Obituaries

Jan Ellen Lewis, 69, expert on Jefferson’s other family

Dr. Lewis was the first woman to chair the history department at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.
Anthony Alvarez for Rutgers University — Newark
Dr. Lewis was the first woman to chair the history department at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.

NEW YORK — 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 that he had fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, died Aug. 28 in Manhattan. She was 69.

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.

Dr. Lewis, of Rutgers University, joined with Peter 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.

Advertisement

A few months earlier, the scientific journal Nature had published the findings of DNA analysis of living Jefferson descendants, showing with great certainty that he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s children.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

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, 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 Dr. Lewis had explored in a book and academic journals and had taught as a history professor at the Rutgers branch in Newark.

Like many Jefferson historians, Dr. Lewis had thought 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.”

Advertisement

In her book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” published in 1997, Gordon-Reed wrote that there was strong proof of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings even before the DNA testing.

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.

Dr. Lewis was born 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, N.Y., 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 doctorate in early American history from the University of Michigan.

“Jan always had a huge interest in trying to understand the complicated nature of family life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” Bienstock, her husband, said in a telephone interview. “And Jefferson’s family is clearly a complicated family story.”

Advertisement

In “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Dr. 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.

Dr. Lewis brought ‘a wonderful sense of family dynamics and gender through which to think seriously about’ Thomas Jefferson.

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.”

Dr. 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.

She was one of several authors of two volumes of the textbook “Of the People: A History of the United States”; the coeditor, with Peter Stearns, of “An Emotional History of the United States” (1998); and a coeditor, with 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).

Her earlier marriage, to Erik Grimmelmann, ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, she leaves a son from her first marriage, a sister, and two grandchildren.