Imagine it’s 1801 and the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, faces electronic media scrutiny and DNA analysis. Consider these facts and what might have been...
This is all true...
Thomas Jefferson had barely taken office as the third President of the United States when rumors of his questionable private life began to circulate in the Capitol. The source of these sordid tales was a former associate of Jefferson, a political opportunist named James Thomson Callender.
Callender had published a book in the summer of 1800, a virulent attack against Jefferson’s Federalist enemies entitled The Prospect Before Us which was written with considerable assistance from Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence said, “Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effect. They inform the thinking part of the nation.”
But Jefferson found himself backing away from Callender when the diatribe went to press. It was more hysterical than factual, and Jefferson felt Callender’s efforts might prove to be counterproductive.
The Federalists were furious. More than furious. Determined to stop anti-Federalist attacks by any means at their disposal. Callender was accused of treasonous behavior and charged under the Sedition Act. A bloodthirsty jury found him guilty, levied a heavy fine and threw him in a Richmond jail.
The imprisoned Callender found himself playing the role of martyr and, in fact, his incarceration no doubt helped Jefferson’s election in the fall of 1800. Callender smelled opportunity.
The newly elected president immediately pardoned Callender but was wary of the man as well. Jefferson increasingly feared the dark side of his former friend and worried how Callender might attempt to exploit his new-found popularity.
Jefferson arranged for Callender’s fine to be paid with privately collected funds from political friends, but Callender wanted more. Now he was demanding a political appointment (postmaster at Richmond) and Jefferson balked. Jefferson would not be blackmailed, although he was wide open to it. Jefferson had a secret and Callender was about to reveal it.
Her name was Sally Hemmings and she was the President of the United States’ private property. She was a slave, 30 years younger than Jefferson, and the mother to four of his children.
Anyone who had ever seen the children could not help but notice the striking resemblance to the president. It was a relationship that the widowed Jefferson seemed incapable of stopping, even as rumors of his forbidden romance circulated locally. Now Callender went to the national media...
And what might have been (in a 21st Century world)?
The story first broke on the Drudge Report. Callender appeared on the Fox News show with his allegations and by the following morning every other news program in the country was carrying the scandalous tale. Jefferson’s supporters appeared in his behalf, angrily denying the allegations. Jefferson’s close friend Meriwether Lewis called Callender’s expose’ “filth, blasphemy, lies and pollution.” Allies of the president lashed back at Callender with sordid tales of their own about the scandalmonger. But Jefferson remained silent on the issue.
Further details of the Hemmings Affair became public. Lurid stories of her trip to France with Mr. Jefferson in 1796 became common knowledge to the American people. Former friends and employees of the president came forth on national television to describe the remarkable physical similarities of the Hemmings children to Jefferson. Geraldo revealed that the oldest boy’s name was Tom.
And now CNN produced John Walker. Once a neighboring farmer in Virginia, Walker came forth with new allegations. He claimed that years earlier while he was away from the plantation, Jefferson had, not once, but twice attempted to seduce his own wife. She had apparently rebuffed Jefferson’s amorous advances. Still Walker demanded an apology from Jefferson. All the networks offered the president air time to state his case. He refused.
Federalists on Capitol Hill demanded that Jefferson make a full disclosure and legislators began to speak of the president’s “fitness to hold office.” In the South, pro-slavery politicians likened the president’s relationship with Ms. Hemmings to having a relationship with a monkey. “Is this not like being with an animal?”
Finally the embattled Jefferson released a statement through his press secretary. It said simply:
“You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single, I offered love to a handsome lady (Mrs. Walker). I acknowledge its incorrectness. It is the only one of the allegations founded in truth against me.”
The media and the federalists went wild. “Incorrect”? screamed the opposition. He seduces a man’s wife? His friend’s wife? And he calls it “incorrect’? Where is the contrition? The regret?
And what of the Hemmings matter? On MSNBC Abigail Adams, wife of the former president, now raised the issue of DNA testing. “If Mr. Jefferson is truly not the father of these fair-skinned slaves, then let him prove it.”
The ball was now in the president’s court. A week passed. Two weeks. The government was in gridlock. Jefferson was eager to press forward with other matters which he deemed to be far more important to the republic and the future of the United Sates than the details of his personal life. An opportunity had come to buy a vast portion of the North American continent west of the Mississippi River from the French. But he needed congressional approval. And such approval was doubtful at a time like this. The offer came and went.
Finally, faced with impeachment, Jefferson addressed the nation. It was true, he said, that he had sought comfort and love with a young woman who resided at his Monticello plantation. And yes, DNA analysis would confirm that the children in question were his own. He asked for the country’s understanding and urged that its government return to “the work of the people.”
But the federalists smelled blood and seven weeks later, hounded to the point of physical and emotional collapse by the relentless eye of the media, Thomas Jefferson resigned the office of president and returned home to his Virginia farm. He died there just a year later, some say of a broken heart.
A year later, the former Vice President, Aaron Burr, led a successful coup against the government, splitting the country in two. And in 1812, Great Britain reclaimed the fragmented remnants of what was once the United States in a war that lasted less than seven weeks. The Experiment in Democracy had failed.
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Both can be found at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in San Juan County and can be reached at email@example.com.)