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Judge's Ancestry Is Called Into Question

July 11, 1991

Iam writing in response to the Highlights column in the July 4 View section.

(A Newsmakers) item stated that historical documents indicate that (new federal judge Timothy) Lewis is the great-great-great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. It is highly unlikely that Lewis is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson.

In the summer of 1988, just after completing the course of study for a master's degree in American history at the University of Virginia, I was a tour guide at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Tourists from around the world hurled questions at me concerning the affair and romance between Jefferson and his slave mistress. I will write here how I would usually respond to the inquisitive guests at the plantation.

There is no historical documentation whatsoever indicating that Jefferson had an affair with Hemmings. No one has a produced a letter or note from that period that even alludes to a friendship between the two of them.

The only contemporaneous written evidence comes in the form of tawdry poems and scurrilous articles written by Federalist editors during Jefferson's presidency; these political rivals conceived and published any lie or innuendo that would promote their own ideological agenda and defame Jefferson and his Republican followers.

Other circumstantial evidence suggests the unlikelihood of such an affair. In his will, Jefferson ordered that a handful of his 200-plus slaves be freed immediately upon his death or at some date thereafter; neither Hemmings nor her children were among this handful. People of color had no place in Jefferson's dream of an America populated strictly with Anglo-Saxon yeoman farmers and their families.

Apparently, Hemmings' children did resemble Jefferson. Most Jeffersonian scholars believe that these children were sired by Peter and/or Samuel Carr, Jefferson's nephews. It was most likely not their uncle, whose dream of a racially pure democracy seems so out of place in the multicultural mix that is America today.



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