Summary of Washington Post Article

When ‘Thomas Met Sally’ Is No Way to See History

William Branigin wrote an article appearing in the February 20, 2000 issue of the Washington Post. This article discussed the CBS miniseries “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal”.

The article starts out asking two questions, was the relationship possible and was it fact? The answers were yes and no respectively. The author of the article calls the miniseries unsettling because the affair between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is so far from certain. He goes on to say that the miniseries tells us more of what the thinking of today is than what went on in the late 1700’s. This drama is historical revisionism, one that is driven by the entertainment industry. Other cases of this practice are cited such as Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and Disney’s “Pochantas”.

The difference with this story is that there is scientific evidence and research that is presented as “proving” the tale. These presentations of proof, which have been accepted by many at face value, of course make for a much better story.

Branigin explains the origin of the story. James Callender, whom Jefferson refused to name as postmaster in Richmond, accuses the president in a newspaper article of fathering “several children,” including a son called Tom, by his wench Sally. There was also oral history handed down by Heming’s descendants. The DNA study in 1998 supported some of that oral history, showing that one of at least eight Jefferson males was probably the father of Heming’s last child. This same study also called into question the oral history of the descendants of Thomas Woodson; the one referred to by Callender in his article. (The study found no relationship between ANY Jefferson and Woodson.)

Dianne Swann-Wright said this is a Hollywood production, not history. Swann-Wright was head of a research committee that produced a report from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation that concluded there was “a high probability” that Jefferson fathered Eston and “most likely” the five other Hemings children. The report eliminated Woodson from consideration and even expressed doubt that Woodson was the biological son of Sally Hemings.

Herbert Barger, a Jefferson family historian disagrees with the foundation’s view. He argues that the likeliest suspect for Eston’s father is Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother. Randolph was a fun loving farmer who was 12 years younger than Thomas, was single at the time of Eston’s conception and had been invited to Monticello nine months before Eston’s birth.

An anthropologist, Dave Murray, who directs research at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit group that evaluates reporting of scientific findings, says that political correctness weighs in on this issue. He states that a Jefferson-Hemings affair is on the verge of becoming official history, and that your motives are suspect if you don’t buy this. Murray warns, “It’s dangerous to be less than scrupulous about what we do and don’t know.”

Branigin thinks there is a story to be told about Tom and Sally. It’s just that we don’t know what that story is and we may never know.

Washington Post
When ‘Thomas Met Sally’ Is No Way to See History
By William Branigin
Sunday, February 20, 2000; Page B01

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