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. Jefferson kept meticulous records of his expenses including salaries he paid his more talented slaves, maintenance items, clothing, gifts, etc. He also left over 40,000 letters in which the Hemings are often mentioned. The only negative is that Jefferson's daughter and grandchildren are said to have purged any letters from the collection that made reference to Sally.
What I found a bit disappointing about The Hemings of Monticello is that much of this story has been lost to history. This is certainly not the fault of Gordon-Reed, and she tries to deduce what might have happened in various situations. For instance, the Hemings were very deliberate in choosing names for their children, using the same names throughout generations that were important to them. Sally gave her children names from Jefferson's immediate family. "As with Sally Hemings and her children, this one-sided way of naming a group of siblings was the work either of a woman trying very hard to please a man or of a man who felt his children should bear his mark."
The author also spends much time trying to analyze Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a great man, but he was not a saint. His personal beliefs did not always mesh with his actions. But he was definitely a Renaissance man. Gordon-Reed writes "Monticello became an almost perfect projection of Jefferson's personality--his vaulting ambition, his respect for and adherence to aspects of a classical past, his faith in innovation and optimism about the future, his extreme self-indulgence, and his genius." All of these things affected his relationships with the Hemings family members.
The only critical observation I can make about The Hemings of Monticello is that author should have included more about the Hemings DNA study in the body of the book, as opposed a short summary in the footnotes. But otherwise, I couldn't wait to read this work and I was not disappointed.
on October 21, 2008
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.
on August 10, 2011
I enjoy reading historical non-fiction, and generally the Pulitzer Prize is generally an indication of good quality:) But I was disappointed in the Hemingses of Monticello.
The author writes beautifully, and the subject matter was fascinating. To focus on an individual slave family that was closely connected to an important historical figure brings more general accounts of slavery to life. Unfortunately, I think the authors was limited by the lack of available primary historical evidence on the lives of the individuals concerned. The endless speculation on what the characters _might_ have known or _might_ have felt was maddening. Most of the time the speculations seemed plausible, though I would have preferred that a historical work would have stayed closer to the facts available.
Sometimes, though, her speculations tended into the realm of the fantastic. The most egregious example of this is the reactions of Abigail Adams and the ship's captain to Sally Hemings when she traveled to London. Abigail Adams writes that she finds Sally Hemings extremely immature and adds that the ship captain felt the same way and suggested that it might be best to bring her back to Virginia on the ship's return journey. Based on this evidence alone, Gordon-Reed speculates for almost two pages about the possibility that the ship's captain wanted her to come back on the ship with him so that he could take advantage of her sexually. Although this is presented as simply one possibility, it seems quite a leap to even suggest it based on the available evidence.
Another almost laughable example is her pages of criticism of Abigail Adams' racism in referring to Sally Hemings as "the girl", while in the same excerpts of letters that the author has chosen, Jefferson's own daughter is referred to only as "the child." Gordon-Reed's analysis of Adams' strong negative reaction to Othello offers a much more compelling argument for Adams' racism, but she should have left it with that evidence.
I also wish Gordon-Reed had dicussed the evidence for Thomas Jefferson fathering Sally Hemings' children including the DNA testing of the descendants of Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings.
My own personal pet peeve was her use of footnotes. She would make a statement about an individual figure in a paragraph that includes general information on a topic of the time. Then, at the end of the paragraph, a footnote appears. But when you go to the reference, it is a citation for the general historical information not the statement she made about a specific individual. Also, some of her controversial statements referenced only her previous work. I think it's preferable in a historical work that statements of fact reference primary sources and that secondary sources are cited only when the author is discussing specific theories about the primary source information available.
on January 28, 2009
"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. The fact that Jefferson never recorded his thoughts regarding his relationship to, or feelings for, the Hemings, causes the author to freely speculate on both. The result of this problematic tactic is sometimes one-dimensional; slavery is evil, Jefferson owned slaves, therefore Jefferson is evil. There seems little effort to consider slavery in the context of the period. The author often appears to struggle with the concept that acceptance of historical context does not mandate an endorsement of its weaknesses. As a result, her objectivity seems intermittent. At times, Jefferson's actions are examined in relation to the conditions of the times and deemed reasonable; at other times, he is presumed unreasonable prior to examination. AGR often appears to view the Jefferson-Hemings relationships through the lens of "presentism" - a term used by historians to describe the application of contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past - in other words, viewing 18th century slavery through 21st century morality.
