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Postmodernism and the Jefferson-Hemmings Myth

Postmodernism and the Jefferson-Hemmings Myth

6 Mins
June 23, 2010

Editor's Note: The following commentary is a brief and edited excerpt from the concurring opinion that law professor and constitutional scholar David N. Mayer released in conjunction with the April 12 publication of a report by the Scholars Commission on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Matter. To read the full report of the commission, visit http://www.tjheritage.org/scholars.html . To read the full version of Mayer's essay, visit http://www.ashbrook.org/articles/mayer-hemings.html .)

I concur in the conclusion of the Scholars Commission: the allegation that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings is "by no means proven." In fact, my own view is that the allegation is not at all plausible. But I am writing my own separate report principally to put the Jefferson-Hemings controversy in a broader context. As I see it, belief in the paternity allegation—which is, to me, quite literally a myth—is a symptom of a recent, disturbing trend in the history profession.

Belief in the Hemmings paternity allegation—which is, to me, quite literally a myth—is a symptom of a recent, disturbing trend in the history profession.

I freely admit that I am an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, but my admiration is focused on his ideas, principally his ideas about government, not on Jefferson the man. For more than twenty-five years—since I first began my formal studies of Jefferson's political and constitutional thought—I have been fascinated with Jefferson's philosophy, and especially his ideas about limits on governmental power. Although I necessarily learned a great deal about the life and times of Thomas Jefferson while doing research on his thought, I have always found the substance of Jefferson's ideas far more interesting than the circumstances of his life. Most important, I believe that Jefferson's place in American history properly derives from these ideas. Genealogy is irrelevant: the true "children" of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His true legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government. The attributes of Jefferson the man—his character and the circumstances of his life—are essentially irrelevant to that legacy.

In this sense, I regard Jefferson's personal life as neither interesting nor important. And thus what troubles me most about the controversy over Jefferson's alleged relationship with Sally Hemings is that it has overshadowed Jefferson's true significance. I do not join with those who regard the Hemings paternity allegation as a per se libel of Jefferson's character; but I regret that the allegation has been picked up by a number of partisans—some of them detractors of Jefferson, others genuine admirers—who use the story of a relationship with Sally Hemings to transform Jefferson into either a villain or a hero, in ways that advance their own agendas.

I agreed to serve on the Scholars Commission, therefore, because I had become increasingly concerned about the way both the admirers and the detractors of Jefferson were willing to use the Hemings story for their own purposes without regard to historical truth or to objective, well-recognized standards of good historical scholarship. I was particularly troubled when many eminent scholars readily abandoned professional standards and seized upon the 1998 DNA study published in Nature as "proof" of the paternity allegation, blithely ignoring or deliberately misrepresenting the findings of that study, again to advance their own partisan agendas.


I believe that the rise in higher education of three related phenomena are chiefly responsible for such unscholarly behavior. These phenomena are: the "political correctness" movement, multiculturalism, and post-modernism.

The term "political correctness" was coined in the early 1990s, in the midst of a controversy over perceived threats to academic freedom on America's college and university campuses. Originally an approving phrase used by those on the Leninist Left to denote someone who steadfastly toed the party line, "politically correct" or "P.C." was later used ironically by critics of the Left—first by conservatives such as Dinesh D'Souza and then by many old-school liberals who sought to defend campus freedoms against "P.C." censors. This P.C. movement advocates many causes, including campus speech codes designed to protect certain groups of students from "oppressive" or "insensitive" remarks, and new curricula emphasizing racial and ethnic distinctions.

Perhaps the most important attribute of the "politically correct" movement has been its emphasis on race, class, and sex in scholarship. It has pictured these phenomena as permeating culture and language, creating subtle structures that irresistibly shape people's lives and thought. In particular, the P.C. movement has pictured the culture and language of upper-class white males as permeating American culture (and Western culture generally) and as oppressing the lives and minds of all who are not upper-class white males. Through its opposition to this perceived oppression, the P.C. movement overlaps with the two other modern movements in higher education: multiculturalism and postmodernism.

Multiculturalism began as a well-intentioned movement to diversify education—and the teaching of history, in particular—by calling attention to the experiences of women, blacks, American Indians, immigrants, and members of other groups whose stories had been largely neglected in textbooks. But what began as a movement on behalf of greater inclusiveness quickly devolved into a radical "particularist" movement that, like P.C., set group against group. In an essay called "Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures," Diane Ravitch wrote that particularists "have no interest in extending or revising American culture; indeed, they deny that a common culture exists. Particularists reject any accommodation among groups, any interactions that blur the distinct lines between them. The brand of history that they espouse is one in which everyone is either a descendant of victims or oppressors."

In their efforts to deny the existence of shared values among groups, advocates of political correctness and extreme multiculturalism challenge even the Enlightenment values of rationality and humanism, claiming that these too were nothing but the values of upper-class white males. By doing so, they ally themselves with a movement that has been even more pervasive among American intellectuals in recent decades, postmodernism. Postmodernist theory attempts to "deconstruct," or expose, the underlying subjectivity and indeterminacy of everything we assume we know. Among historians, postmodernism has meant an assault on objectivity: a rejection of traditional standards for discovering facts, weighing evidence, and interpreting events. Traditional analytic and empirical methods are rejected in favor of history as mere "narrative." As one theorist put it: "The past is not discovered or found; it is created or represented by the historian as text." History, to the postmodernists, is no more factual or objective than any other discipline; "there are no grounds to be found in the historical record itself for preferring one way of construing its meaning over another"—interpretation is inevitably "socially constructed" (See Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry, Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law [1997]).

Thus, postmodernists and radical multiculturalists argue that white male culture has achieved domination over other cultures through values such as rationality, humanism, and universality—values that the multiculturalists claim are not objective but only tools for oppressing other people by persuading them of their inferiority. These views lead to "disturbing distortions in scholarship and public discourse," argue Farber and Sherry. (It is noteworthy that Farber and Sherry are not conservatives; they are mainstream liberal law professors who are alarmed at the threats posed to law and legal scholarship by radical multiculturalist movements in the legal academy, such as Critical Legal Studies, radical feminism, and Critical Race Theory.) "Because they reject objectivity as a norm, the radicals are content to rely on personal stories as a basis for formulating views of social problems. These stories are often atypical or distorted by self-interest, yet any criticism of the stories is inevitably seen as a personal attack on the storyteller," they observe. Indeed, "because radical multiculturalists refuse to separate the speaker from the message, they can become sidetracked from discussing the merits of the message itself into bitter disputes about the speaker's authenticity and [his] right to speak on behalf of an oppressed group. Criticisms of radical multiculturalism are seen as pandering to the power structure if they come from women or minorities, or as sexist and racist if they come from white men." Not only objectivity but also civility—the basic prerequisite for genuine dialogue—has thus been jeopardized.

The widespread acceptance of the Jefferson-Hemings myth as historical fact illustrates the workings of the three phenomena described above. As I show more fully in my critique of Annette Gordon-Reed's book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) (see Part V.A. in my concurring opinion), many proponents of the Jefferson paternity accusation have unleashed an inquisition that casts a pall over contemporary Jefferson scholarship, with the result that scholars feel pressured to accept the myth as truth. White male scholars in particular fear that by questioning the myth they will be called racially "insensitive," if not racist. Sadly, the Jefferson case is not unique. As a result of political correctness, multiculturalism, and postmodernism, the historical profession in America today has lost many of the standards by which evidence can be objectively weighed and evaluated in the search for historical truth. As a result, ironically, historiography is becoming precisely what its enemies charge: the vehicle of politicized presuppositions.

David N. Mayer
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David N. Mayer