Early Republic historian Annette Gordon-Reed was recently named a MacArthur Fellow, which awards $500,000 over five years for the pursuit of creative endeavors, no strings attached. Gordon-Reed, of course, is familiar to Early Republic historians and the general public for her work on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship and the Hemings family, discussed in a Gilder Lehrman lecture here. Gordon-Reed also hangs out in the blogosphere, as seen in the comments section of Historiann’s post.

Discussing the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is one of the most interesting parts of my Early U.S. survey classes. I present a scenario to my students in which I obscure the identities of the main historical figures involved in the relationship. (Jefferson becomes Employer X, Hemings becomes Mother Q, the Hemings children are Employees X, Y, and Z, etc.) I ask the students to determine whether Employer X fathered the three Employees whose mother worked in his factory. Students then evaluate the evidence for and against the paternity claim; I use the evidence on both sides that is summarized in Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, as well as the DNA results from the 1990s testing.

The in-class results are quite interesting. When provided with my “objective” scenario, students often conclude that Employer X is the father, citing the DNA evidence as definitive proof. When I reveal the actual historical figures, events, and evidence, however, some students back away from their certainty about the paternity. Why? Because it’s Jefferson. It’s a great exercise to demonstrate use of historical evidence, objectivity, and bias.

Interestingly, just this week, a class went in the other direction about the scenario. Once they knew that we were talking about Jefferson, some students reversed their doubts about the paternity claims. They said that if they had known that we were talking about slavery, then their answer would have been that Jefferson was the father. I don’t know if that means that attitudes about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship are changing or simply that these students were more aware of the historical circumstances of slavery.

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