DNA as Historical Evidence: a Special Combined Class Tues 2/22

UVA Magazine composite portrait of JeffersonOur reading schedule is slightly altered for next week because we’ve got a special event on Tuesday the 22nd. We will combine with the students in Dr. Daron Barnard’s Biology 203 Genetics class, and we will meet in ST-102 (same time, 10 – 11:15) for a joint session about genetic evidence for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children. It will be team-taught: I will be talking about the historical and methodological issues in this fascinating case, and Dr. Barnard will help us navigate the DNA evidence’s results and what it tells us about genetic linkages. We’ll probably be there for the first half hour or 40 minutes and then return to our classroom to continue our discussion.

For Tuesday’s class, read the following:

1) re-read Williams, pp. 72-78

2) Eugene Foster et al, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” Nature Vol 396, 5 November 1998

3) “James Callendar’s Reports,” published in 1802, handed out in class (PDF here – sorry for the poor-quality reproduction). These are transcripts of the original primary sources that all Jefferson-Hemings scholars have to come back to. What do you make of them? What conclusions would you (or WOULDN’T you) draw from them?

4) Annette Gordon-Reed, “‘The Memories of a Few Negroes’: Rescuing America’s Future at Monticello,” in Lewis & Onuf, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture (1999).

Gordon-Reed isĀ  the author of two outstandingly researched books on this topic. The first, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was published in 1998, before the DNA evidence was made public. In it she argued (from the documentary evidence alone) that it was likely that Hemings and Jefferson had a sexual relationship and that he was the father of at least some of her children. The second won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which Publisher’s Weekly called “a scholar’s book: serious, thick, complex” – which also revealed that Sally Hemings was a biological half-sister to Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha.

Just after the DNA evidence was published in Nature, a scholarly conference was held to consider the evidence and its significance, and this is Gordon-Reed’s paper from that conference, reflecting on what DNA evidence adds to the historical controversy and how it impacted her and other Jefferson-Hemings scholars, and what that new evidence can–and cannot–tell us.

5) Maura Singleton, “Anatomy of a Mystery: The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy in the Post-DNA Era,” UVA Magazine Fall 2007, from which I have borrowed the image.

What we will discuss is how all these various scholars made sense of the evidence available to them – what their analytical and interpretive decisions were, their logic, conclusiveness, level of certainty – in other words, their method for discerning and asserting historical truth.

In 1986, B. R. Burg wrote a scathing article for Phylon, reviewing bias and rhetoric in how historians had treated Jefferson’s alleged affair with Hemings over time. He noted that historians used words like “illicit affair” or “indiscretion” when they talked about Jefferson (or Hamilton’s, or other white men’s) extramarital activity with white women (even with married white women), but chose words like “vulgar liaison” to refer to the same kind of activity with the enslaved Sally Hemings. In the accounts of the historians he analyzed, white women had “families” or “children,” while Hemings had a “brood.” Burg argues that this was, in part, a product of the racial politics of the times in which these historians wrote – a charge that should give us plenty to talk about in class.

The readings and evidence should also give you plenty of material to use in your journal entries this week. You should also begin to think about what your research topic will be for our second unit.