January 19, 2005

Lincoln, Jefferson, stuff and nonsene

This demolition of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, which argues that Lincoln was bisexual or even predominantly homosexual, reminded me of something I wanted to write about ages ago but never got around to. In adducing reasons why some historians have been slow to attack Tripp's work, David Greenberg suggests that other, more successful revisions might be playing a role:

Even more embarrassing to some scholars was the emergence of a consensus that Jefferson probably did father one or more children with Hemings. This claim circulated way back in Jefferson's day, and some of Hemings' descendants learned as a matter of course that Jefferson was an ancestor. But Jefferson scholarship for years was controlled largely by a Southern, white, male aristocracy—led by such men as Dumas Malone and Virginius Dabney—for whom the very thought of interracial sex was anathema. These scholars dismissed the idea, sometimes sneeringly, as slander. In 1974, however, Fawn Brodie's psychohistory Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History revived the argument, though it met with a chilly reception. Then, in 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which demolished the arguments of the Jefferson boosters and began to shift scholarly opinion. The next year the journal Nature ran an article by scientists who had conducted DNA tests that suggested strongly that Jefferson was the father of Madison Hemings' male offspring—leading important Jefferson authorities such as Joseph Ellis to change their minds. Today, it's probably safe to say, most informed historians believe that Jefferson did father children with Hemings.

The thing that always fascinates me about the charges against Jefferson is that the only contemporaneous claim that Jefferson had fathered numerous children by Sally Hemings is demonstrably false.

That charge was made by James Callender, who is the sort of figure for whom I actually have a certain amount of, well, if not respect then at least an appreciation of his utility -- he was a step or six beneath a muckraker, clearly on the take and yet at the same time unable to turn a profit from the powers that be--which I think of as sort of a virtue (in the same way God protects children, fools and the United States of America, as the saying goes). Callender's only consistency was contrarian; he was a clearly biased journalist whose biases ran firmly against whichever party was in power. He was also canny enough to recognize that sleaze sold in any season. A nasty sort of man (a drunk and a misanthrope according to one of his contemporaries), but the sort who serves a useful function in any democracy -- reminding us pointedly that those in elected office have to suffer the slings and arrows of the nastiest of us. Callender was no hero, of course, but here was a guy who slammed Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson and Madison -- no cherry trees and "I cannot tell a lie" hagiography for him. He was fortunate to live in a time when readers of the popular press were made of sturdy enough stuff to recognize that reporters and pamphleteers had agendas and biases; the readers were able to take all this in and still re-elect Jefferson in 1804 (Callender had boasted that his expose would end Jefferson's political career).

In 1802, during Jefferson's first term, Callender wrote a series of articles in the Richmond Recorder, excerpts of which can be read in the Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which concluded, on the basis of various historical information and the famed DNA testing, that Jefferson had fathered all of Sally Hemings' children. (The link is to the report home page; you have to click on the PDF to get the following excperts). Here is the main claim Callender made:

It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten tor twelve years of age.

Additionally, in a later story, Callender mentions "five healthy mahogany-featured children frisking about the floor," presumably the offspring of Jefferson and Hemings.

According to the same report, (the summary is online here), in 1802, Hemings would have had two living children, a son Beverly, born in 1798, and a daughter Harriet, born in 1801. There is no son Thomas (although see here for more on the Thomas Woodson controversy. In a nutshell, the Woodson family has a longstanding oral tradition that their ancestor Thomas Woodson was the son Callender referred to -- a child of Hemings and Jefferson. DNA testing on Woodson's descendants did not match that of Jefferson's male relatives; if you accept the DNA evidence, then Jefferson was not Woodson's father. On the basis of this, the Research Committee came to a provisional conclusion that Hemings ws not Woodson's mother, which seems to me to be a fairly bizarre conclusion to reach. In the committee's own words:

The 1998 DNA study indicates that Thomas C. Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson’s son. Madison Hemings’s statement and the absence of any information linking Woodson to Monticello make it unlikely that he was the son of Sally Hemings. Based on all the information available to us at this time, the committee cannot establish that Thomas C. Woodson was the child of Sally Hemings—despite a compelling oral tradition that almost certainly dates to Woodson’s lifetime.

So, returning to Greenberg's claim, were the Jefferson scholars who did not have the benefit of DNA testing (which, again, only shows that a Jefferson -- not necessarily Thomas -- was the father of Hemings' children) right to discount the claims of Callender, whose stories had quite a bit of fiction in them (five children rather than two, plus the 12 year old "Tom" who was not recorded as Hemings' child and, it turned out, not related to Jefferson)? With the Jefferson case, at least we have a contemporaneous accusation based on the work of a journalist whose work and track record we can evaluate (Callender was right about Hamilton's sex scandal, for example). What are we to make of a work on Lincoln based not on contemporaneous evidence, but rather on a tendentious re-interpretation of documents that none of Lincoln's contemporaries regarded as anything out to the ordinary? And finally--and this goes for both Jefferson and Lincoln--how important is the sex life (real or imagined) of either man?

Posted by Ideofact at January 19, 2005 12:29 AM

How important? Depends how you make your living. I've heard of an Assistant Professor of history in the US who got into near-sacking trouble because, when discussing Lincoln in class, he corrected a student. The student said that Lincoln was a slave-owner: the Prof said no, perhaps he meant Washington or Jefferson; then the whole thing ran out of control. Beware.

Posted by: dearieme at January 19, 2005 09:36 AM

I am sometimes amused by claims like this.

Lincoln a homosexual? And no one alive during his lifetime ever recorded even a hint of suspicion on paper?

Remember, Lincoln was derided with a large number of epithets during his run for office, and his Presidency.

As far as the Jefferson case goes: How did they divine that since Jefferson was not Thomas Woodson's father, Sally Hemings could not have been his mother?

And I like your take on it: what is so important about the sex lives of these past Presidents?

Posted by: steve h at January 19, 2005 04:42 PM