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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Jefferson Hemmings Issue and Us

If you are wondering why Mr. Barger has chosen to post about Jefferson and Hemmings to this site, here’s the background. In a recent column in SLJ, http://ww I I talked about how we have changed our views of some historical figures, but not others. For example, I mentioned that we no longe retail the George Washington and the Cherry Tree story, and we do talk about Thomas Jefferson and his children by Sally Hemmings. Mr. Barger has devoted decades to researching that issue, and to challenging the assertion that DNA, or any other evidence, proves Jefferson had children by Hemmings. When he saw my article, he wrote to me to object. 

I suggested that he write a response that I would post here. Why? Clearly this is not a space for historians to debate evidence. But his objection is precisely what I encourage for the teaching of history. The Monticello site, for example, has a nice page outlining Mr. Barger’s views, other views, and the controversy over Jefferson and Hemmings. I think it would be great if a class that is studying DNA in biology and American History in Social Studies devoted some time to reviewing this debate.

I disagree with Mr. Barger that some PC agenda is at hand here. Rather we should open up all questions to inquiry and debate — we as adults, we as authors, we as parents, we as teachers. We should show students how history is constructed out of debates and arguments. For example, Nicholson Baker has just come out with a pacifist case against how the US and England behaved during World War II, I am very likely to disagree. But I think his view would make a perfect touchstone for a class on WW2.

Getting history right is showing that it is full of uncertainty and controversy. That does not mean we should throw up our hands. It does not mean that all views are equal. It does not mean that history is just opinion. But it does mean that we should invite the critics in, and make their voices part of the story we tell.

We want students to think, to sharpen their wits — not to dutifuly absorb any story — the one I like, Mr. Barger’s, Mr. Baker’s, or anyone else’s. If our students leave high school full of questions that they feel have not been resolved, we will have succeeded.


  1. Amy Bowllan says:

    Questions are certainly good for students – but there are also good for adults like myself who have loads of questions about my own ancestry.
    My Grand Aunt, who is now deceased, left a family tree and a news clipping about Supreme Court Justice, James Moore Wayne, (appointed by Andrew Jackson). Who from what I was told as a little girl, fathered 3 children with one of his slaves – one of those children happened to be my great, great,(?) grandmother. He taught Danny, my grandmother how to read and kept her in “the house” with him and his white children.
    Marc, from my limited research, I can only account for the number of slaves he owned (property) and his own children with his wife, Mary Johnston Wayne. But not Danny. I am convinced, there’s more to story and with more research, I will be able to answer these questions about another high profiled historical figure – Judge Wayne – so that my own children can understand a piece of their heritage.
    Thanks for writing about this.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    The more research on the whole question of “Slaves in the Family” — slave masters whose children with their slaves were known but not fully acknowledged — the better. I am sure there is much more mixture, voluntary or forced, in our past than we are usually taught.

  3. Amy Bowllan says:

    And because it is so difficult confirming the information, it’s – not knowing your roots – in my opinion, another form of bondage.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Amy’s powerful statement relates to something I have been thinking about more and more. As the discussion of race increasingly rests on DNA (Watson’s comments set off a flurry of articles on this), it is imperative that young people from every ethnic background study and understand both DNA and DNA research. This is a tool they will need to use, and feel comfortable with, for the rest of their lives. Why not have every class pick one student out of a hat, submit his or her info to one of those DNA tracing groups, then study, learn, debate what the resulating data tells us?