- Historic Sites
Tom And Sally And Frank And Me
A Jefferson descendant on luck, ancestry, and the meaning of the DNA findings
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
And so we are left with this question: What do DNA findings such as these actually tell us? Do they simply tell us how lucky or unlucky we are?
I mean, what exactly separates me and Frank and our sisters or our mother and father or our grandparents from Julian, the descendant of Monticello who wrote the accompanying piece, or from Julia Jefferson Westerinen, one of those descendants of Sally’s son Eston, or from the late Robert Cooley, the descendant of Thomas Woodson, another of Sally’s sons, or, for that matter, from the descendants of any of the eighty-three slaves who were owned by Mr. Jefferson at Monticello on the day when he wrote these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”?
DNA? If you have this genetic marker, you’re lucky, but if you have that one, you’re not? Is that what separates us?
No. Prejudice separates us, and it always has. That’s why the recent DNA evidence about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, while fascinating and historically significant, will probably end up one day as a footnote to a story that is much, much larger than whether or not they had children, and which of their children’s descendants is or isn’t a “real” Jefferson.
This story isn’t about DNA, and it’s not about luck. It’s about slavery, and it’s about the rank prejudice that has contaminated our land with a racial fallout that has had a very long and dispiriting half-life. The fact that the major player in the story is also a major player in the founding of this country has made the story all the more fascinating but at the same time very, very difficult for the historians and the defenders of Jefferson’s legacy within my extended family, which is to say within the Monticello Association. For reasons that I think are clear to all of us now, they have sought to cling to a rather peculiar version of Mr. Jefferson. While hobbled by Mr. Jefferson’s conflicted ideas about slavery, their version of him has held on to the fiction that he was unlike the other men who owned plantations and slaves, unlike even Mr. Jefferson’s own wife’s father, who had fathered Sally Hemings, Martha’s half-sister. Now to the horror of the historians and Jefferson worshipers, DNA has reached around and bitten them in the ass. That we’ve finally had to discover the truth about this man in a test tube is the most dispiriting thing of all, for deep inside I think most of us have known the truth all along while remaining either unable or unwilling to admit it.
And so what are we to take away from all of this? I’m afraid that what I have to say may sound simplistic and perhaps redundant, but it bears repeating. Frank and I were taught (and so were our sisters, and so have we taught our children) that we were not better than the kids around us simply because we were lucky enough to have white skin. That’s what Mr. Jefferson was writing about in the Declaration of Independence: that if we’re all equal, then luck has nothing to do with if. While he failed to carry out this marvelous ideal in his own life, we have learned much from Mr. Jefferson, and we have much to thank him for, but in the end his most profound teaching may have been that, by his actions, we have learned he was just a man.