Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: “[A] commanding and important book.”―Jill Lepore, The New YorkerIn the mid-1700s the English captain of a trading ship that made runs between England and the Virginia colony fathered a child by an enslaved woman living near Williamsburg. The woman, whose name is unknown and who is believed to have been born in Africa, was owned by the Eppeses, a prominent Virginia family. The captain, whose surname was Hemings, and the woman had a daughter. They named her Elizabeth.
This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings's siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson's wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family's compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.
About the Author
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She lives in New York City.
Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed
Amazon.com: One stunning element to this story, for someone who might only know its bare outline, is that these families, so intimately related across the lines of race and slavery, were so even before Jefferson's union with Sally Hemings: Hemings was not only his slave, but also the half-sister of his late wife, Martha Wayles. (That fact alone could provide enough drama for a hundred novels.) Could you describe the family he married into?
Gordon-Reed: Well, it has been sort of a mystery. Relatively little is known about Martha Wayles and her family life before she married Jefferson, and even after her marriage. A historian, Virginia Scharff, will be writing on this subject soon. But John Wayles, the father of Sally Hemings, five of Sally's siblings, and Martha has been something of a cipher. I tried finding out about him when I was working on my first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. I broke off the search because his life was not really the focus of the book, but I had to come back to him for this one. It turns out he was apparently brought to America as a servant, and was given a leg up in life by a prominent Virginian named Philip Ludwell. Martha’s mother, also named Martha (it gets confusing) died not long after she was born. Then she had two stepmothers who died. The first had three daughters with John Wayles. After his third wife died, Wayles had six children with Elizabeth Hemings, the last of whom was Sarah (Sally) Hemings. Jefferson married a woman who had known a great deal of tragedy in her young life. She had lost her mother, two stepmothers, a husband, and child by the time she was 23, just unfathomable stuff from a modern perspective.
Amazon.com: Of course, one other source of drama is that Jefferson, at the same time that he was one of the greatest advocates for equality and freedom, also held slaves, including one he was joined so intimately with. How did he reconcile that to himself, if he did?
Gordon-Reed: I don't think this was something that Jefferson agonized about on a daily basis. This is not to say it wasn't important, but it didn’t concern him the way it concerns us. I think the Federalists and the threat he believed they posed to the future development of the United States concerned him far more. Jefferson was contradictory, but we are, too. Who does not have intellectual beliefs that he or she is not emotionally or constitutionally capable of living by? I find it more than a little disingenuous to act as if this were something that set Jefferson apart from all mankind. It's always easier to spot others' hypocrisies while missing our own. He dealt with the conflict between recognizing the evils of slavery, to some degree, by fashioning himself as a "benevolent" slave holder and taking refuge in the notion that "progress" would one day bring about the end of slavery. It wouldn't happen in his time, but it would happen. That is not a satisfactory response to many today, but there it is.
Amazon.com: What was Jefferson's relationship with his children with Hemings like? What lives did they find for themselves after his death?
Gordon-Reed: That was one of the most interesting things to research and ponder. There are a series of letters between Jefferson and his overseer at Poplar Forest, his retreat in Bedford County, where he spent a good amount of time during his retirement years. In those letters, he announces his impending arrival. He'll say things like "Johnny Hemings and his two assistants will be coming with me," and depending upon the year, the two assistants were his sons Beverley and Madison Hemings or Madison and Eston Hemings. Poplar Forest is 90 miles away from Monticello. That was a journey of days together. Then, when they got there, John Hemings, Beverley, Madison, and Eston would work on the house where Jefferson was staying, where they evidently stayed, too. They were there together, in pretty isolated circumstances, for weeks at a time. Jefferson, who fancied himself a woodworker, too, spent lots of time with John Hemings and, in the process, spent time with his sons, who were Hemings's apprentices. Madison Hemings remembers Jefferson as being kind to him and his siblings, as he was to everyone, but said he rarely gave them the type of playful attention he gave to his grandchildren. The phrase Hemings uses is that he was "not in the habit" of doing that. Yet, all the sons played the violin like Jefferson, and one who became a professional musician, Eston, used a favorite Jefferson song as his signature tune. We have little sense of his dealings with Harriet, the daughter. He sent her away from Monticello when she was 21 with the modern equivalent of about $900 to join her brother, Beverley, who had left a couple of months before.
