- Historic Sites
Children Of Monticello
In Virginia, a quarrel is going on about who can be allowed to lie in a family graveyard. Because the family is Thomas Jefferson’s, the outcome of the dispute is important to every American.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Between invitations issued by the association and me, about 50 Hemings descendants and family members attended the annual reunion in 2000, along with more than 100 Association members and their families. The scene at the Saturday-evening reception at Monticello was remarkably different from that of the year before. There were no television cameras and only a few print journalists. Members and guests circulated through the house and grounds, chatting together and gathering near several bars that served, appropriately, wine from France and the state of Virginia. (Jefferson was among the first enthusiasts of French wine in this country, setting an example by having his slaves plant a small vineyard of his own along the south-facing hillside just below Mulberry Row.) I looked across the lawn and saw a perfectly ordinary Monticello reunion.
Michie Tavern, just down the road from Monticello, has been the site of recent annual reunion dinners. In 1999 most members wolfed down a piece of fried chicken and a few bites of salad and then bolted for the door. Last year’s dinner was relaxed, friendly, and long. It made me wonder what lay in store for the annual business meeting the next day. I had expected that the publication of the Memorial Foundation report would set off a flurry of countervailing arguments, but I was wrong. Only one member of the Monticello Association protested. John Works held a closed, invitation-only press conference to announce the formation of a separate foundation of his own, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which was founded, I gathered from the reports of those who were allowed entry (I was excluded along with several Hemings cousins), to take issue with the report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. Works had signed on to his foundation board several Jefferson scholars as well as a coterie of what can only be called anti-Hemings activists, and he had invited several of them to attend the business meeting of the Monticello Association.
My uncle James and the executive committee asked two of the authors of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation report to address us on how its findings had been reached. When Dianne Swann-Wright and Cinder Stanton, historians from the Memorial Foundation, finished speaking, they found themselves under a barrage of attacks—not from members of the Association but by invitees from Works’s brand-new foundation. At least one of his guests accused Stanton of being a “liar,” and the rhetoric ratcheted upward from there. Finally my uncle James called the proceedings to a close. From the back of the banquet room, one of the Association members rose to thank the Foundation historians for their hard work and their excellent presentation of their findings. There was an extended round of applause from members and guests, making the unstated point that the hostility expressed to Stanton and SwannWright was shared by few in the Association.
My uncle James then introduced White McKenzie Wallenborn, M.D., the only member of the Memorial Foundation committee to file a minority report in opposition to the full committee’s report. Wallenborn took issue with the Foundation report almost across the board, nibbling away at its edges for nearly an hour, until finally he took on Dan Jordan, the Foundation’s president, and his “suppression” of Wallenborn’s minority report. Concluding his attack, Wallenborn acknowledged that Jordan had agreed to include his minority report along with the majority’s and post it on the Foundation’s Web site. Reassuring the members that he and Jordan were “still friends,” Wallenborn then said, “Oh, by the way, let me read you one little comment. Now this is Dan Jordan talking to Ken Burns, just a few years before the DNA study: ‘There are oral traditions that are in conflict. There are many blacks today who believe they are the descendants of this possible union of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. On the other hand, there is another oral tradition that would say that the paternity rested with others than Thomas Jefferson. And our belief is, as one of the contemporaries of Jefferson said, it would be morally impossible for that relationship to have occurred.’”
At the close of Wallenborn’s remarks, I rose to ask a question: “You quoted Dan Jordan, and I think you quoted him approvingly, as saying that Jefferson’s fathering Sally’s children would have been a moral impossibility. Would it also have been a moral impossibility for Mr. Jefferson to have been a slave owner, for example?”
Wallenborn began stammering, citing the fact that George Washington and James Madison were also slave owners. I said my question wasn’t about others; it was about Jefferson.
Wallenborn replied: “Jefferson was probably the best friend that the American slaves had at that time.” He ran through a litany of Jefferson’s equivocations about slavery over his lifetime, and I rose again to ask him, “Between the two, having an affair with a slave and owning slaves, which is the biggest and worst moral impossibility?”
“I couldn’t answer that.”
“Well, you just did,” I said.