Monday, January 25, 2010

In Defense of Thomas Jefferson by William Hyland

Greg at the History Buff Wanna-Be posted on William Hyland's book, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson. This book looks at the question of Jefferson's slave children with Sally Hemmings as a court case (Hyland is a lawyer) and concludes that the evidence is circumstantial at best. Some of the points that Hyland brings up are:
*Jefferson's overseer at Monticello, Edmund Bacon, said that "many a morning" he saw a man leaving Sally's quarters. He never said who the man was or if he knew who it was, but he said it was not Thomas Jefferson.

*Jefferson was 64 years old at the time all this sexual romping was supposed to be going on. He was not in good health, suffering from migraine headaches that had him down for weeks at a time, he had rheumatoid arthritis, and severe intestinal infections.

*Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, who would carry the identical Y chromosome as Thomas, frequently socialized with the slaves at Monticello and letters show that he was expected to be visiting Monticello around the time Eston would have been conceived.

There is more that Greg lists (you can check out his site or read the book), but this is just to give you an idea of how Hyland is looking at the issue - he is treating it like he was a defense attorney for Jefferson and trying to find that "shadow of a doubt."

While I certainly have no problem believing Jefferson had slave children (and neither does Greg), it is very interesting to look at this from a different angle. Hyland concludes the kids weren't Jefferson's, but I think he just proved there is a possibility they weren't more than the fact that they actually were not. He created that "shadow of a doubt" that wins court cases, but reality tells us that doesn't mean the person in question is actually innocent. Hyland also argues the fathering slave children would be out of character for Jefferson - neither Greg or I buy that argument.

I thought this was interesting because it takes a point we normally simply accept and looks at it from a different angle. While it didn't change my personal opinion very much, I still found it a good historical exercise.

No comments: