Document Type

Book Chapter


In December 1998, DNA tests identified Thomas Jefferson as the father of at least one child with his black slave woman Sally Hemings. The discovery spawned numerous commentaries in the media on the significance of this finding and many large claims were made. Superficially what was at stake was the right of Hemings's descendants to claim Jefferson as an ancestor and to be buried in the Monticello family plot, a right long contested by some of Jefferson's white descendants who control the foundation and the graveyard. But there were many who saw the decision as symbolic not just of a past that the USA had erased, but a future towards which it might tend. For Lucian Truscott IV, a white Jeffersonian descendant who supports the Hemings's claim, the finding affirmed that this Country 'is a family not only in democratic theory, but in blood'? Allusions to the national family were quickly buttressed by parallels drawn between Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton, another president accused of extramarital liaisons, whose 1992 campaign was attended by rumours that he had fathered a black child. Lisa Jones, writing in the Village Voice, summed up the tenor of many commentaries by declaring 'I can't think of a more potent metaphor of American race relations at the millennium than the battle over graveyard space at Monticello'.