November 2, 1998

[W]ASHINGTON -- Of all the journalists in history, the one most heatedly maligned by historians is James Thomson Callender.

They excoriated him as "a traitorous and truculent scoundrel" and "the most outrageous and wretched scandalmonger of a scurrilous age." Dumas Malone, the Jefferson biographer, denounced "the vengeful pen of an unscrupulous man." The best ever said of Callender was that he was "drunken, vicious and depraved, albeit talented."

What did he do to provoke the wrath of historians? He broke the story in The Richmond Recorder on Sept. 1, 1802, that the President "has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves" and that "by this wench Sally, our president has had several children."

Now, two centuries later, thanks to the same DNA testing that forced William Jefferson Clinton to admit misleading his compatriots about an improper liaison, we learn that a strong likelihood exists that one of Sally Hemings's children was fathered by our third President. Why was this stunning new evidence released on the weekend before Impeachment Election Day?

The answer comes from Joseph J. Ellis, the historian who worked with the scientists to give the genetic story its current political spin: "Our heroes -- and especially Presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails."

Sound familiar? That's the White House party line: everybody did it. If Jefferson impregnated a young slave and refused to comment on Callender's story, what's the big deal about Clinton dallying with young women and lying under oath about it? The historian's spin: We are all Federalists; we are all sinners; so forget this impeachment stuff.

That was not all this prize-winning historian did for Clinton on election weekend. He was one of the signers of a full-page ad by "Historians in defense of the Constitution" who brazenly associated their colleges with a plea to drop impeachment proceedings "mangling the system" lest it "permanently disfigure" the Presidency.

The activist behind Lefty Historians to Save Clinton is my longtime pal Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedyite who loyally kept his eyes clenched shut during a thousand days of fiddle-faddling. He periodically gathers liberal historians for a "survey" to show Franklin Roosevelt on a par with Washington and Lincoln.

Give these partisans credit for throwing their mortarboards and objectivity in the air in political support of Clinton. Their timing was exquisite. But assuming what the gene-counters say is true, how should this affect our judgment of Jefferson?

Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed, who did the most scholarly study of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship (and is now helping Vernon Jordan on his autobiography), says, "If people had accepted [Callender's] story, [Jefferson] never would have become an icon . . . I don't think he would have been on Mount Rushmore or on the nickel."

But Americans were fully aware of Callender's charges when they re-elected Jefferson overwhelmingly in 1804. Despite the misgivings of Washington and Madison, Jefferson introduced partisanship to the U.S. in its formative decade. That was as historic as his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Was he hypocritical to espouse the Rights of Man while embracing slavery? Yes; others at the time were more principled. But there was this amelioration: The young Jefferson promised his dying wife he would not marry again. His wife's father was also the father of the slave Sally. Thus the 38-year affair was with his wife's half-sister, who may have shared many of her characteristics.

Was it lifelong love or heartless domination? No examination of the Y chromosome can tell us. But many Americans can take pride in sharing this Founder's genes as well as those of the attractive helpmeet Callender derogated as "this wench."

Let the liberal historians use their "twistifications," in Jefferson's term, to equate his silence with Clinton's sustained undermining of the oath. Others of us prefer to focus on the verification, after two centuries, of the reviled Callender's exclusive story. Unfortunately, the new evidence suggests Callender was partly mistaken in 1802. It was not until six years later that Jefferson fathered one of Sally's children.

Well, our scurrilous exemplar almost had it right.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Questions to consider while reading:

1. How does the title inform the piece?

2. What is the thesis and where is it?

3. What introductory technique(s) did the author use? Is the technique weaved through the essay? How?

4. Mark the transitions. Are they all mechanical?

5. Identify the methods of development.

6. What is the tone of the overall piece? Did you note any tone shifts? Where?

7. Comment on the conclusion. What can you learn from this method of closing?

8. After studying this piece, what, if anything, would you like to emulate as a writer?