


And if so, so what? Both Jefferson & Hemmings were stuck in a sociopolitical situation which they did not create, and which Jefferson spent a good part of his life trying to change.

I'd also suggest reflecting a bit on the laws of the time, which in effect made almost every woman the property of some man. Consider for instance the story of Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson, who had to flee from an abusive first husband.


Just because it was reported by a scandalmonger doesn't mean it wasn't true.

Herbert Barger

Prof. Turner and his team of 13 prominent scholars did an outstanding job in telling the public that there was no proof of Thomas Jefferson fathering slave children. James Callender's "CAMPAIGN LIES" were proven by the DNA Study (of which I participated as assistant to Dr Foster), as just that LIES.

I tried to get Monticello to use ALL material for their study, but they hold firm to this FALSE Nature headline of which Dr Foster and Nature concocted, (I have e-mails from both about their various fake headlines).

I wondered why and asked the Chairman, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, why they were DROPPING the word Memorial from their title, his reply "their mission is changing and memorial detracts from that new image." I knew their conclusion must be based upon some personal agenda that was not representative of such a well respected foundation. I found the "smoking gun" in a book authored by Prof. Peter Onuf, Monticello sponsored history professor at the University of Virginia, Mr Jefferson's University.

The book consisting of several "like professors", is entitled "Jeffersonian Legacies." In it one of the professors stated what must be done to modernize the thinking and they all had suggestions surrounding the slavery issue, which many are sponsored by some leading foundations such as Ford Foundation and others. They meet annually and discuss their mission.

Dear citizen, you are being conned by characters who we believe to be honest and worthy of their positions, however please do not believe their distractions. Benedict Arnold was only the first traitor not the last.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society



DNA has already proven the connection. Why do whites have such a hard time seeing what white men did to black women? Take a look at the faces of black folks in this country, over 70% of African Americans have white paternal DNA, how do you think it got there? Some bigots denial doesn't beat science.

Midnight Sunshine

Sally had a white father and a half-white mother. My goodness! I know many whites with more black than that, yet, they are called "white." Many whites are mixed with black today and call themselves "white." Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife and the aunt of Jefferson's children. She was a family member. To me it is stupid, even idiotic to keep harping on "Jefferson's slave . . . Jefferson's concubine . . . Jefferson's mistress. . . The controversy . . .The scandal." How many statesmen, even US Presidents have caused scandals? Jefferson's situation was mild compared to some. No matter how many scandals public officials conjure up, most people would rather believe that they are gods incapable of sin. They just can't believe it! Well, I believe it. Keep fabricating history and one day it will be termed "Fiction."

According to the reports, Sally must have been a small child when Jefferson's wife died. So how could she be a mistress? He was a widower. If they had a relationship, she was his girlfriend. If they had had birthcontrol during their time, they could have hidden their relationship just like many cheating and perverse officials do today and have always done.

I wonder why he showed her children favoritism. They were pampered. Those children knew who they were. There is also no way for DNA testing to disprove Jefferson's parenthood of Sally's children. People did cheat, so no one knows all children born to Sally down the line were the children of all of those fathers. It just can't be done. "When it comes to your great-great-granson, Mr. President, we cannot accurately establish a link. Someone could have cheated in one of the following generations."

There is no way whites, blacks, or anyone can keep an account of who had sex with whom and produced a child fron it. People will do what they will do and label their children whatever they are themselves even if the child is mixed. Many white mothers have half black children and label them white. Half black folk have passed in white society in abundance for centuries. I have known the children of white fathers and black mothers to pass as white and also children of white mothers and black fathers.