Joseph Ellis

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Joseph John Ellis (born 18 July 1943 in Washington, D.C.) is a Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College who has written influential and award-winning histories on the founding generation of American presidents. His book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2001.


Background and teaching

He received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, where he was initiated into Theta Delta Chi. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University in 1969. He served in the United States Army and also taught at West Point until 1972.

That year Ellis joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College. He is the former dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke and also served as Acting President for part of 1984 while President Elizabeth Topham Kennan was on leave.

Jefferson and Hemings

Ellis in his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson suggested that evidence for an affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was "inconclusive".[1] Specifically, Ellis states in the appendix to American Sphinx,

Unless the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation decide to exhume the remains and do DNA testing on Jefferson as well as some of his alleged progeny, it leaves the matter a mystery about which advocates on either side can freely speculate... This means that for those who demand an answer the only recourse is plausible conjecture, prefaced as it must be with profuse statements about the flimsy and wholly circumstantial character of the evidence. In that spirit, which we might call the spirit of responsible speculation, after five years mulling over the huge cache of evidence that does exist on the thought and character of the historical Jefferson, I have concluded that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote.[2]

On November 5, 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster published an article, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child", in the weekly journal Nature. Foster reported that DNA testing proved that a male from the Thomas Jefferson line was the father of Sally Hemings's son Eston. Given that, he believed that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston and probably Hemings' other children.[3]

On November 2, 1998, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer featured this topic and stated, "According to an article in an upcoming issue of the journal Nature, DNA analysis shows that Jefferson almost certainly fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children, her last son, Eston."[4] Ellis, who was interviewed during this broadcast, stated that he had revised his opinion due to this new evidence:

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