Jefferson, Patriarchy, Paternity, and the Self-Evident Truth

This opinion appeared in the Chicago Tribune on November 29, 1998.

Recent speculation about Thomas Jefferson's paternity record has provoked a range of useful observations about our country's family values, racial hypocrisies, and common future. Even the quality of academic scholarship has been challenged by the DNA evidence that at least some of the children born to Sally Hemings were fathered by her slave master and older brother-in-law (husband of her deceased half sister.) The almost invisible, but still essential background against which the Hemings-Jefferson drama finds definition in the realm identified by feminists as "the patriarchal system."

Questions of paternity are crucial in patriarchal systems. Of all the historical and social references, oddments, and complaints attached to the ideas of the patriarchy, only one condition is absolutely required--the ability to trace and establish paternity. Even more significantly, until our newest scientific test, patriarchy's strength has rested on its ability not only to claim but to deny paternity. To be sure, patriarchal conditions have often served women no less than men as a means of legitimating fatherhood. The marriage system which binds one (sometimes more than one) woman to one man insures not only that the wife's children "belong" to the husband, but that the husband, in turn, owes subsistence and protection to the woman and her children. Children who fall out of the system are illegitimate because they are deniable. Without the protection/isolation of women within a legalized patriarchal system, their children would be fatherless, illegal, and without rights. Patriarchy is the system, then, which traces socially that which could not always be traced biologically.

In a world where men hold economic control, the patriarchal system can be cruel. It may support women and men and their "legitimate" children, but in sexual politics, men enjoyed a so-called double standard which allowed them to roam beyond the marriage, all the while limiting their accountability. Extra marital paternity could be denied or traced only at the expense of stigmatizing both the "other" woman and her children. The social and financial claims borne by the "extra" woman--who would have few resources, at any rate--reinforced the deniability of the man.

When this gendered story is played out against the racial story in America, the stakes become even higher. Especially in times of slavery, one form of submission--women gain support from men by agreeing to limit their sexual activity--reinforced another--black women had no reasonable means to agree or to disagree, and male slaves were denied any paternity rights, at all. Slave owners often viewed themselves as paternal figures, guarding their chosen women and tending their slaves, for their own good. The story of Sally Hemings and her children crystallize these connections all too well.

Late twentieth-century America is still cleaning up the trash and debris from a decaying patriarchal system. Arguments for social equality and economic opportunity become especially cogent and clear, as we see the advances of our new genetic science threatening to deflect us from the real issues. Establishing DNA markers to trace paternity back through generations may be an interesting game, but theses tools are only needed when the ethical and social tools of responsibility and justice have not been employed. Our pride in the "advancement of science" is, quite frankly, an embarrassment; it only shows how deeply our sexism and racism have run. It is time for a larger view of the family to take to stage-time to reset the priorities, time to take care of all women's children. Need we know--or care--who the father is? Legitimacy--understood as the right to equal opportunity for education, health, food, meaningful work-belongs to all of us and to all of our children.

In recent days, my colleague at Mount Holyoke College, Joseph Ellis, has energetically participated in many public debates surrounding the liaison between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As the recipient of the National Book award for his insightful biography of Jefferson and his many intriguing intellectual puzzles, The American Sphinx, Joe has had the unusual privilege first of first denying and then affirming Jefferson's paternity. Certainly Joe would not limit the riddle of the American Sphinx to the question of which children Jefferson fathered, however titillating the ambiguities of paternal deniability. But I wonder of Joe would also extend that riddle to the legacy of Sally Hemings. After all, a sphinx in an ungendered, mysterious, yet wise figure, and perhaps Sally Hemings--the child/wife/slave/mistress of Thomas Jefferson--knew best that the duties and right of motherhood and the needs of her children were the self-evident truths which Jefferson, History and the historians would not always be able to deny.