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In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal Hardcover – June 9, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 43 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This provocative, ill-organized defense brief tries to exculpate Thomas Jefferson from growing evidence that he fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings. An attorney, Hyland (also a member of the board of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society) marshals all the available evidence, weak as well as strong, to argue that others were more likely than the squire of Monticello to have fathered Hemings's children. Biographers, he charges, have œmangled professional standards in seizing upon the emotionally charged DNA results that indicate a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings's descendants. The trouble is that a legal brief is not a historical argument. Hyland has done his own research and interviewed other researchers, but he fails to see the historical context of the evidence or to provide a balanced assessment of the known facts. In this respect, he's ill-equipped to take on great contemporary experts of the matter, especially award-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, whose work he terms a œconcocted myth. Surely not the last word on the matter, regrettably it's not dependable word either. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“This is a well-written book that draws on new discoveries and previously unnoted details about Thomas Jefferson's life and relationships. Hyland peels back the rumors to rehabilitate one of our most cherished presidents. In the process, the author challenges others who have sloppily tried to fit a round peg in a square hole.” ―Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen

“The case [Hyland] makes is persuasive and in my view well presented, and it's a historically important project.” ―Peter Rodman, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and author of Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush

“[Hyland's] approach to the alleged Jefferson-Hemings relationship is ingenious and he has made what I judge to be an irrefutable case.” ―Professor Forrest McDonald, History Professor (Emeritus), University of Alabama, and National Endowment for the Humanities, 16th Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, author of The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson and The American Presidency: An Intellectual History

“Hyland's well-written book is a breath of fresh air.… In the courtroom where undocumented speculation and hearsay are not allowed, Jefferson will receive a fair trial.” ―W. McKenzie Wallenborn, M.D., president of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and Clinical Professor (Ret.), University of Virginia School of Medicine

“As a practicing civil litigator and former prosecutor, Hyland casts a critical lawyer's eye over the two-hundred-year old question of whether Thomas Jefferson had a romantic, sexual liaison with his servant Sally Hemings. Using what would be acceptable in a court of law as his standard for accuracy, Hyland painstakingly separates revisionist ideology from historical accuracy. In page after page, Hyland dissects just how evidence was manipulated to reach a predetermined yet utterly false verdict of guilty. Thankfully, Hyland's book once and for all---in a convincingly unemotional fashion---clearly establishes that not Thomas Jefferson, but rather his brother Randolph or one of Randolph's sons, was the father of Sally Hemings's children.” ―John Works Jr., former president of the Monticello Association

“A well-written and provocative lawyer's brief challenging the popular story that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by his household slave Sally Hemings. Hyland has assembled a mass of forensic evidence to refute the saga much favored by revisionist historians and novelists, who were building on the testimonies of Jefferson's political enemies from his own lifetime. Like the litigation attorney he is, Hyland argues a formidable case before a jury---readers trying to reach a verdict.” ―Peter Grose, former executive editor at The New York Times and Foreign Affairs and author of Operation Rollback: America's Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain

“Hyland's book is well researched with material from many sources. It is a powerful insight.… As assistant to Dr. Foster, the DNA study coordinator, I can reveal that the DNA proved only that the Hemings descendant had Jefferson DNA that supported their oral family claim that they descended from a ‘Jefferson uncle,' meaning Randolph Jefferson.” ―Herbert Barger, Jefferson family historian


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1ST edition (June 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312561008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312561000
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #424,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My interest in Jefferson began not in history class, but with the recent miniseries by HBO entitled "John Adams." The mild-mannered, opinionated but deeply romantic man from Monticello fascinated me so much I started reading everything I could get my hands on about him. The more I learned about his personal likes and dislikes, his habits, his virtues and failings, and relationship with his wife and daughters, the more implausible it seemed that he would conduct a sexual affair with a much younger servant. But like most "doubters," I remained quiet, convinced the incriminating evidence against him would condemn most of my arguments.

I find it ironic, therefore, that this book would not only mention "John Adams" as evidence of how the Hemings scandal has been absorbed by popular culture (indeed, one of the closing scenes finds Jefferson on his deathbed, with a weeping Sally at his side) but also go about debunking many myths represented in most history books as "fact." Everyone knows Sally Hemings was Martha Jefferson's half sister, right? To my astonishment, there is no actual evidence! It was inferred by later biographers hoping to give a reason for his potential interest, along with the belief that Sally resembled Martha.

Discovering that led me to wonder what else history books were throwing at us without conclusive evidence. Having finished reading this volume, the answer is "a lot." All the points it raises are valid. Many of them have been argued against before, but certain evidence has been all but ignored that deserves to be brought to the forefront (namely, Jefferson's horrendous health, including frequent, crippling migraines, which anyone would admit would hamper sexual shenanigans).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Hyland makes a decent case that the lines of argument writers like Annette Gordon-Reed and Fawn Brodie use to "prove" Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings are somewhat flawed. Some writers indeed come to Jefferson with preconceived hatchets to bury, and they proceed to bury them.

Hyland marshals what evidence there is to attack the evidence that ties Jefferson to Hemings, which is: (1) Jefferson was around when Hemings got pregnant, (2) people accused them of having a relationship, (3) DNA proves one of Hemings's children has male Jefferson DNA. (4) Thus, Jefferson MUST have fathered ALL of Hemings's children.

But this, logically, is an argument that does not necessarily follow. It may, but it may not. (1) Other Jeffersons were around when Hemings got pregnant, and maybe Hemings wasn't always around Monticello when Jefferson was; (2) accusations don't necessarily prove anything (as another supposed African American descendant of Jefferson, Thomas Woodson, has no Jefferson DNA); (3) just because the DNA is Jefferson DNA, doesn't mean it's THOMAS Jefferson DNA; (4) just because Eston Hemings has Jefferson DNA doesn't mean that Sally's other children were fathered by a Jefferson.

That said, a convincing case is not made that Jefferson DID NOT have a relationship Hemings. (It is hard to prove a negative, anyway.) This book serves to knock Gordon-Reed's agenda-driven research down a tad, but it doesn't invalidate it. And, the argument that Jefferson would not have had sex with her because of his principles or ill-health is, well, a hard sell. History tells us principled people and unhealthy people oftentimes lose their principles and find renewed strength all the time when sex is dangled before them.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mr. Hyland's book provides a well-written, logical, and technically supported review of an issue which has been abused by the politically-correct crowd and those intent on rewriting history...namely, his alleged paternity of his slave's children as initially published in 1802 by a political muckraker. The issue grew legs after a highly controversial and misleading publication of the dna test and the possibility of Jefferson's paternity and spawned several books and articles denigrating Jefferson's character, motivations, and value to our country, all the while using a misleading application of said dna test, hear-say, innuendo and imagination as the mainstay of their assumptions.

Hyland brings witnesses for and against the defendant, and discusses their significance to the case; their testimony being their written statements (or books) on the subject of Jefferson's character and actions. Most interesting and surprising are those allied against Jefferson. There is an apparent concerted effort and collusion between an eminent Jeffersonian history scholar at the university Jefferson founded, together with individuals at the foundation responsible for the maintenance of Jefferson's home and other noted history and law professors, all intent on denigrating Jefferson's legacy and his effect on our nation for reasons not quite clear.

There is some allusion to an effort at moral equivalency with the timing of the Jefferson/Hemings dna release coinciding with the Clinton impeachment. Then there are those who are apparently intent on making Jefferson the posterboy for racial inequality, mysogeny, and miscegenation and making up history, or dismissing documented history, to effect their ends.
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