Jefferson's irony: Voice of liberty, slave owner

Bunch showed Teichner Jefferson's laptop desk, upon which he wrote early drafts of the Declaration of Independence. The first of those drafts attacked Britain's slave trade, Jefferson writing that King George III "has waged cruel war against human nature itself."

The Continental Congress took the phrase out.

Alongside the rejected passage was the financial reality: Jefferson's farm book, where he would list the births and deaths of the slaves. "He would list the work that they did, so in some ways, it really gives us a full picture of the totality of Jefferson," said Bunch.

Which, at times, contradicts the popular image of Jefferson as a benevolent slave holder. One example was what went on at Jefferson's extremely profitable nail-making workshop at Monticello. "As a young child, your job was to move the nails around. But by the time you're 12, 13, 14, your job is to make these nails," said Bunch.

The boys were routinely whipped to force them to be more productive. "That happened while Jefferson was on Monticello," said Bunch. "It happened when he was gone, because in the 18th century, you couldn't run a plantation without using violence."

A man of his time, Jefferson thought he was benevolent. But even his plan for ending slavery would be considered racist today.

"His view was that at best there could be an emancipation, but then there would be repatriation," Meacham said. "There would be colonization. African-American slaves would leave the United States. He did not foresee a biracial, integrated society, one of the many ironies of his life, because he created a biracial society at Monticello."

Sally Hemings, sister of John Hemings, the furniture maker, was also believed to be Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha's half-sister. The entire Hemings family ended up at Monticello.

But it was in Paris in the 1780s, while Jefferson (by then a widower) was U.S. minister to France, that he supposedly began a nearly 40-year sexual liaison with Sally, who was there with him. By law, she was free in France. Before agreeing to return to Virginia - and to slavery - she set conditions.

"According to her descendants she said, 'I will go back with you if any children we have are allowed to be freed at 21,'" Meacham said. "Jefferson must have been totally flummoxed by this strong-willed, I think quite courageous woman."

In September 1802, a Richmond, Va., newspaper outed President Jefferson, saying, "By this wench, Sally, our president has had several children."

After that, the Jefferson-Hemings story was whispered from one generation to the next for nearly two hundred years by descendants of Sally Hemings - many of whom passed for white.

Television correspondent Shannon Lanier is a direct descendant of Sally Hemings through her son, Madison Hemings. "It's been an interesting journey for me, because it started out when I was a kid, me standing up in class and saying, 'Thomas Jefferson is my great-great- great-great-great-great grandfather,' and being so happy and proud to brag about it when we're studying the presidents. But then the teacher says, 'Sit down and stop telling lies,' and all the kids laugh at you."

By the mid-1990s the laughing had stopped. Historians even at Monticello were becoming believers. Lanier was 19 when he attended the controversial, first-ever combined Hemings-Jefferson family reunion at Monticello in 1999. "Before that reunion, I had only known the Hemings descendants from the Madison line of the family," he said.