DNA points to Jefferson as father of slave's son Liaison with Hemings, long the stuff of rumor, is scientific certainty

November 01, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the fledgling United States, almost certainly fathered a child with a slave at his Monticello plantation, scientists who analyzed genetic material collected from his living descendants have concluded.

The new evidence, made public yesterday, sheds the first reliable scientific light on an unusually emotional controversy over paternity that has simmered for almost two centuries.

The matter of Jefferson's long relationship with a mixed-race slave named Sally Hemings is of more than scholarly interest.

As embodied in his hundreds of descendants, several historians said, Jefferson's divided family tree today personifies troubling matters of race, slavery, sexuality and hypocrisy that are rooted in the earliest events of the country he helped found.

The new research reveals, within the limits of scientific certainty, that Jefferson enslaved the mother of his children and at least one offspring she bore him.

To complicate matters, historians generally agree that Sally Hemings was the mixed-race half-sister of Jefferson's wife.

"This is quite stunning news very shocking," said University of California, Los Angeles historian Joyce Appleby, an expert on the Jeffersonian era and a past president of the American Historical Association.

"Now, with impeccable timing," historian Joseph Ellis and geneticist Eric Lander write in a joint commentary on the new study, "Jefferson reappears to remind us of a truth that should be self-evident.

"Our heroes -- and especially presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans."

Jefferson met the 14-year-old Hemings in 1786 in Paris, where she was a house slave who took care of his youngest daughter.

Rumors of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings, who eventually bore at least five children, arose as early as 1802 -- the second year of his presidency.

During his lifetime, Jefferson never confirmed or explicitly denied allegations that he had fathered several children with her in the years after his wife's death in 1782.

There is nothing in the historical record that proves the relationship existed or, if it did, whether it was forced or consensual.

In the generations since, historians have argued passionately over whether the Virginian who embodied so many of the best qualities of the new nation also encompassed its worst as well.

He was a slave owner who early in his career tried to abolish slavery.

But he freed few of his own slaves, while other major slaveholders in Virginia freed thousands during the same period.

He was an inspirational revolutionary who believed fervently in the equality of all men, but who also held that blacks and whites were separate peoples.

Retired pathologist Eugene Foster in Charlottesville, Va., recently gathered DNA samples from Jefferson's known white descendants and from blacks who many believe also descended from Jefferson.

Foster collected samples from 13 black and white descendants, as well as a control group, coding them with random numbers to ensure that laboratory technicians would not know the source of any DNA sample.

Because Jefferson had no surviving sons, Foster collected material from the male descendants of Jefferson's brother, with whom he would have shared the same Y chromosome inherited from their father.

Through analyzing genetic variations in the Y chromosome, which is inherited largely unchanged through the male line, geneticists at Oxford University, the University of Leicester in England and Leiden University in the Netherlands determined to their satisfaction that Jefferson was the father of Sally Heming's last son -- Eston Hemings Jefferson.

The researchers looked at variations in 19 locations along the Y chromosome and found that Jefferson's genetic characteristics were quite rare.

A comparison with a sample of 670 Europeans and 1,200 people worldwide turned up no matches, the scientists said.

Jefferson's genetic makeup matched perfectly, however, with Eston's male descendant.

The researchers were able conclusively to eliminate the possibility that one of Jefferson's maternal nephews might have fathered the children, as some historians have suggested.

At the same time, they also ruled out the possibility that Jefferson fathered Hemings' oldest son, Thomas Woodson, who many had considered the most likely child of the union.

"A lot of very careful work went into this. We knew there would be all kinds of questions and controversy," Foster said.

"I suppose there will be some people who will be angry."

However, "I do believe it is close to the first piece of objective evidence that has been brought to bear on the controversy," Foster said.

A formal research paper is to be published this week in the journal Nature.

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