The Monticello Assn.'s 74-6 vote Sunday to bar the kin of Thomas Jefferson’s lover and slave, Sally Hemings, from membership brings to mind Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to belong to any club that would accept him. The association, which represents the documented descendants of America’s third president, prefers to hold Jefferson frozen in a historical time warp. Jefferson’s legacy--which includes being one of the nation’s greatest statesmen and a slave owner--can’t be selectively remembered.
The myth of the founding fathers as paragons of virtue has taken a beating over the years. Still, many were shocked by the 1998 publication, in the British journal Nature, of DNA analysis that led many scholars, including those who run the Monticello estate, to conclude that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ youngest son, Eston. Southern biographers such as Dumas Malone were aghast at the idea that their moral hero might have stooped to have sex with, of all people, a slave.
The true nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings will never be known, partly because it is inevitably viewed through the filter of modern concerns. Was Jefferson a ruthless predator abusing his power over a slave for several decades? Or was it an example of interracial love? In the movie “Jefferson in Paris,” Nick Nolte even portrayed him as a wimp mesmerized by Sally’s sexual powers.
If Jefferson did not quite match up to all of the enlightened ideals he espoused, the Monticello Assn.'s refusal to grant his black descendants a place at the table adds insult to injury.
Members of the association have hired public relations consultants and issued gag orders. The result has been endless bickering and hairsplitting, all toward the end of excluding relatives of African heritage. This behavior is particularly galling since Jefferson was the most radical and democratic of the founding fathers, at least in rhetoric.
What Hemings’ descendants really want is recognition. They should see no stigma in being rejected by the Monticello Assn.; the stigma belongs to the group that purports to honor Jefferson’s legacy but that instead shames it.