The Jefferson - Hemings ControversyHistory on trial Main Page

AboutTime LineEpisodesJefferson on Race & SlaveryResources

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy project was developed in collaboration with students in four courses at Lehigh University during the years 2009-2012. Playing off the provocative description by prominent Jefferson scholar Joseph J. Ellis, the core of JHC is a sixteen-part "miniseries," framed by a prologue and epilogue, that follows the controversy chronologically from its inception by James Thomson Callender in 1802 to the at-present climactic work on the Hemings family by Annette Gordon-Reed in 2008. The other major part of JHC is a corollary section called "Jefferson on Race and Slavery" that contains both primary and secondary works on this subject as a valuable point of reference for the significant issues raised by the controversy.

JHC is designed to serve as the basis for a full course on a subject not only of perennial interest and curiosity (and titillation) but also one that provides a fascinating opportunity to study the ever-changing construction of history on issues of high-level concern over a long period of time. As with such other examples in our larger History on Trial project as the Vietnam Wall Controversy and the Enola Gay Controversy, users of JHC are invited to follow the Jefferson-Hemings controversy step-by-step, to live in each moment, to experience events unfold in their present circumstance, rather than, as is usually the case in historical study, looking back on events from some capsuled retrospective vantage point.  Each episode of the miniseries is information-rich, providing resources for further study and a variety of student and scholarly voices to foster independent thinking and research as well as personal insight and interpretation.

Each miniseries episode contains the following eight sections:

  1. An Overview: an essay designed to introduce and survey the particular episode (sometimes accompanied by a different audio presentation for a different perspective) and position it in the series.
  2. Primary Sources: a bibliography, usually annotated to a high degree, of the works that play a central role in the events in a particular episode, designed to facilitate deeper understanding of those events.
  3. Secondary Sources: a bibliography, also usually annotated to a high degree, of works about the events in a particular episode, designed to foster further research into those events.
  4. Clippings: a collection of key passages from primary sources so that the central ideas in a particular episode are readily available in relatively full and pure form, and arranged in random fashion to break expected order and to encourage the new thinking that accompanies surprising juxtapositions.
  5. Commentary: a collection of key passages from secondary sources similarly designed to capture central ideas and trigger fresh thinking.
  6. Essays: work on topics related to a particular episode, to which subsequent users of the essays will add comments, so that present users of the site will always be in dialogue with past contributors, so that ideas will grow rather than freeze.
  7. Teaching: a prompt that teachers can use to think about introducing a class or a unit on a particular episode, and then any handouts or other resources that teachers might find useful.
  8. Images: a cluster of images of people, places, things relevant to a particular episode.

In addition to the major miniseries and "Jefferson on Race and Slavery" sections, JHC also contains such components as copies of the Richmond Recorder, in which the controversy originated and in which it was largely maintained, both a digital and print time line of important events in the controversy, a list of other representations of the controversy, links to potentially valuable supplemental resources, and a list of students who collaborated on the development of the project.

JHC will continue to grow as future students become involved and other users of the site provide valuable information and ideas. Suggestions, corrections, and additions gratefully accepted. Email Edward J. Gallagher at