Hemmings and Hawings about Jefferson

Steven Hayward

November 1, 1998

A gleeful President Clinton must have lit up–what, a cigar?–over the news that DNA tests have apparently confirmed the long-standing rumor that Thomas Jefferson did indeed father a child with his slave woman Sally Hemmings while he was president. But before the chattering classes are done parsing (Washington’s favorite term these days) the meaning of this revelation, a full scale case of cognitive dissonance may set in. This new evidence that Jefferson’s progeny may have been more numerous will have the ironic effect of making him even more of an orphan in American political thought.

Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic Party, has been increasingly out of favor with Democrats and liberal intellectuals. It is bad enough for our age that Jefferson was a tobacco farmer. Worse, because the author of those famous words in the Declaration of Independence–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”–held slaves, he has in recent years become Exhibit A in the liberal case for the hypocrisy of the American Founding. Because Jefferson and the American Founders did not immediately act on the clear implication of the Declaration of Independence and abolish slavery, liberals tediously argue that the Founders only thought whites were equal, and moreover only white men. (This is nonsense, but never mind.) Now, lo and behold, Jefferson turns out to be an equal opportunity oppressor: he exploited women, too. And don’t even ask about Jefferson’s views on homosexuality; they make the Christian Coalition sound like Barney Frank.

Now, if your name happens to be William Jefferson Clinton, you might want to be careful about how you associate yourself with your namesake, given your track record with women and tobacco. If Clinton distances himself from Jefferson, he loses the benefit of Jefferson’s having “defined deviancy down” for presidents. If he expresses disapproval for Jefferson, it leaves his own conduct still to be judged before an implicitly higher standard that he has clearly failed. But can he afford to embrace a man whom liberals hold in such low regard?

This is especially tricky since the most fervent constituency in the modern Democratic Party is black Americans. Black intellectuals (who have not hitherto placed much credence in DNA testing) are likely to intensify their denunciations of Jefferson and the American Founding. But ordinary blacks may react with a measure of street pride, seeing Jefferson as something of a one-man Rainbow Coalition.

Conservatives and Republicans, on the other hand, are likely to react with a measure of glee that would be misguided. Conservatives have never been fond of Jefferson precisely because he wrote “All men are created equal.” Conservatives think this was the root of the radical leveling egalitarianism that has plagued modern politics. Tell people they are equal, conservatives think, and pretty soon they’ll be treating you the same way. In other words, liberals don’t like Jefferson because they think he didn’t mean it, and conservatives don’t like him because they think he did.

But the conservatives are mistaken about Jefferson and the Founders on this point. Jefferson and the Founders were clear that the idea of equal individual rights must someday be extended to the slave population (had they insisted upon this in 1787, there would have been no nation, no Constitution–a practical consideration liberals conveniently forget). But they were just as clear that equal individual rights necessarily entail unequal outcomes in a free society. This is the real reason for the fury of the liberals against Jefferson and the Founders. Liberals understand that the Founders’ principled constitutional view of equal individual rights constitutes the greatest stumbling block to their goal of establishing group rights and privileges that are the hallmark of contemporary identity politics, and the back door to egalitarian redistributionism. Rather than engage in an argument they can’t win, liberals go on the ad hominem attack on Jefferson’s supposed hypocrisy.

At first glance the confirmation of the Jefferson-Hemmings liaison seems to provide fresh fuel for the liberal bonfire. But if American blacks can now point to Jefferson as one of their forebears, just what group will they belong to?

Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.