|Subject: Jan Ellen Lewis, noted expert on Thom.Jefferson/Sally Hemming Families, dies. Her fascination with President Jefferson and his family, led her to organize a groundbreaking conference to reassess his legacy after DNA testing, showed it was likely that he had fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. ...
She was 69.
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Date Posted: Thursday, September 27, 03:41:00pm
Jan Ellen Lewis, Expert on Jefferson’s Other Family, Dies at 69. …
By Richard Sandomir
Sept. 5, 2018
Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian whose fascination with Thomas Jefferson and his family led her to organize a groundbreaking conference to reassess his legacy after DNA testing showed it was likely that he had fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, died on Aug. 28 in Manhattan. She was 69.
Jan Ellen Lewis at Rutgers University in an undated photo. “Jan had a huge interest in trying to understand the complicated nature of family life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” her husband said.
Barry Bienstock, her husband, said her death, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was caused by complications of a bone-marrow transplant. She had received a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndromes, in which bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells.
Professor Lewis, of Rutgers University, joined with Peter S. Onuf, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, in organizing the Hemings-Jefferson conference, which was held in March 1999 near Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Charlottesville, Va.
A few months earlier, the scientific journal Nature had published the findings of DNA analysis of living Jefferson descendants showing that Jefferson was likely to have been the father of at least one of Hemings’s children.
It is believed likely, though, that Jefferson had been the father of at least six children with Hemings, four of whom survived to adulthood. That Hemings was a half sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who died at 33 in 1782, added another wrinkle to the complex life of the nation’s third president.
The Virginia gathering, of about a dozen scholars, became in part a forum on women, race and politics in Jefferson’s time — subjects Ms. Lewis had explored in a book and academic journals and taught as a history professor at the Rutgers branch in Newark.
Like many Jefferson historians, Professor Lewis had been thinking about his family for a long time. Her book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia” (1983), used the Jeffersons as a prism through which to trace the changing world of the state’s gentry.
“The stories that had been told about the women in Jefferson’s life had this almost honeyed, treacly portrayal of his relationship with his daughters and granddaughters,” Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law and history at Harvard, said in a telephone interview. “Jan saw there was much more substance to them. Jefferson helped raise them to be his intellectual equals, and he treated them that way.”
In her own book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” published in 1997, Professor Gordon-Reed wrote that there was strong proof of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings even before the DNA testing.
Professor Onuf, who has written often about Jefferson, recalled in a telephone interview that the question of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings had been pretty much settled by the DNA testing after nearly 200 years of speculation. The Virginia conference was an opportunity to use the news to look anew at Jefferson and his world, he said.
“And what Jan brought was a wonderful sense of family dynamics and gender through which to think seriously about him,” he said.
In her essay, “The White Jeffersons,” a draft of which she delivered at the conference, Professor Lewis analyzed how he viewed his two families — one white and privileged, the other mixed-raced and enslaved on his land.
“Let us imagine a man,” Professor Lewis wrote. “Let us call him Thomas Jefferson. Let us imagine that he evades the truth, or tells a lie, perhaps to save face, perhaps to spare the ones he loves. It is probably both, for the two are in some measure inextricable. He needs his family to love him, and they cannot, he fears, if he appears to them as less than the devoted father he has claimed to be.”
Professor Lewis’s 1983 book used the Jeffersons as a prism through which to trace the changing world of Virginia’s early American gentry.
She continued: “And in the moment that he evades the truth or tells the lie, if not before, he has made a decision about whose love matters most, about who will receive his tenderest love.”
Professor Lewis was born on July 10, 1949, in St. Louis. Her father, Edward, was a salesman, and her mother, Suzanne (Greensfelder) Lewis, was a paralegal. With her family, she moved to White Plains, then graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a bachelor’s degree in history. She later earned master’s degrees in American culture and history and a Ph.D. in early American history from the University of Michigan.
Ms. Lewis’s interest in Jefferson was piqued in graduate school by reading Fawn Brodie’s 1974 best-selling book, “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography,” which delved into his relationship with Hemings. Later, she became interested in family letters, particularly those between Jefferson and his granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, the fourth child of his older daughter Martha and Thomas Mann Randolph.
“Jan always had a huge interest in trying to understand the complicated nature of family life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” Mr. Bienstock, her husband, said in a telephone interview. “And Jefferson’s family is clearly a complicated family story.”
In “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Professor Lewis followed the transformation of the well-born class’s “pursuit of happiness” — a phrase from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence — from demonstrations of self-restraint while building family fortunes to indulging personal feelings.
Susan Stein, a senior curator at Monticello, said in a telephone interview that “The Pursuit of Happiness” is an “important work of social history” that is also an “important study of family life at Monticello.”
Professor Lewis was as devoted to her roles at the Rutgers campus in Newark as she was to her scholarship. She began teaching there in 1977, became the first woman to chair its history department and had served since 2014 as dean of the school of arts and sciences.
Professor Onuf encouraged Professor Lewis to publish more. “But her students and colleagues always came first with her,” Professor Onuf said.
...She was one of several authors of two volumes of the textbook “Of the People: A History of the United States”; the co-editor, with Peter Stearns, of “An Emotional History of the United States” (1998); and a co-editor, with Professor Onuf and James Horn, of “The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race and the New Republic” (2002), about Jefferson’s victory over John Adams, the incumbent in the presidential election of 1800.
The papers from the Hemings-Jefferson conference were collected in “Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture” (1999).
Professor Lewis also served as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Her earlier marriage, to Erik Grimmelmann, ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, she is survived by a son from her first marriage, James Grimmelmann; her sister, Beth Rowley; and two grandchildren.
In her essay about the white and black Jeffersons, Professor Lewis wondered about the pain Jefferson’s discarded children must have felt
“The white Jeffersons never acknowledged that they had black Jefferson kin,” she wrote. “The Hemings children, however, knew that they were the disfavored children of a loving and powerful man.”
How difficult it must have been, she added, “to know that somewhere, perhaps in your own neighborhood, are sister and brother, or niece and nephew, whom you cannot claim.”
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