Two History Things

1. If you want to make an argument against Thomas Jefferson not being the father of some or all of Sally Hemings’ children, “Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate” does not cut it. Sixty-four year old men have sex, with women quite a bit younger than them, all the time. And 64-year-old men rape women easily, too. But that aside, in order to discount the “Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Heming’s children” theory, it is not enough to cry “It could have been ANY Jefferson male.” Because here’s the thing–Hemings’ children believed they were Jefferson’s children. Her grandchildren believed they were Jefferson’s grandchildren. Their contemporaries also believed this to be true. So, this isn’t a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had no enslaved children and these contemporary historians are attempting to overturn that.” This is a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had enslaved children, historians and white family members attempted to build a case for why that should not be acknowledged or believed, and now historians are giving credibility once again to the original claims.”

Why should we not believe the Hemings family? Make that case, if it is to be made. Why would the Hemings family lie about this or how is it possible that they’ve been mistaken about it all this time? And how do you know they’re wrong? If someone says “Thomas Jefferson is my dad” and then almost 200 years later, we find that his family shares DNA characteristics with the Jefferson family, we have to cut the bullshit with Occam’s Razor, not try to nominate any other Jefferson for fatherhood.

Plus, any other Jeffferson’s willingness to socialize in the slave cabins at night doesn’t tell us anything. Sally was a house slave and it’s more than likely her duties kept her in the house until late at night. Depending on what she was doing with/for the children, she may have even slept in the house. You know, where Thomas Jefferson was. Plus, Campbell says nothing about which set of slave cabins Randolph Jefferson hung out in. Along Mulberry Row? Back with the field hands?

There’s skepticism and then there’s ridiculous. “It could have been any Jefferson” without addressing why the Hemingses would say otherwise is ridiculous.

2. Speaking of ridiculousness, sometimes I’m in favor of it. So, this is a case in which I am in disagreement with the marvelous Gordon Belt (who you should be following on Twitter, because it’s all history goodness all the time). Ghost stories are great ways to get people interested in history. And ghost hunting is the main way we have of telling and passing along the very ghost stories that get people interested in history. Ghost stories are also important because they are important clues for telling us what people need from the past and what their misgivings and misconceptions about the past are.

Yes, it’s folklore more than it’s history and, in the case of ghost hunters, it’s folklore as performance. But would you dissuade a museum from having a storyteller come in and tell stories about Davy Crockett? I doubt it. So why the discomfort with this form of folklore? When the “ghost” of Davy Crockett was at the Tennessee State Museum telling stories, he was able to clear up a lot of misconceptions–in truth, he wanted to be called David, that he didn’t wear a coonskin cap.This presents similar opportunities.

Folklore is the close sibling of history and an understanding of one can help you understand the other. Historical places are often seen as “dead” places, places where nothing happens any more. But ghost hunts return museums and cultural heritage sites to the living as places where things do happen, where new experiences can be had, where new folklore is accumulated.

How is that a bad thing, even if it doesn’t serve obvious historical purposes?

I’m biased, because I write ghost stories and I sit at the TSLA or scouring old books to make sure that my ghost stories have a good historical foundation. But ghost stories are some of our most intimate connections to history, even if they are often the least-historically accurate.

It seems unfortunate for historians to be wigged out by that rather than seeing it as an opportunity.

4 thoughts on “Two History Things

  1. This is totally off the subject (well, ok, not *totally*), but my dad told me the other day that his wife’s uncle recently compiled a big loose-leaf binder of their family history and gave a copy to his favored nieces and nephews. There was a ton of stuff in there, one of which was a land transfer in Franklin County that was witnessed by Davy Crockett.

    So that was cool.

  2. Not that my opinion matters that much but I can’t believe how much collective energy has gone into the Sally Hemmings question over the years. Especially to “disprove” it. I know this isn’t scientific at all but I believe in the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings in the same way that I believe in the Loch Ness Monster and other unprovables. I like the idea of this genius man being in love and being tortured by the forbidden nature of it. It seems to be true somehow. And yes, that’s sloppy and not how I practice history or science. But it is how I practice poetry and religion.

  3. Unless it’s for the prestige of claiming one is a descendent of one of the founding fathers of the country, why does anyone care with whom Thomas Jefferson OR Sally Hemmings slept?

  4. I don’t think it’s about prestige, BBJ, not directly. For the Hemings descendants, it’s about saying, ‘hey, this is part of our national history, and you can’t deny it any more than you can deny our existence.’ It’s all tied in with this notion of our ‘founding fathers’ having some of their most pertinent flaws whitewashed, which is part of a deification process that didn’t occur when they were alive. Seriously, it was like a huge scandal in Jefferson’s day, him having a family with one of his slaves. It also speaks directly to one of our nation’s crippling birth defects; all this rhetoric about ‘liberty’ and ‘all men being created equal’ in a nation that was building its wealth through chattel slavery.

    I think the flip side argument is similarly motivated. There are many persons who prefer to downplay or erase the role slavery played in this country’s development, and denying the very personal complexity of Jefferson’s relationship with slavery and his own slaves serves that end.

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