Joseph Ellis, author of the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson(W. W. Norton), found himself in the middle of a media firestorm last year when DNA tests blew open America's most famous paternity case.
Ellis's biography had suggested that the evidence for a Jefferson-Hemings liaison was inconclusive, and that, in the absence of more compelling scientific proof, such a relationship must be regarded as unlikely. Then, geneticists concluded that our third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence had, in all probability, fathered at least one child with his young slave. In light of the new scientific data, Ellis revised his opinion and published essays in Nature,where he coauthored an article with geneticist Eric S. Lander, breaking the news of the scientific findings, and in U.S. News & World Report."As one who had suggested that we could not know the truth, I felt a special obligation to take the lead when the DNA evidence finally made the truth available," he observed. He was quoted extensively in the New York Timesand was interviewed on CBS This Morning, MSNBC, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and the Today Show. Georgemagazine featured Ellis's photo and quoted him in an article titled "Sex Lives and Presidents."
Ellis, Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke, these media
dialogues provided dynamic public forums for lessons on Jefferson's place
in American history. Eager to evaluate the public's response to the new
Jefferson, Ellis's students made trips to poll visitors
The controversial subject has kept Ellis penning numerous essays for journals and books. "Jefferson Post DNA" was published in the distinguished William and Mary Quarterlyearly this year. He also wrote the featured review of the recent CBS miniseries on the Sally Hemings story for TV Guide.Viking Press will include work by Ellis in a collection of essays to be published as part of a major new exhibition on Jefferson at the Library of Congress. Ellis has, in addition, written an extensive new entry on Thomas Jefferson for Encyclopedia Britannica's new edition, and one, as well, on John Adams. He also participated in a panel discussion on biography at the Boston Public Library, covered by C-SPAN last spring, and was a guest lecturer at Union College, Middlebury College, and the Virginia Historical Society in the fall.
Despite continuing demands from the news media for his expertise on Jefferson, Ellis, who has published six books, including Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams(W. W. Norton), has moved ahead on new projects. He was recently featured on the History Channel in a program about the American Revolution and teaches highly popular courses on Revolutionary America as well as on Vietnam. Due out this fall is Ellis's Founding Brothers(Knopf), which he describes as "an examination of the entire Revolutionary generation."