For those who have not kept up on the fuss over Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974) and Barbara...



For those who have not kept up on the fuss over Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974) and Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings (1979), this 113-page polemic by the crusty and venerable former editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch will be an excellent introduction to the main points at issue; for those who have kept up, it will be an effective restatement of the case against Brodie and Chase-Riboud, but little more. Did Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave, have an illicit relationship that lasted nearly 40 years and resulted in the birth of five children, one of whom was sold off on the New Orleans slave market with Jefferson's knowledge? Dabney patiently reviews the available testimony, including that of the notorious James T. Callender, who started the rumor in the first place, and that of Jefferson's alleged offspring, collected after the Civil War by a hostile Republican editor. None of it is persuasive, says Dabney, who goes on to marvel at the credulity and clumsy psychologizing with which Brodie, followed by Chase-Riboud, nonetheless persuaded themselves and countless others that such a relationship had in fact existed. Hemings did have a number of light-skinned illegitimate children at Monticello, but the father or fathers were most likely one or both of Jefferson's nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr. None of this breaks new ground: Jefferson scholars have always recognized that the evidence for the Carr brothers' paternity was much stronger than the evidence for Jefferson's; and despite Brodie's grumblings about a protective ""Jefferson Establishment,"" and the widespread belief that both she and Chase-Riboud had the Great Man cornered, Dabney is really only compiling common-sense objections that should have ended the matter long ago. Unfortunately, however, Dabney's overreaching final verdict here is not just ""unproved,"" but ""unthinkable""--the sort of near-arrogant, courtly indignation that always arouses an iconoclastic backlash. So though this little book says all that needs to be said (once again), it probably won't be what it should be: the last word.

Pub Date: June 1, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Dodd, Mead

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1981