Thomas Jefferson’s 196 Year Secret

How DNA Proved a Journalist from 1802 Right

In antebellum Virginia, forced and consensual relationships between slave owners and slaves were “open secrets” – everyone knew it happened, but no one talked about it openly. That all changed in 1802 when journalist James Callender, the same man who publically exposed the affair of Alexander Hamilton, announced news of Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine Sally Hemings in a Richmond newspaper.

The claims that Jefferson had fathered six children with Hemings circulated widely, and were re-printed often throughout his presidency. Jefferson’s response was to ignore the rumors entirely, never uttering or writing one word that denied or accepted the charges. For 196 years, Jefferson’s secret was safe. While select historians speculated on his relationship with Hemings, Jefferson was remembered as third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence – not a slave owner who had sexual relations with his “property.”

In 1998, Jefferson’s secret had nowhere left to hide. By comparing the DNA of Sally Hemings descendants with that of Jefferson’s, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists were able to identify similar genes, proving that someone from the Jefferson family fathered her children. After the results were made public, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation conducted a thorough investigation of all scientific, written, and oral evidence. They agreed, Jefferson was the most likely father to the Hemings children.

So what else did this evidence say? It is rumored that their relationship began in Paris in the summer of 1787. She was 14, he 41 and the American Minister to France. Although Heming could have remained a free woman in France, she chose to return to Virginia with Jefferson, where she soon gave birth to her first child. Jefferson was at Monticello during the years her six children were conceived, and later freed the four who lived to adulthood. He never freed Sally Hemings.

To be fair, Jefferson never actually cheated. His only wife Martha Jefferson had already been dead for six years when he and Hemings began their affair, but he did hold a relationship with a very young girl, a girl he owned, possessed total power over, and forced to act as maid and seamstress to his family for decades. Their relationship is a sad account of the power men held over women in early America, and the lack of facts about his decade long marriage to Martha only compounds this fact.

When Jefferson met Martha she was a young, wealthy widow, and already had a son. Ironically, it is believed that she was half-sister to Sally Hemings, whose father was rumored to be her mother’s master, John Wayles. The mysteries surrounding the life of Martha Jefferson are best summed up by Kristie Smeltzer, Manager of Visitor Evaluation and Correspondence at Monticello, who said:

“I spend a lot of time at Monticello imagining Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson’s wife died after they’d been married only ten years. She was young, had already been widowed, and spent the majority of her marriage to Jefferson ill. Five of her children died during her short lifetime. There is no known portrait of her. No letters between Jefferson and his wife remain: the theory is that Jefferson destroyed all of their correspondence after she died. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, in a world where so much of the lives of Jefferson and his family members is documented, feels like a mystery.”

The memory of Martha Jefferson is little more than a whisper, and Sally Hemings left no accounts. There are no portraits of these women who might have been sisters, no words written that would give clue to their thoughts. Like many of their contemporaries, they lived in men’s shadows, left at the mercy of those in power around them. It’s no wonder Jefferson wanted his secrets kept.