Yesterday Robert Turner published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Myth of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” that argues that Jefferson did not, in fact, rape Hemings and father any of her children. He argues that Hemings descendants refer to Jefferson as an “Uncle” and not as a father, that Jefferson’s younger brother is the more likely culprit, that some French guy made up the whole thing.
OK, whatever. Maybe Thomas didn’t rape Sally. Maybe he turned a blind eye to his brother’s crimes. I’m not an historian, I am not one of the 13 distinguished scholars Turner says have held a concordance and declared Jefferson free of the sin of fathering Black kids. But what is not disputed, what is fact, is that Jefferson owned Hemings and hundreds of other enslaved Africans. Turner quotes Adams and Hamilton as character witnesses for Jefferson. I guess Adams and Hamilton, paragons of honesty, refused to believe that Jefferson would be so crass as to impregnate a slave (Hamilton was a somewhat famous philanderer). Perhaps they were right. Perhaps he only enslaved his slaves.
The fact that Americans even have this conversation is completely nuts. Jefferson was a horrible person. There is no context that makes him good. No restatements of English ideas about liberty for white people scribbled on yellowed parchment can redeem him. It’s a pity the Africans he enslaved weren’t able to draw and quarter him, burn Monticello to the ground and plant their own free society in it’s ashes. That the American press knows that an argument about whether or not one of the great icons of “american liberty” merely owned slaves (enslaved Africans= people subjected to terrorism) or also raped slaves ((enslaved Africans= people subjected to terrorism) is an important argument is a testament to the power of colonial thinking so many decades after formal slavery ended in North America. The real myth is not about Jefferson and Hemings, it’s about Jefferson and liberty. He was as staunch an enemy of liberty as has ever walked the face of this planet, and it is a sign of the insanity of American culture that this is not widely recognized.