Did Thomas Jefferson Father Slave Sally Hemings' Son? 'Strong Evidence' Says Yes

Y Chromosome Clinches 200-Year-Old Paternity Canard

Did Thomas Jefferson Father Slave Sally Hemings' Son? 'Strong Evidence' Says Yes

By David N. Leff

If George Washington was the father of his country, then Thomas Jefferson rates as the new nation's benevolent uncle, at least. Besides drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is renowned for his two terms as president of the U.S. (1801-1809), and for founding the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

In his honor, Jefferson's head is sculpted among the Mount Rushmore busts of four great presidents, and adorns the five-cent coin, as well as the two-dollar bill.

But charges of dishonor have dogged his memory for the past two centuries: Did Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, father at least one child with his teen-age mulatto slave, Sally Hemings? Now DNA forensic analysis has seemingly confirmed the allegation.

The first to pillory the third president as Hemings' lover was an anti-Jefferson journalist, James Callendar, whose newspaper printed the accusation early in Jefferson's first term. It has ever since had a life of its own.

The forthcoming issue of Nature, dated Nov. 5, 1998, carries a brief article titled "Jefferson fathered slave's last child." Its lead author is retired professor of pathology Eugene Foster, formerly at the University of Virginia, and still a resident of Charlottesville. Co-authors include molecular geneticists at universities in Britain and the Netherlands. The University of Oxford's Chris Tyler-Smith is the article's final author.

This DNA exposi was featured last weekend on the front pages and editorial pages of major newspapers, and on TV screens. Nature had released the data six days before its publication date, in response to rumors that some in the media were poised to break the story prematurely.

Early this year, another paternity challenge by genomic detection involved exhuming the body of the celebrated French singer Yves Montand. As announced in June, DNA analysis ascertained that the child borne by the young woman who had brought the paternity suit was not Montand's love child.

In Jefferson's case, instead of exhumation, the panel of co-authors on Foster's article in Nature tracked the third president's chromosomal DNA to five of his paternal uncle Field Jefferson's known male descendants, and those of Sally Hemings. Their most informative genetic linkage tracked back to Hemings' fifth son, Eston Hemings Jefferson.

The researchers' genomic touchstone was the Y chromosome - the genetic determinant of maleness. The Y chromosome passes unchanged (except for rare mutations) from father to son.

Men-Only Y Chromosome Key To Paternity Puzzle

"What we used as the index for Thomas Jefferson's Y-chromosomal DNA," Foster told BioWorld Today, "was the DNA from the living descendants of his paternal uncle. And Sally's son Eston," he added, "was very, very likely the ancestor of 52-year-old John Jefferson, who lives in Norristown, Pa."

In their multi-descendant genome search, the co-authors used 19 sites of DNA sequence variation along the Y chromosome, plus 11 mircosatellites (tandem repeat DNA sequences) and one mini-satellite.

They found that the male line descended from the president's uncle, and had the exact same variance - shared the same Y chromosome - passed down the generations from Eston. And John Jefferson's Y chromosome haplotype matched four out of uncle Field's five haplotypes.

"The frequency of the Jefferson haplotype," Foster's article stated, "is less than one percent, a result that is at least 100 times more likely if the president was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson than if someone unrelated was the father."

Foster also pointed out that the haplotype "describes the particular chromosomal variance that's present in a particular person. But it does not prove that John Jefferson is the descendant of Thomas Jefferson."

Foster said the case is "not open-and-shut, because this is all based on the assumption that Thomas Jefferson was legitimate, and that his uncle Field and his father Peter had the same father. But we don't know that. We believe it. I think most people believe it, but in fact we don't know it for sure."

Foster recalled from genealogical history that Sally's son Eston "passed into white society in Madison, Wis., and apparently his family has married only whites since."

An accompanying commentary titled "Founding father," by molecular geneticist Eric Lander, who directs the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass., adduced "strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children, specifically Eston Hemings Jefferson."

A Tale Of Two Impeachments

Landers also put forward parallels between Thomas Jefferson's hidden liaison with Sally Hemings and "upcoming impeachment hearings on [President] William Jefferson Clinton's sexual indiscretions, in which DNA testing has also played a role."

His editorial noted that "both offered evasive denials to the charges. In 1805, the Massachusetts legislature staged a mock impeachment trial of Jefferson, citing ... the accusations about Sally Hemings."

Landers concluded, "Nor did the scandal affect [Thomas] Jefferson's popularity. He won the 1804 election by a landslide, and his abiding position was that his private life was nobody else's business." n

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