Press of Virginia Launches New Jeffersonian America Series
American Historians To Discuss Implications Of Jefferson-Hemings
16, 1999 -- Some
of the nation's foremost experts on Thomas Jefferson's era, race
and slavery will gather in Charlottesville March 5 and 6 to discuss
a wide range of issues that Jefferson's relationship with his slave
Sally Hemings has raised for historians and for Americans generally.
The conference will include
a public panel at the University of Virginia March 6 in conjunction
with a new book series on Jeffersonian America being launched by
the University Press of Virginia.
The publication last fall
of a DNA study indicating Jefferson was probably the father of at
least one child with Hemings has sparked extensive national debate
both about the way American history is presented and about contemporary
racial understanding. "But if there has been much heat, there has
been woefully little light," said Peter S. Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson
Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia
and co-organizer of the conference, which will result in a Jefferson-Hemings
book as part of the new series.
The conference on "Sally
Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture"
will include three Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and other leading
authorities among some 20 invited scholars. Their academic workshops
to discuss essay drafts will conclude with a public
panel discussion at U.Va. from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 6.
The panel, which will feature historians' remarks and audience questions,
will be held in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium and will be moderated
by Julian Bond, national chairman of the NAACP and U.Va. professor
An important element that
has emerged from the debate is that Hemings deserves historians'
attention not simply as a symbol but as an historical actor in her
own right, conference organizers said. They also hope that a better
historical understanding of early American life can grow from an
exploration of the social world of Monticello, and ultimately give
a richer understanding of who we are as a people than that which
grows from viewing Jefferson or other founders as mythical figures.
Among key participants will
be Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School, whose highly praised
1997 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,"
published by the University Press of Virginia, argued well before
the DNA results that most white historians had not taken a fair
and balanced look at other evidence suggesting the intimate relationship
between the author of the Declaration of Independence and his house
slave and had relied too heavily on the authority of previous scholars.
Gordon-Reed will be on the editorial board
of the new scholarly series.
Other conference participants
+ Reginald Butler, director
of U.Va.'s Carter G. Woodson Institute of Afro-American and African
Studies and author of a forthcoming study of free blacks in central
+ Dr. Eugene Foster, the
retired U.Va. pathology professor who coordinated the DNA tests
of Jefferson and Hemings descendants
+ Rhys Isaac of the College
of William and Mary, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Transformation
of Virginia, 1740-1790"
+ Winthrop Jordan of the
University of Mississippi, National Book Award-winning author of
the seminal book on early American race relations, "White Over Black:
American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812"
+ Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers
University, conference co-organizer and a leading authority on early
America whose works include "The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and
Values in Jefferson's Virginia"
+ Philip Morgan, editor of
the William and Mary Quarterly and an expert on slavery whose works
include the prize-winning "Slave Counterpoint"
+ Jack N. Rakove of Stanford
University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Original Meanings"
and other key works about America's founding
+ Lucia Stanton, Monticello
historian and an expert on Monticello slave life
+ Brenda Stevenson of UCLA,
a specialist on Virginia social history and author of the widely
hailed "Black and White Together"
+ Gordon S. Wood of Brown
University, the leading authority on the history of the early republic
and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Radicalism of the American
"Much more is at stake in
our approach to this relationship than the mere question of paternity,"
Onuf said. "We must ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept the
full implications of our complicated racial history, a history that
was powerfully shaped by the institution of slavery."
The DNA tests wouldn't have
been conducted in the first place if there hadn't already been strong
historical evidence for the possibility of sexual relationship,
he noted. Gordon-Reed's study shows that arguments from authority
and about "character" prevented historians from
weighing this existing evidence
in a balanced way. "We are asking historian colleagues to reconsider
their own assumptions and practices in the wake of the new consensus
about the likelihood of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship," Onuf
"'History' is the story historians
tell. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on how those stories
are constructed and the purposes they serve."
Among contemporary questions
the conference will consider:
+ How should Americans think
about our "founding fathers"?
+ To what extent does a vital
civic culture depend on the stature of Jefferson and other figures
in the national "pantheon"?
+ Has Jefferson become a
+ What happens to the pantheon
itself when we insist on the historical significance of neglected
men and women such as Hemings?
"The great contradiction
between Jefferson's life as a slaveholder and his libertarian professions
is already in plain view," Onuf said. "The great political principles
he articulated and that Americans cherish will not be compromised
by exploring and, perhaps to some extent explaining, this contradiction."
"Our leading goal is to find
out where we now stand -- as historians and engaged citizens --
with respect to the history and living legacy of slavery and race
relations in our national culture."
The conference is sponsored
by the U.Va. Department of History, the University Press of Virginia
and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, with support from
U.Va.'s College of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Public History,
and offices of the President and Provost.
additional information please contact the Office of University Relations
at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News
Office at (804) 924-7550.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856.