I think a very important, and telling, thing is that none of the Hemings children had an identity as a servant. The sons were trained to be the kind of artisans Jefferson admired the most, builders--carpenters and joiners--and the daughter spent her time learning to spin and weave. Women of all races and classes did that, even Jefferson's mothers and sisters. Harriet Hemings wasn't turned into a maid for his granddaughters, which would have been a natural thing for her but for her relationship to him. The Hemings children were trained to leave slavery without ever developing the sensibilities of servants. Beverley and Harriet left Monticello as white people, married white people, and pretty much disappeared, although they kept in contact with their nuclear family. When Jefferson died, Madison and Eston, who were freed in his will, took their mother and moved into Charlottesville. They were listed as free white people in the 1830 census, and as free mulatto people in a special census done in 1833 to ask blacks if they wanted to go back to Africa. They all said no. Not long after their mother died, Madison left Virginia for Ohio and Eston joined him later. At some point Eston decided that living as a black person was too onerous and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, under the name E.H. Jefferson. He had children by this time, and they all became Jeffersons. As all blacks who "pass" into the white community must do, in later years the family buried their descent from Jefferson. There was no way to claim him as a direct ancestor without admitting that they were part black, which would have cut off all the opportunities their children had as white people.
Amazon.com: Your title emphasizes Monticello, the rural retreat this family shared. What was the household on "the mountain" like for the Hemingses?
Gordon-Reed: Sally Hemings and her siblings along with her mother were personal attendants to the Jefferson family. They worked in the mansion most of the time. The next generation of Hemingses had more varied experiences. They became the artisans working on the plantation. We get some sense from Jefferson's legal white grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that some of the other people enslaved on the mountain were jealous of the privileges that the Hemings had. Martin, Robert, and James Hemings were allowed to hire their own time and keep their wages. They traveled to Richmond, Williamsburg and Fredericksburg to do this. The only people Jefferson ever freed were members of the Hemings family. They were people who were treated as, and saw themselves as, something of a caste apart from other enslaved people.
Amazon.com: How much of the evidence for this history has been available for centuries, and how much has only become available to us in recent years?
Gordon-Reed: Except for the DNA evidence showing a link between the Hemings and Jefferson families, all of this information has been available. I didn't discover or say anything in my first book that could not have been said or discovered by others, and I haven't found anything for this book that other people could not have found. It's always been there.
Amazon.com: And what are the limits of what we can know about these lives? What have you had to imagine, especially about Hemings and Jefferson's relationship, and how have you done so?
Gordon-Reed: Except for Madison Hemings, we don't have personal accounts from the Hemingses of their lives. Robert Hemings corresponded with Jefferson in the 1790s, but all of those letters are missing. We have descriptions of what Sally Hemings did from others' records--letters, census documents, things like that. As I say in the book, that's pretty much what we have to go on with Jefferson and his wife too, since we don't have any letters from her describing her life. Yet people use what we have to come to a conclusion about the nature of their life together. There's nothing wrong with that. I do the same thing for Jefferson and Sally Hemings. It's a combination of what people said about their lives, inferences from the actions they took, and a consideration of the context in which they were living. Some people have problems with the use of "inferences." I don't, so long as they are reasonable. In fact, I would trust the reasonable inferences from a person's repeated behavior through the years over what they say any day, because a people can say anything. I do believe that actions often speak louder than words. Contrary to popular belief, there are lots of actions on the part of Jefferson and Hemings that "speak" about the basic nature of their relationship.
