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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.