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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 17, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0393064773 ISBN-10: 0393064778 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064778
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064773
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,414 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
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.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

More 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" and "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." She lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

This book is all speculation with very few facts.
Sheryl Romanoff
This is one of the best history books I've read in a long time.
Jean
The story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is pretty well known.
Cynthia K. Robertson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

159 of 174 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My parents took me to Monticello as a young girl, and I have been fascinated with Thomas Jefferson ever since. I was even more intrigued when I read about his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Annette Gordon-Reed gives us a scholarly and extensive effort in her latest book, The Hemings of Monticello. This book is not just about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but much, much more.

Gordon-Reed starts with the Hemings matriarch. Elizabeth Hemings, the mother of Sally, had six children by John Wayles. Wayles was the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha. When Wayles died, his estate (including many of his slaves) passed to Martha and Thomas Jefferson. In this way, the Hemings found themselves at Monticello.

The story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is pretty well known. They allegedly had six children together, four of who survived childhood. Oral history claims that in a "treaty" made between Jefferson and Hemings while they were in France, he agreed to free any children he and Hemings had when they became adults. Jefferson did free all four children (two of them in his will). Three of the four passed into the white world once they left Monticello. What is ironic is that Heming's sons were said to look more like Jefferson and had more common interests (building and music) than his white grandsons.
But much of this book belongs to Sally's older brothers, Robert and James. These two slaves were extremely close to Jefferson, and traveled extensively with him. James even accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where Jefferson paid to have him trained as a master chef. Both men were eventually freed by Jefferson in the 1790s.

There is a surprising amount of information on many members of the Hemings clan.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By egreetham on October 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The flaws first: This is a very long book, weighing in at over 600 pages, which could and should have been tighter and shorter. The lack of conciseness is related to the plodding, clunky, academic style, and the writing is sometimes painfully repetitive. There are occasional speculative leaps that are perhaps not justified, and a fuller explanation of the DNA evidence would have been most helpful.

But: This is a first-class work of research and interpretation which should not be missed by anyone struggling to understand the place of race and slavery in our national history. Ms. Gordon-Reed is remarkably even-handed, compassionate even, with Thomas Jefferson, who was his own best example of his belief that slave holding damages the slave holder as well as the slave. She lets his behavior, and often his own words, reveal his story. And she provides remarkable detail about the lives of Sally and the complicated family of relatives with whom she shared life at Monticello.

No matter what one believes about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings--and we may never know what that was, certainly not in any emotional sense--this volume offers a rich examination of slavery in late 18th and early 19th century Virginia centered on the lives of one family in which black and white intermingled with poignant results. Well worth the slog.
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110 of 131 people found the following review helpful By Netherwind on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"The Hemingses of Monticello" is part biography and part social comment. It is, most of all, a condemnation of slavery. The Hemings family, about whom there is comparatively little documented history, is utilized primarily as supporting actors to demonstrate both the logistics and psychological aspects of slavery. That said, the book is thoroughly researched and very readable. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed (AGR), presents many fascinating glimpses into Thomas Jefferson's life and habits. Ultimately though, the primary focus of the book seems to be an attempt to define the presumed differentiation in Jefferson's relationships with, and nurturing of, his white children and grandchildren versus that of his presumed black children. The premise of the book is based on Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children, which, though not scientifically certain, is believed to be likely. DNA testing conducted in 1998 established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings, the youngest of Sally Hemings children. Although there were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this particular chromosome living in Virginia at that time, the study concludes that "the simplest and most probable" conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings. A research committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was perhaps the father of all six of Sally Hemings' children listed in Monticello records.

AGR presents Jefferson's paternity of all of Sally Hemings children as an established fact, and then critiques his character on the basis of his perceived treatment of these children.
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88 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Arthur Leonard on September 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Opening disclaimer: Annette Gordon-Reed is my faculty colleague at NY Law School, and I originally introduced her to Bob Weil, the editor at W.W. Norton who contracted with her to produce this book. As a result, I had an opportunity to read it in final galleys this summer prior to publication. What I have to say is naturally biased by my respect and affection for my faculty colleague. I went out on a limb to make the introduction after reading an early draft of Prof. Gordon-Reed's first book on Jefferson and Hemings, which was subsequently published by the University of Virginia Press and established her credentials as a historian of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

This book is a logical outgrowth of the earlier one. I think anybody interested in Jefferson or this period in American history owes it to themselves to read both books. The first is a critical dissection of the way historians had dealt (or avoided dealing) with the rumored Jefferson-Hemings connection, and is a masterpiece of investigative history. This new volume is a masterpiece of group biography, taking the Hemings as an interesting family, most of whose details were difficult to discover, and creating an engrossing account of their lives as part of the extended Jefferson community at Monticello. Jefferson began building his dream house there about the time he married Martha Wayles, and Elizabeth Hemings and several of her children came to Monticello as slaves as part of Martha's inheritance when her father died. Sally Hemings was a daughter of Elizabeth and John Wayles, Martha's father, and thus was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife. From there the complications of family interrelationships build and compound on each other.
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