Revelations on Jefferson are no real surprise

November 11, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

IT'S BEEN more than a week since the "news" hit the wire services: DNA testing showed a high probability that our third president, the overpraised and overrated Thomas Jefferson, fathered at the very least Sally Hemings' youngest son, Eston Hemings.

Such a revelation is news only to those Americans who still cling to their hero-worship of Jefferson, who hold firm in their belief that Jefferson was a champion of the common man and who buy into the nonsense that Jefferson was serious when he wrote "all men are created equal."

Now Jefferson stands exposed, not as one of our greatest presidents, but as a horny hypocrite afflicted with an advanced case of jungle fever. He talked of all men being created equal but believed fervently in the inferiority of blacks. He advocated the abolition of slavery but freed few of his own -- the better to hang onto his harem, we might surmise. He preached against miscegenation but hopped straight into bed with Hemings.

Jefferson had, in the words of historian David Leon Chandler, a "liquid value system." Chandler, ironically, is one of the Jefferson biographers who had dismissed out of hand the notion that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings' children. Other historians, according to Chandler, fingered two of Jefferson's nephews as possible culprits.

Such is the curious historiography American historians crank out where black folks are concerned. No one is sure who Frederick Douglass' father was, either, but historians have no qualms about identifying the unknown daddy as his mother's master. No other possibilities are entertained. Douglass' light complexion may have come from either a white father or a light-skinned black father. But historians obsessed with the race of the famed abolitionist's father imply that Douglass' prodigious intellect -- he taught himself five foreign languages -- came from his white daddy, not his black mother.

The issue of skin color cropped up in the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. News reports made it clear that Hemings was a light-skinned black woman. Was this a subtle message of reassurance to white Americans that Jefferson had not climbed into bed with one of the really dark ones and thus compounded his crime? No one can be certain. But in all the years the Jefferson-Hemings story has circulated in the black community, the subject of Hemings' skin color was never broached. Among black folks, slaves were slaves whether they were black, brown, cafe au lait, high yellow, redbone or light, bright and damn near white.

Jefferson's bedding of a slave girl has been brushed aside by his usual gaggle of apologists and defenders. Jefferson's racist views, his slave holding, his hankering after slave girls (when he wasn't busy trying to seduce the wives of close friends) all made Jefferson a "man of his time," his apologists claim.

The defense is ludicrous. It implies that all white people of Jefferson's era were racists, slaveholders or supporters of slaveholders and approved of slave masters taking sexual advantage of slave girls and women.

Numerous incidents from American history prove otherwise. One occurred in Calloway County, Mo., in 1855, some 46 years after the Jefferson regime was out of business in Washington and only 29 after the scoundrel died.

This case involved another slave master named Robert Newsom and a slave girl named Celia, whom Newsom bought when she was 14 years old. Newsom raped Celia several times over a five-year period. By the time she was 19 she had given birth to two of his children.

It was at that tender age that Celia decided she had had enough. One June night she told Newsom there would be no more sexual relations between them. Newsom responded he would stop by her cabin later for just that purpose. Celia was waiting for him with a cudgel.

With two whacks to the head, Celia killed Newsom. Three lawyers in the slave state of Missouri showed enough guts to defend her. When she was convicted and sentenced to hang, outraged white residents of Calloway County spirited her away from the jail until her execution date passed, allowing the Missouri Supreme Court to hear her appeal.

In New England and other Eastern states, white citizens would attack federal marshals and free fugitive slaves. It's these common folks who are the real heroes of American history. Jefferson doesn't quite measure up to them -- in his time or ours.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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