Oct. 13, 2009
I had the great privilege of studying under Merrill Peterson at the University of Virginia in the 1960s. He was even then regarded as a great national scholar. His first book on Thomas JeffersonThe Jefferson Image in the American Mind-- won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1960. It was especially important to have a professor of Mr. Petersons stature to speak up for civil rights during that turbulent era. He challenged Mr. Jeffersons University to live out the full meaning of Jeffersons creed. No university in America, or in the world, has a clearer title to speak for that heritage in the present crisis than the University of Virginia, he said in a 1965 speech in Jeffersons Rotunda. But for great men like that, I would never have left my New York home for college in the still-segregated South.
The Washington Post carried a fine tribute to Mr. Peterson. But they appear to swallow whole the story of Jeffersons alleged liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings. He did not believe in any sexual connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said Petersons colleague, Paul Gaston. Gaston described Peterson as distancing himself from that controversy. The Post goes on to repeat the politically correct charge that the evidence became more persuasive in recent years.
What evidence is there and how persuasive is it? DNA testing has revealed that Sally Hemings descendants are related to a male Jefferson. The Jefferson-Hemings family ties are hardly new news. They were first broadcast by James Callender in 1802. Callender was a disappointed office seeker who had once maligned Adams and Hamilton while serving as a clerk in Jeffersons State Department. When President Jefferson would not reward the alcoholic Callender with a higher federal job, he turned his poison pen on his erstwhile sponsor. Soon afterward, he was found dead in a shallow river in Richmond. Apparently, he had fallen into the water in a drunken stupor. Jefferson was clearly wrong to employ such a man. And Abigail Adams was right to rebuke Jefferson. The adder he had cosseted had turned on him and bitten him. Fair enough.
That doesnt make Callenders scurrilous charges against Jefferson true. When DNA evidence combined with the calendar charge, the case was said to be proved. In this instance, investigators claimed the fact that Sally Hemings bore children slightly more than nine months after Thomas Jeffersons returning from service abroad or in New York or Philadelphia.
New England, which Jefferson visited only once, may provide the answer. Sea captains in those days also would enjoy great homecomings. Theyd be closeted away with family for several weeks upon their return to re-establish intimacy. Then, theyd set a pineapple outside above the front door. That pineapple was a signal to all in town to come for a social visit. Even today, we use the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality.
Monticello was probably no different. We can well imagine a grand homecoming for Thomas Jefferson to his mountain top retreat. And we can envision as well his younger brother, Randolph, joining in the welcoming festivities. If, after a few hours, Randolph made his way to the slave cabins to play his fiddleas he was well-known to do, it would hardly have invited undue attention. There would have been ample opportunities for the younger Mr. Jefferson to establish a liaison with Sally Hemings, or others along Mulberry Row.
When in latter years I have visited Monticello with my students, I have heard the docents there reciting the formulaic charge: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation has concluded, based on scientific evidence, that Jefferson fathered one or all of Sally Hemings children. Every time one says that in my presence, I have politely but firmly raised my voice: Where did these liaisons occur? The guide will invariably answer: Here, at Monticello. I pursue: Where at Monticello? And she answers: We dont know.
Its not an idle question. I learned from my days in the Coast Guard that it is the duty of all officers to know where the Captainthe Old Manis at all times. We had to know his physical whereabouts.
A plantation is not that different. If the alleged liaison occurred in Jeffersons private quarters, we have to imagine him doing this in a large house occupied by his daughter and her young children. Those entering or leaving his quarters would be visible to family, overseers, and other slaves at early and late hours. Is this likely?
Or might Jefferson have gone down to the slave cabins for his assignations? This is even less likely.
Jefferson was an older man when he returned to Monticello. Might the alleged liaison have occurred when Sally Hemings accompanied Jeffersons teenage daughter to Paris in the mid-1780s? If so, its curious that French intelligence serviceswho made spying on foreign diplomats a fine artcontain no reference to such a liaison.
Jeffersons defenders and biographers are not so emphatic in denying a possible French connection between the widowed Jefferson, in his vigorous forties, and Maria Cosway, the unhappy wife of an effeminate English portraitist.
A Jefferson-Cosway liaison, if it occurred, however, does not provide quite the frisson for the chattering classes as does a Master-Slave relationship. That would fit neatly into one of their favorite narratives. Questioned on camera about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, noted black historian John Hope Franklin answered: They all did it. Wasnt that the kind of blanket indictment that let lynching live in this country for a dishonorable century and more?
Wheres Arlen Specter when you need him? Specter, it will be recalled, famously voted a Scotch Verdict in the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999. A Scotch Verdict, according to Arlen, the famous Philadelphia lawyer, means simply: Not proven.
I would argue that Thomas Jefferson should get at least a Scotch Verdict. I further argue that the real reason that Science Magazine and some historians, notably Joseph Ellis, chose November 1998 to reveal their new evidence to inculpate Thomas Jefferson was their passion to exculpate William Jefferson Clinton. That was the month Bill Clinton was facing impeachment.
Tragically, too many liberals were willing to trash the name and the legacy of liberalisms earliest hero in order to get Bill Clinton out of one of the jams in which he periodically found himself.
Merrill Peterson was a noted liberal. Respected by all, he could not see spending his last years in the midst of this bitter controversy. Instead, he gave us memorable books on Clay, Webster, and Calhounthe Senates truly great triumvirateand on Abraham Lincoln.
Im indebted to Mr. Petersons scholarship in many ways. When I read in Lincoln in the American Mind that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had been invited to shake Henry Herndons hand because the 104-year old Hoosier had once shaken Lincolns hand, I put the book back on the shelf thinking it must have been nice for the man who had everything to be so excited about such a thing. Then, it dawned on me: I shook Gov. Rockefellers hand in 1971. And he shook hands with a man who shook hands in 1968 with Abraham Lincoln.
Now that hes gone to his reward, I can confess one thing about Mr. Petersons lecture style. His class memorably met early on Saturday morning. In those long-ago days, students at U.Va. occasionally stayed up late Friday nights meeting their social obligations. My place, right in the front row, was under Mr. Petersons placid gaze.
His voice was sweet, sonorous, and almost Swedish in its sing-song in-to-NA-tion. There were times, Ill admit, when my eyelids drooped and I slid down in my seat.
But ever after, I could say with pride: I studied under Merrill Peterson.