A professor at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson thinks anti-Jefferson scholars are trying to suck up to their department chairs.
University of Virginia law school professor Bob Turner made the remark while disputing Thomas Jefferson’s alleged rape of his slave, Sally Hemings, in a conversation with The Daily Caller News Foundation. Anti-Jefferson scholars and activists have pushed the Jefferson-rapist narrative heavily in the 21st century, with the vandalism of a Jefferson statue with the phrase “racist & rapist” constituting the most recent allegation.
“I think there were a lot of people well to the left of center who stayed in graduate school to avoid Vietnam and wound up chairing departments over the year,” Turner told TheDCNF. “If you want to get promoted [as a professor], you’ve got to keep your department chair happy and right now, a lot of the department chairs aren’t very happy with Jefferson.”
The law professor traced the origins of the “Jefferson is a rapist” narrative all the way back to 18th century political journalist and pamphlet writer James Thompson Callendar, whom he argued tried to smear Jefferson when the Founding Father refused to appoint Callendar as postmaster of Richmond. Turner asserts that Callendar first branded Jefferson a French agent and then an atheist, neither of which stuck, before claiming the former president had an affair with Hemings. Callendar claimed Jefferson and Hemings produced a son named “Tom,” though six DNA tests refuted the allegation and Jefferson’s political adversaries Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also dismissed them.
Turner explained that the narrative resurfaced when New York Law School — not to be confused with New York University Law School — professor Annette Gordon-Reed published “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” alleging an affair between Hemings and Jefferson. However, Turner and over a dozen other Jefferson scholars investigated the charge, as detailed in “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission,” and, with only one slight outlier, their opinions that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings’ children ranged from “serious skepticism” to a belief that the claim was “almost certainly false.”
“Somebody would have seen something,” the professor told TheDCNF, describing the purported relationship. “None of it fits together. A psychiatrist today might well diagnose Jefferson with a personality order, he was so focused on his reputation. He wanted people to respect him…recklessness doesn’t fit with his personality.”
The Scholars Commission pointed out transcription errors, including Gordon-Reed’s alteration of Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s “disbelief” in the Jefferson-Hemings affair to “belief” and Coolidge’s assertion that Jefferson barred Hemings from entering Jefferson’s chambers when the Founding Father was present to his permission of her entry.
Turner dismissed a 1998 Nature report titled “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child,” saying “the scientists who were involved in that did not even know that Jefferson had a brother.” The professor also pointed out that, when the child most often purported to be Jefferson and Hemings’ was conceived, the former president was 64 years old and in poor health.
Insofar as the allegation that Jefferson was a racist, printed by the vandal on the UVA statue earlier in April, the UVA law professor termed the former president a “reluctant racist.”
“You have to say that he was a racist but you have to say that everyone in that era was a racist,” Turner told TheDCNF. “They didn’t know any better.”
He did not “think anyone did more than Thomas Jefferson to oppose slavery,” he also said noting that authors of the 13th Amendment freeing slaves used Jefferson’s language “to honor his struggle against slavery.”
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