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I can’t claim to shed any light on the forensics of an issue which is as much a Rorschach blot as it is anything else. For me, the question the [Thomas] Jefferson/[Sally] Hemings story brings up is not whether he fathered her children, but why did American historians kick and scream so hard for so long that it couldn’t possibly be true? Of course it could be true. Whether Jefferson exercised his option or not, he could have sex with Sally Hemings whenever he wanted. The matter of her consent was irrelevant, because she could not refuse.

Because that’s what slavery was.

When you have legal authority to own another person, and not only another person, but their issue, and their issue’s issue, and the right to sell your ownership to anyone else, who does the actual inseminating to produce the issue is a lesser matter. Even the word rape, increasingly used by a new generation of historians to refer to sex between slave owners and slaves, seems inadequate to describe the violation entailed. No one denies that, whoever sired them, Sally Hemings’s children, as well as any children her children might have, and their children after them, belonged to [Thomas Jefferson] or whomever he might have sold or willed them to, the same way he might have done with horses.


No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not. If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case], we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof. On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime. After all, you can do with your property as you like.

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.
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