Starred Review. This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex. It's also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves' lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work. 37 illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Reviewers universally admired Gordon-Reed's book but differed on how to read it. Looking at The Hemingses of Monticello as a work of history, they were impressed with how Gordon-Reed built a compelling story from scant evidence, yet never seemed unreasonable in her conclusions. Both professional historians and lay readers validated her goal of giving the Hemingses a history of their own and demonstrating the ways they personified the complexities of slavery in the United States. A few reviewers seemed less certain about whether Gordon-Reed's book could be enjoyed as popular history, noting its considerable size and occasional redundancy. However, critics generally recommended the work, given its fascinating subject and historical importance, to readers up to the challenge.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
*Starred Review* In the long-awaited sequel to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed delivers a powerful composite portrait of the African American family whose labors helped make Jefferson’s Virginia residence a fountainhead of American culture. Primary interest naturally attaches to Sally Hemings, the gifted black woman who chose—at age 16—to live as Jefferson’s enslaved mistress in America rather than as a free woman in France. But Gordon-Reed highlights the family role of Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whose experience in bearing children to both black and white fathers schooled her in the racial dynamics of early America. Biracial relationships immensely complicated life at Monticello, where the Virginia planter famous for declaring the equality of all men counted among his slaves four of his own children, fathered in a union he never publicly acknowledged. Gordon-Reed teases out telling clues from correspondence and journals of the Hemingses’ struggle for dignity despite the cruel constraints of slavery. That Jefferson finally freed his children by Sally does not obscure those restraints, nor does it hide the tragedy visited upon other Monticello slaves when Jefferson’s posthumous debts licensed the auctioneer to break up black families to increase their market value. A must-have acquisition for every American history collection. --Bryce Christensen
The Hemingses of Monticello explores a thorny but important chapter in American history with distinction and clarity, offering a poignant, if also often ugly, chronicle of slavery, secrecy and family tension. (Bookpage 20081013)
The Hemingses of Monticello makes a powerful argument for the historical significance of the Hemings family not only for its engagement with a principal architect of the early Republic, but also for the ways the family embodies the complexities and contradictions of slavery in the United States. (The Boston Globe 20080928)
The Hemingses of Monticello may stir old passions by taking everything that is documented and then pushing the tale further. meditation on the fluid and conditional nature of something many Americans have regarded as fixed: our individual racial heritage.Were the children of Jefferson and Hemings white or black? Both? Neither? In antebellum Virginia, the answers to those questions meant freedom or bondage. In our country, will there ever come a day when those answers mean nothing? (San Diego Union-Tribune 20081005)
An epic saga of the Hemings family, whose bloodline has been mixed with that of Thomas Jefferson since our third president took slave Sally Hemings as a mistress. (Dallas Morning News 20080920)
As the title suggests, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family brings an entire family out of the historic shadows that have been cast across Jefferson’s famous Virginia home. The book succeeds on this score by showing how generations of Hemingses labored at Monticello. It offers a stunning illustration of the tragedy that slavery could wreak. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution 20080928)
Because of Gordon-Reed, Hemings and her ancestors and descendants achieve full personhood. For that, the author deserves praise and lots of readers. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune 20081002)
Gordon-Reed has written not only a fair-minded and, where appropriate, critical affecting This is an important book. (Richmond Times-Dispatch 20080928)
[...] Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and law professor, is a doorstop corrective to early American history, painting a composite portrait of a family that stood at the wellspring of the Jefferson, slave Sally Hemings, their children and kin fascinate and surprise. (Cleveland Plain Dealer 20081003)
[...] In her new book Gordon-Reed has not abandoned her incisive legal approach to evidence, but here she has essentially become a historian, and a superb one. She has set out to do what she thinks professional historians should have been doing all along. With great historical imagination, she has done far more than put together a convincing case for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. She has also reconstructed the complicated and intimate relations between black and white families in And perhaps most important, she has uncovered the many expressions of humanity by both blacks and whites existing within a fundamentally inhumane institution. (20080928)
Hemings and her extended family receives a worthy biography. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 20081005)
Not since Fawn Brodie's masterwork biography has there been a better depiction of Thomas Jefferson's life at Monticello than Gordon-Reed's story of the Hemings family. This is American history at its best. (Tennessean 20081004)
[...] As Gordon-Reed writes, our reaction to the idea that Jefferson, a lifelong proponent of emancipation, could own slaves and sustain an intimate relationship with a woman who was not only his property but his dead wife's half-sister, and that Hemings could participate in the relationship, makes up "the very complex American response to matters involving not only slavery but even more particularly race and gender." [...]
