Jefferson, Lincoln And America

22 03 2010

By Timothy D. Naegele[1]

Three books are worth reading about Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and America: the “Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson,” which was edited by his great-granddaughter, Sarah N. Randolph[2]; “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald[3]; and “A History of the American People” by Paul M. Johnson.[4]

Jefferson was a giant, and the first book chronicles his extraordinary life through his letters and the letters of others, lovingly assembled and edited by Randolph.  At various points, the book is moving and tearful; elsewhere it is joyous and humorous. At all times, Jefferson’s seemingly-unlimited talents and brilliance, as well as his qualities as a decent human being and his erudition, shine forth.

The greats of American history come alive through their correspondence and Jefferson’s letters to George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton, to name just a few—along with the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  We witness firsthand the American Revolution, this nation’s founding, Jefferson’s years in Paris, the French Revolution, and his presidency.

Perhaps three things stand out most of all: the depth of his love for his family and the meticulous care with which he nurtured each family member; his love for Monticello and his desire to return there and be rid of the burdens of public office; and his relationship with Adams that, once breached, is finally restored at the end of their lives.

Remarkably, both presidents died on the 4th of July, 1826.  To paraphrase the words of Jefferson, two “Argonauts” sailed on, leaving this country forever changed and better because they had passed here.  “I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern,” Jefferson wrote to Adams in 1816.  From being Secretary of State and Vice President to two terms in the presidency, involving the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson never lost his love for or his belief in this great country.

He was a farmer, scholar, scientist, diplomat, a leader and a politician.  He was an accomplished horseman who was faithful to his belief in the need for at least two hours of exercise each day.  He was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather; and he loved music, birds and his gardens in Albemarle County, Virginia.  And he was an American.

In the second book, “Lincoln,” Donald writes brilliantly, and truly spans Lincoln’s life and gives one a sense of being there.  Perhaps most striking is how the tide of events carried Lincoln and changed his views (e.g., with respect to the slavery issue alone, from colonization to emancipation).  Also, Donald describes Lincoln as a master, very calculating politician, not unlike the politicians of today.  He was certainly not the folksy backwoods caricature that often is presented, although he used that to his advantage (e.g., to disarm opponents and garner support).

Despite being wonderfully researched, and spreading out the facts for all to see, one gets the sense that what truly made Lincoln “tick” was unknowable, from a deeply personal standpoint.  Having worked on Capitol Hill, my sense is that most senators are that way, possibly because they have been compromised again and again to reach high offices, and to be all things to all people.

Also, it was interesting how Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman “saved” Lincoln politically, while many of his other generals were either indecisive or utter buffoons.  Lincoln knew that changes were needed, but he was often hesitant to “rock the boat” and make them.  After his reelection in 1864, he seemed much more self-confident, which was cut short by his tragic death.  The reader is left to wonder what he might have accomplished during his second term.

When the book ends somewhat abruptly, one’s interest has been whetted.  It is only too bad that Donald did not do an appraisal of “what might have been.”  There is no question that Lincoln was brilliant, and he was really maturing as a political leader when he was killed.  What a remarkable four years might have followed.  Also, with essentially no protection at all, it is surprising that more leaders of that time were not killed by the John Wilkes Booths of this world.  Lincoln, God love him, was fearless and a true fatalist—or at least that is how Donald depicts him.

One is led to think about Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, who was so important in Lincoln’s life, and his thoughts about Lincoln’s life and death.  Also, Grant’s memoirs—which are said to be the finest done by an American president—are wonderful to read, along with books about Reconstruction, the diaries of Lincoln’s two male “secretaries,” etc.

Years ago, I read an article about how one could only understand the Southern “mentality” by appreciating how conquered peoples—or the vanquished—have been able to survive throughout history under the rule of the victors; and Donald’s book sets the scene for that to take place.  Also, one cannot help but be impressed by what a monumental struggle the Civil War represented, and the human carnage that it left as well as the deep scars that remained.  This book is truly fascinating, and Donald provides a brilliant “birds-eye view,” which is well worth reading.

The third book is “A History of the American People” by Johnson.  For all of us whose ancestors came from distant shores, or however we ended up as “Americans,” this book is rich in details, events and trends that have been woven together to describe our history and what it means to be an American.  This reader gained a new sense of pride in what America is and how our history has evolved, and where we are apt to go as a people in the future.

The United States is a melting pot, or a rainbow of different colors, religions and ethnicities, and therein lies its soul, strength, creativity and diversity, and yes tensions.  Johnson’s weaving of minute facts into a tapestry that is “us” deserves to be read and reflected on by all.  We may not agree with each and every observation or conclusion, but we cannot help to be impressed by the sweep of history that Johnson chronicles and how he methodically marshals the facts into a remarkable and coherent whole, of which each of us is an integral part.

