The publication of DNA test results showing that Thomas
Jefferson was probably the father of one of his slave Sally
Hemings's children has sparked a broad but often superficial
debate. The editors of this volume have assembled some of the most
distinguished American historians, including three Pulitzer Prize
winners, and other experts on Jefferson, his times, race, and
slavery. Their essays reflect the deeper questions the relationship
between Hemings and Jefferson has raised about American history and
The DNA tests would not have been conducted had there not
already been strong historical evidence for the possibility of a
relationship. As historians from Winthrop D. Jordan to Annette
Gordon-Reed have argued, much more is at stake in this liaison than
the mere question of paternity: historians must ask themselves if
they are prepared to accept the full implications of our
complicated racial history, a history powerfully shaped by the
institution of slavery and by sex across the color line.
How, for example, does it change our understanding of American
history to place Thomas Jefferson in his social context as a
plantation owner who fathered white and black families both? What
happens when we shift our focus from Jefferson and his white family
to Sally Hemings and her children? How do we understand interracial
sexual relationships in the early republic and in our own time? Can
a renewed exploration of the contradiction between Jefferson's life
as a slaveholder and his libertarian views yield a clearer
understanding of the great political principles he articulated so
eloquently and that Americans cherish? Are there moral or political
lessons to be learned from the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Sally
Hemings and the way that historians and the public have attempted
to explain their liaison?
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic
Culture promises an open-ended discussion on the living legacy of
slavery and race relations in our national culture.
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