BOSTON -- It may be that every generation gets the Thomas Jefferson it deserves.
The Jefferson of my childhood was the face on the nickel and Mount Rushmore, the signature on the Declaration of Independence. The Jefferson of today is one of DNA tests, sex, scandal, hypocrisy, the Jefferson between the William and the Clinton.
At last, scientists with DNA tests have proved that the third president of the United States had an "improper relationship" with Sally Hemings -- as if the relationship of master and slave were not improper enough. This founding father was the father of at least one of her children.
The old rumor, now a certainty, has opened up enough possibilities to tease contemporary minds and bewilder textbook writers.
To some, including two men writing in Nature, where the DNA conclusions are reported, this is scientific proof of his flawed humanity: "Our heroes -- and especially presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails."
To others, it's more testimony to the colorful history of an America that extends, like a rainbow, from the era when there were laws against miscegenation to the multicultural society of Tiger Woods. It was Jefferson after all who wrote that "amalgamation produces a degradation" while all the while "amalgamating."
When Tom met Sally
For still others, what matters is Tom and Sally. Was this a 38-year love affair between Jefferson and the half sister of his late wife, as romantic as it was doomed? As one visitor to Monticello asked, "If they were in love at that time, what could they do?"
What a stake we all seem to have in this history. And how much of it rests on what we can never know -- the feelings of the "concubine," the "wench," the "mistress," the "surrogate wife," the "companion." Choose one of the above.
It is Sally Hemings' story, not those of Jefferson's other 200 slaves, that has struck our imagination. We want to know, in some perverse way, whether it was -- how do I say this? -- consensual sex. Whether she was a slave or just a slave for love.
We are more interested in the personal than the political. More fascinated by the sex than the economics of relationships. And this too is part of our story.
As a slave owner, Jefferson could have gotten away with her murder. What is the possibility of a voluntary relationship, a love affair between property and property owner? Are we so riveted on private affairs that we have forgotten how much they are governed by impersonal forces? By the world outside?
Thomas Jefferson apparently allowed the children that he had with Sally Hemings to "escape." He freed one in his will. But he never gave Hemings the freedom to stay or leave.
In the world of our founding fathers, the mothers and wives had legal rights somewhere between slaves and free men. When these founders proclaimed that "all men are created equal," they meant men. Even John Adams ignored his wife's advice about granting "the ladies" rights or they would foment rebellion.
Free wives were not property, nor could they own property. Hemings was promised the freedom of her children, but free wives knew they would lose children in divorce. And when the slaves were emancipated, the men were granted the legal status of their former masters; the women were granted the second-class citizenship of their former mistresses.
Can we truly love in captivity? There is no evidence that Jefferson and Hemings were Tom and Sally, that they transcended master and slave to loving companions. Nothing, that is, beyond our own romantic images and a wish born out of contemporary dismay at the abuse of power in what should be love.
Questions of the heart
Today, we have come to believe in the connection between love and equality. Too much dependency, too much power makes us suspicious. How can a powerful man know if he is loved or just feared? Can a totally dependent woman know if she loves or fears?
In our contemporary scandals, we focus on the line between consensual sex and sexual harassment because of our own consensus: That love is based on mutuality.
There was no "free love" for Tom and Sally because there was no freedom. Even in this scandal-obsessed generation, the issue isn't that Thomas Jefferson had sex with Sally Hemings. It's that he owned her. All the rest is the stuff of DNA and novels.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 11/05/98