Another American Sex Scandal—

Jefferson in bed


Michael Boughn


Once again the United States is being ripped apart by allegations of presidential scandal: secret sexual affairs, illegitimate children, impassioned charges of duplicity and hypocrisy, and equally impassioned denials. Friends and foes are lining up to defend or attack the President, who is seen either as demonically sinful or blameless and maligned. Spin doctors furiously churn out hundreds, even thousands of words attempting to stamp the events with a particular perspective.

It sounds all too familiar in these days of endless public discussions about the size and shape of the Presidential penis. But it may surprise many Canadians to discover that this particular debate has nothing to do with Ken or Monica or Linda or the Prez with the left handed twist—or any others in the cast of the daily political soap opera that the media has assaulted us with for the last year. In fact the subject of the latest debate has been dead for almost 175 years, a fact that has only intensified the debate’s shrillness.

The individual in question, for those who haven’t kept up with the latest DNA revelations to rock the cradle of modern democracy, is none other than Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers, who some suggest may have taken his role as Father a bit too literally. The latest news comes from DNA tests published in the science magazine Nature in November. Lacking a Gap dress with telltale stains, genetic tests were done on the male descendants of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves (who, in one of those uniquely American all-in-the-family situations, also happened to be his sister-in-law). The results indicate that Mr. Jefferson’s legacy in this case was more than philosophical.

Rumours of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship and the children it allegedly produced have circulated since at least 1802 when Jefferson’s political enemy, James Callender, first published them. Most recently, a 1997 book by New York University law professor Annette Gordon-Reed proposed "objectively" to marshal the evidence for and against the accusations in a mock trial, somewhat akin to the current obsessions occupying the U.S. Congress.

As with the Clinton affair, the Jefferson matter has become a lightning rod for all the predictable moral meanness of American politics, compounded in the Jefferson case with liberal dollops of outrage and guilt over slavery and the deep racism that is its legacy to American culture. The facts are pretty straightforward. When Jefferson married Martha (Wayles) Skelton in 1772, she brought to her new home a young slave named Sally Hemings. Hemings was in fact her half sister, having been fathered by Martha’s own father on one of his slaves. When Martha died in 1782, she extracted a promise from Jefferson never to marry again, a promise that he kept. Oral history within the Hemings’ family, however, has maintained consistently over the years that married or not, Jefferson fathered a number of children with Hemings, and the DNA tests, although apparently not conclusive, seem to support at least some of those reports. The ensuing clamor has been deafening.

For Canadians already stupefied by the ongoing Punch and Judy show that passes for government in the U.S. Congress, this further scandal may be mystifying. Part of the fascination Americans hold for us is their unrelenting drive to see everything in symbolic terms. There is no such thing as a casual or merely functional gesture in American civic life. Everything must mean something in the national psychodrama. Thanksgiving can’t just be a fall holiday, as it is here. It has to be a Celebration of National Origins, or as my friend in Oklahoma argues, a Celebration of Whiteness. Thomas Jefferson can’t just be a really smart, complicated guy with some character flaws who wrote heady Enlightenment philosophical-political documents and maybe fooled around with his sister-in-law after his wife died. He’s either a flawless, impeccably virtuous Founding Father, or a depraved, lying, hypocritical Simon Legree. Ain’t, as they say, no two ways about it. Not in America.

One of the most interesting genetic revelations of the whole affair seems to have been largely ignored in the drive to defend or discredit Jefferson. All of Sally Hemings’ children at some point elected to join in that grand American past time known as "passing". Their skin was pale enough that they chose to "become white" (their resemblance to Jefferson was remarked by many)—and no one ever knew differently. Such widespread passing by the descendents of slave owners and their slaves is one of the best kept secrets of a nation that continues to rely on the us-and-them of race as a basic social ordering principle. These latest revelations once again point out that genetically speaking, most Americans are neither black nor white—they’re whitish or blackish. In that sense, Thomas Jefferson probably should be celebrated as more of a Founding Father than anyone—on either side of the debate—wants to admit.