I only hated to see this book end—which was true of the other two books as well—and I wished that that I could read about the next 100 years of this “grand experiment” called democracy, but those pages are being written in history with each passing day, month and year.  While it took the arrival of a new millennium for Johnson to share this monumental undertaking with us, let us hope that similar brilliant works are forthcoming.

© 2010, Timothy D. Naegele

[1] Timothy D. Naegele was counsel to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, and chief of staff to Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal recipient and former U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass), the first black senator since Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.  He practices law in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles with his firm, Timothy D. Naegele & Associates (  He has an undergraduate degree in economics from UCLA, as well as two law degrees from the School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California, Berkeley, and from Georgetown University.  He is a member of the District of Columbia and California bars.  He served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon, where he received the Joint Service Commendation Medal.  Mr. Naegele is an Independent politically; and he is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Law, and Who’s Who in Finance and Business. He has written extensively over the years.  See,

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See



One response

31 08 2011
Timothy D. Naegele

Jefferson Did Not Father Slave Sally Hemings’ Children

This is the conclusion of a commission of scholars, which is discussed in a Washington Times‘ article:

In a book due out Thursday, eminent scholars say it’s unlikely that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings‘ children, disputing a decade’s worth of conventional wisdom that the author of the Declaration of Independence sired offspring with one of his slaves.

. . .

Among [the scholars’] evidence:

• Claims that the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson started in Paris are unlikely because she was living with his daughters at their boarding school across the city at the time.

• The “Jefferson family” DNA used in the 1998 test came from descendants of his uncle, which the scholars said means any one of two dozen Jefferson men living in Virginia at the time Eston [Hemings] was conceived could have been the father.

• The 1802 rumors centered on Thomas Woodson, who was said to have been one of Hemings‘ children. But tests of three Woodson descendants failed to show a link to Jefferson family DNA. Also, no documentation supports claims he was Hemings‘ child.

• Oral tradition from Eston Hemings’ family initially said he was not the son of the president, but rather of an “uncle”—which the scholars think is a reference to Randolph Jefferson, the president’s brother, who would have been referred to as “uncle” by Jefferson’s daughters.


. . .

A later Wall Street Journal article entitled, “The Myth of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” has reached similar conclusions:

[Thomas Jefferson’s] . . . iconic status has diminished in recent years thanks to a widespread belief that he fathered a child by Sally Hemings, his enslaved servant.

In reality, the 1998 DNA tests alleged to prove this did not involve genetic material from Thomas Jefferson. All they established was that one of more than two dozen Jefferson males probably fathered Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston. And there is good reason to believe that at least seven Jefferson men (including the president) were at Monticello when Eston was conceived in the summer of 1807.

Allegations that the “oral history” of Sally’s descendants identified the president as the father of all of Sally’s children are also incorrect. Eston’s descendants repeatedly acknowledged—before and after the DNA tests—that as children they were told they were not descendants of Thomas Jefferson but rather of an “uncle.”

A more plausible candidate is Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph.” An 1847 oral history titled “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave” noted that when Randolph visited Monticello, he would “come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” Surviving letters establish that Randolph was invited to visit Monticello less than two weeks before the start of Eston’s likely conception window.

. . .

Advocates of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity make a number of seemingly compelling arguments that upon close inspection turn out to be either false or easily explained. One is that Sally and her children received “extraordinary privileges” at Monticello. Most Jefferson scholars acknowledge there is no evidence of that.

Jefferson did free Sally’s two youngest sons in his will. But he freed all but two of the sons and grandsons of Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, and Sally’s sons received the worst treatment among those freed. Unlike others, they received no land, house, tools or money. Sally herself was never legally freed.

The claim that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings began with James Thomson Callender, a notorious journalist and scandalmonger. Callender had demanded that Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800, appoint him postmaster of Richmond, Va.

. . .

When Jefferson refused to make the appointment, Callender promised “ten thousand fold vengeance” and wrote a series of articles denouncing Jefferson as a French agent and an atheist. When those charges had no effect, he insisted that the president had taken a young slave girl to be his “concubine” while in Paris during the late 1780s. At the time, Sally attended to Jefferson’s young daughters, who lived in a Catholic boarding school across town in Paris that had servants’ quarters. She didn’t live at the Jefferson residence.

Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton—political rivals of Jefferson’s at the time—rejected Callender’s charges, because they knew Jefferson’s character and had bitter personal experiences with Callender’s lies.

The case against Jefferson was the subject of a yearlong examination by a group of 13 distinguished scholars, including historians Robert Ferrell (Indiana University) and Forrest McDonald (University of Alabama), as well as political scientists Harvey Mansfield (Harvard) and Jean Yarbrough (Bowdoin). Save for a mild dissent by historian Paul Rahe (now at Hillsdale College) the group concluded that the story is probably false. This Scholars Commission, which I chaired, published its findings in book form late last year.

The legend of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves lives on in books, novels, films and the popular imagination. But proof—or even much verifiable evidence supporting it—is lacking.



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