What do Jefferson and Clinton have in common (besides randyness)?

Answer: they're both protected by a group of credulous historians.


Christopher Hitchens
November 18, 1998 9:44PM (UTC)

The annals of our poor and common species are, in part, also the annals of credulity. May I share with you my choicest quotation from the judicious and evenhanded world of last year's book reviews? It is the following:

"Why would Jefferson risk his presidency and his historical reputation by continuing a liaison with Sally Hemings for at least five years after Callender's exposé appeared?"

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This exquisite piece of academic obfuscation -- I employ the term "obfuscation" to denote those who discard Occam and who create new woods and new trees where none grew before -- appeared in the March 10, 1997, New Republic. The author, Sean Wilentz, was reviewing Annette Gordon-Reed's brilliant study "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy." The stylistic coincidence is hilarious enough. Between January and August of this year, Clinton partisans like Wilentz used up acres of everybody's time in the same way, as if to suggest that patriarchs and presidents wouldn't gamble other people's chips on their own gratification. (Also to suggest that, if they did, it was the fault of disreputable journalists like Callender for pointing it out.) On the cusp of the November elections, Wilentz resurfaced and sponsored a quickie historians' petition, rallying the profession to the side of President Clinton. The most eminent "signer" of this declaration was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was not known to me before as a historian of any kind, but who presumably squeezed in as a composer of profiles in Democratic opportunism. No sooner was the election a thing of the past -- history, you might say -- than Schlesinger appeared in full fig at the White House to receive, along with the more energetic and deserving Fats Domino, the National Humanities Medal.

And we dare to condescend to our forebears, asking how they could have been so easily duped.

No doubt there are historians at work already, proving that Jefferson's deathbed promise to his wife -- that he would never remarry -- was "legally accurate." (After all, he never did remarry, and she never exactly stipulated that he should not become a father again.) Thomas Paine knew the feeling. He thought Jefferson had undertaken -- had promised him -- not to allow slavery in the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Picture, if you will, his disillusionment when he found out that the grim vessels were plying the old trade in the old way. Picture, too, the agony suffered by a forgotten slave in western Kentucky, chopped to death in a meat-house by Jefferson's nephews, Lilburn and Isham Lewis. Robert Penn Warren wrote a fine poem about that event in 1953, called "Brother to Dragons." I waited all week to see if the DNA-generated article would allude to this, too. Not a squeak. Heredity can be bannered when crime and sexual promiscuity meet. But only, apparently, when we ask for whom the bell curves.

Here is Joseph Ellis, author of <a target="_top" href""American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson." Until the high priests of DNA convinced him, he could look at all the living evidence of a slave-holder's carnality and pretend that he was confronted with a puzzle. Now, confronted with "real" science, he reflects:

"President William Jefferson Clinton also has a vested interest in this revelation. He launched his first-time inaugural parade at Monticello and hosted at the White House a special screening of the Ken Burns documentary on Jefferson. I happened to be present at the reception afterward when Clinton asked the assembled historical consultants: 'Do you think the story of a sexual liaison with Sally Hemings is true?' When one of the historians responded in the negative, a look of disappointment streaked across the President's face."

"Historical consultant" is an excellent neologism that could have been coined for the Schlesinger school. Start with "He didn't do it." Then shift effortlessly into "They all do it. Why, even at Camelot we all owned slaves and screwed them every which way. Mind you, we inherited them from the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration."

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Perhaps you think I jest. Perhaps you think I jest in poor taste. Perhaps, then, you did not read Arthur Miller's essay, "Salem Revisited," in the Oct. 15 New York Times:

"In Salem, witch-hunting ministers had the solemn duty to examine women's bodies for signs of 'Devil's Marks' ... I thought of this wonderfully holy exercise when Congress went pawing through Kenneth Starr's fiercely exact report. Then there is the color element. Clinton, according to Toni Morrison, is our first black President, the first to come from a broken home, the alcoholic mother, the under-the-bridge shadows of our ranking systems."

It was of course only Clinton's body that was examined, because of a secular lawsuit brought by a powerless woman against a powerful man. It was DNA that was scrutinized, not Satanic paw-prints. Counsel -- at vast public expense -- was available to the male defendant throughout. He seems to have managed to keep the witches and bitches at bay. Any other obvious "parallels"? Well, at least now we understood how to recognize blackness. It may be known, according to our senior anti-McCarthyite, by the tell-tale signs of the broken home, the alcoholic mother and the open-air sleepout. This is also a way of deciphering white trash, at least when it appears in printed form. Why not say, just for good measure, that the slave-owning serial flogger, sex maniac and kinsman to ax-murderers was "our first black president"? His claim, in the literal sense, is somewhat superior. And he has descendants, who like us are of no "race," to outlive any stain. Yet I sense no rush of progressive intellectuals in this direction. "The anatomy of man," said Freidrich Engels, "is the key to anatomy of the ape." Once one has heard the contemporary gibberings of Arthur Miller and the chest-poundings of Clinton, it becomes easy to see how an open secret in Charlottesville remained closeted for so long.


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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