“I wanted to tell the story of this family in a way not done before” so that readers can “see slave people as individuals,” Ms. Gordon-Reed said...
(New York Times )
Praise for The Hemingses of Monticello:
“Annette Gordon-Reed has broken a path into territory that has hitherto eluded historians: what happens to intimate human relations, those between lover and loved, parent and child, brother and sister, when one among them is enslaved to another. The result is not simply a fascinating story in itself, but a new perspective on how the humanity of slaves and a slave owner could adjust and survive in circumstances designed to obliterate it.” ―Edmund S. Morgan, author of American Slavery
“Thomas Jefferson often described his slaves at Monticello as ‘my family.’ Annette Gordon-Reed has taken that description seriously. Surely more seriously than Jefferson ever intended! The result, the story of the Hemings family, is the most comprehensive account of one slave family ever written. It is not a pretty story, but it is poignant beyond belief. And it demonstrates conclusively that we must put aside Gone with the Wind forever and begin to study Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!” ―Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx
“This is not only a riveting history of a slave family on a grand scale, it is also a rarely seen portrait of the family in the Big House, with a remarkable account of the relationship of white and black families. This work catapults Gordon-Reed into the very first rank of historians of slavery.” ―John Hope Franklin, author of From Slavery to Freedom
“From years of painstaking research, Annette Gordon-Reed has crafted a brave, compelling, and moving family saga about slavery and freedom. This work is a beautifully written, textured story about race, tragedy, and sometimes hope―America’s story. If this country has a modern Shakespeare looking for material, Gordon-Reed has provided it.” ―David W. Blight, Yale University, author of A Slave No More
“Annette Gordon-Reed’s splendid achievement will have the last word on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, for one cannot imagine another historian matching her exhaustive research and interpretive balance.” ―David Levering Lewis, author of W. E. B. Du Bois
“Annette Gordon-Reed is a prodigiously gifted historian and The Hemingses of Monticello is her masterpiece. Bringing the Hemings family out of the shadows and into vibrant life, Gordon-Reed restores them to their proper role at Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home. Jefferson’s Virginia―and Jefferson himself―will never look the same.” ―Peter Onuf, author of Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Fergus M. Bordewich Thomas Jefferson's contradictions have long baffled historians. His clarion assertion of human equality in the Declaration of Independence became the battle cry of the abolitionist movement. Yet he lived on the fruits of slave labor and never risked political capital (or his own comfort) to oppose the institution of slavery. He regarded blacks as odorous, intellectually inferior and incapable of creating art. Yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed convincingly argues in this monumental and original book, he cohabited for more than 30 years with an African American woman with whom he conceived seven children. Liberating the woman known to Jefferson�s smirking enemies as "dusky Sally" from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers. In Sally Hemings's day, Gordon-Reed writes, she was "the most well-known enslaved person in America." Her connection to Jefferson was brutally exposed and mocked by his political opponents during his first presidency, while black churchmen in the early republic preached sermons on her "family situation." The publicity was sufficiently embarrassing that Jefferson's partisans and descendants crafted a sanitized and sexless version of life at Monticello that continued until our own day. Although controversy persists, recent DNA research has caused most historians to accept Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children. Gordon-Reed first probed the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in her 1997 book "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy." Now she deepens and widens her view to encompass the entire sprawling Hemings clan as actors on the stage of history. Members of the Hemings family came to Monticello as part of the inheritance of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles. They were the offspring of Martha's father and his enslaved concubine Elizabeth Hemings, and thus Martha's own siblings. (In a different society, they would never have been Jefferson's slaves at all and would instead have shared in the inheritance that Martha acquired from her father's estate; the same could later be said of Jefferson's own mixed-race children.) Gordon-Reed's exploration of the lives of other members of the Hemings family -- most notably Sally's mother, Elizabeth, and her brothers, Robert and James, who served as valets to Jefferson -- is also exhaustive and fascinating in its own right. But Sally is the most compelling figure. Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782. Thomas Jefferson would remain a nominal bachelor for the remainder of his long life. During his service as U.S. ambassador to France, which began in 1784, he summoned Hemings to Paris as an attendant for his youngest daughter, Polly. According to Gordon-Reed, the relationship became sexual in Paris, on the cusp of the French Revolution, when Hemings was 16 and Jefferson was 46. They remained together until Jefferson's death in 1826. Hemings left no written testimony, and Jefferson was careful to leave few traces of the true nature of their liaison. "When it came to the care and deployment of his image, which if managed properly would leave him with the positive legacy of 'great man,' Jefferson was supremely disciplined and controlled," Gordon-Reed observes. Her deconstruction of this occluded relationship is a masterpiece of detective work. Although she employs a considerable amount of deductive reasoning, she resists facile speculation and relies on a very close reading of the surviving documentary record wedded to copious knowledge of slavery as it was practiced by members of Jefferson's social class at the time. For instance, Gordon-Reed delves into the startlingly open relationship between Sally's oldest sister, Mary, and a prosperous Charlottesville merchant, Thomas Bell, to whom Jefferson had hired her out. A mutual attachment developed, and Mary eventually asked Jefferson to sell her to Bell; Jefferson agreed. "Within the extremely narrow constraints of what life offered her -- ownership by Thomas Jefferson or ownership by Thomas Bell -- Mary Hemings took an action that had enormous, lasting, and, in the end, quite favorable consequences for her, her two youngest children, and the Hemings family as a whole," writes Gordon-Reed. "She found in Bell a man willing to live openly with her, and to treat her and her children as if they were bound together as a legal family." Gordon-Reed bravely attempts to untangle a particularly fraught question: Could genuine love exist between master and slave? With its acknowledgment that slavery's unequal balance of power "grossly distorted" the play of human emotions, her conclusion is necessarily subtle and may not satisfy those who require monochromatic answers. Had Hemings been merely a plaything, Gordon-Reed points out, Jefferson could have simply let her stay in France, where slavery had been abolished and a well-trained servant like her would have had little difficulty finding work. Instead, he wanted Hemings to return with him to Virginia so intensely that he was willing to bargain with her, by promising her personal privileges as well as eventual freedom for their offspring. Hemings, for her part, was "a smart, if overconfident, attractive teenage girl who understood very well how men saw her and was greatly impressed with her newly discovered power to move an infatuated middle-aged man." Had sex been all that Jefferson wanted, he could have hidden her away at one of his several farms in Virginia. But he arranged his life at Monticello so that Hemings would be in it every day that he was there. She led a life as close to that of a wife as any enslaved woman could in antebellum Virginia. To Jefferson, Gordon-Reed plausibly argues, Hemings offered a "familiar presence, telling him what he needed to hear about what was happening on the farm, having sex, attending to his needs, being the person of his private world who listened to him complain or voice fears about matters that he might not want to reveal to others." She says of Hemings, "At the end of her life she would be able to say that she got the important things that she most wanted." Defenders of slavery tirelessly promoted the canard that emancipation would lead to an epidemic of miscegenation that would ruin America's blood stock. The truth -- the great open secret of the antebellum South -- was that race-mixing was embedded, quite literally, in the culture of slaveholding, where masters' sexual exploitation of their female "property" was not a crime. Gordon-Reed writes, "The pervasive doctrine of white supremacy supposedly inoculated whites against the will to interracial mixing, but that doctrine proved to be unreliable when matched against the force of human sexuality." American slaves and their descendants, she says, "are the only victims of a historically recognized system of oppression who are made to carry the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that things endemic to their oppression actually happened to them." In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery. Jefferson kept his promise to Sally Hemings. All their children eventually went free. Of the four children who reached adulthood, three lived as whites. The fourth, Madison Hemings, married a woman so fair-skinned that some of their children were also able to pass for white. The Hemingses were, of course, in a class by themselves, as Gordon-Reed frequently underscores. The rest of Jefferson's many slaves were sold off to pay his debts. "The only route to freedom . . . was the possession of Wayles, Jefferson, or Hemings blood," writes Gordon-Reed. "No one else had a chance."
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.