Historian Douglas L. Wilson, in his pivotal article, "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue" [Atlantic Monthly, November 1992] wrote that "the perspectives of the present invariably color the meanings we ascribe to the past." Although Jefferson acknowledged slavery as a "great political and moral evil" in his book "Notes On The State of Virginia," historical revisionists and presentists have made it politically correct to excoriate him for the so-called Jefferson Contradiction: how could a man who so clearly and publicly opposed slavery own slaves himself?. Wilson argues that proper historical context suggests that the question should be inverted; "How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished?"
Ultimately, "The Hemingses of Monticello" presents a fascinating, if sometimes speculative, narrative of colonial slavery in general, and the Jefferson "family" in particular. Both subjects are worthy of attention. In one chapter, the author writes that "Politics is theatre, and the successful politician is the one who can skillfully bring just the right symbolism to the cultural and political moment at hand." It could be argued that her view of biography is similar.
on September 17, 2008
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.
What I love about this book is the vivid way that Gordon-Reed reconstructs a lost past, immersing the reader in details of everyday life. My favorite chapter is the one describing the process by which Sally Hemings, newly arrived in Paris to attend to Jefferson's daughters during his period as US Ambassador to the royal court of France, was innoculated against smallpox at Jefferson's instigation. That sounds like a simple thing, but it wasn't at the time, and Gordon-Reed has uncovered previously obscure original sources to describe the unusual, lengthy process in those days before modern medicine. It is utterly fascinating.
There are some questions that can never be resolved in history, and they can drive you nutty. For example, did George Mallory ("the finest climber of his generation") make the summit of Everest in 1924 before he died on the mountain. Unless his camera or other physical evidence is found at the summit, we will never know for sure. Similar is the dispute over whether Thomas Jefferson fathered some, all, or none of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. Without the invention of a time machine, we simply (despite DNA tests) will absolutely never know the answer. Much ink and effort has been shed on this issue, which while important I guess, will never be resolved. One of the principal instigators of this issue (along with the late Fawn Brodie) is the author of this long study, Annette Gordon-Reed, both a law and history professor. Her earlier book on the TJ-SH issue took the historical professional to task (particularly the Jefferson establishment centered at UVA) for overlooking what she considered to be definitive evidence that such a relationship existed. This set off quite a storm of controversy, which led to the DNA testing of Hemmings and Jefferson descendants.
I am pleased to report that this extensive 600 page plus volume does not (as I feared) constitute a further installment in the author's efforts to demonstrate the existence of such a relationship. Rather, the author is up to something much more serious and valuable and even unique. This is because she simply assumes from the outset that TJ fathered all of the SH children, adding only a few additional arguments to those she previously had made. Rather, her focus is the co-existence of these two families, one free and the other slave, in the Monticello of Jefferson. The families are intertwined in many ways, even setting aside the TJ-SH issue, over the course of 50 or so years. Through focusing on this one slave family, a whole range of fascinating issues are opened up for examination. For example, how did slaves live; could they work outside the slave relationship and earn money; how did the Hemmingses, who constituted virtually the entirety of the Jefferson household staff, function in their positions; how did they relate to the field slaves who did the heavy labor; what happened when TJ died and his assets (including slaves) had to be sold to pay creditors? For students of TJ, the book is a treasure trove of information and insights and adds greatly to our understanding of TJ the man and the world he created (perhaps a dream world) at Monticello.
The author's research is impeccable and extensive. She has rightly been criticized because much of the volume consists of her speculations and invocations of creative imagination to fill in the gaps of the historical record. While these criticisms as a matter of historiography are soundly based, I think they miss what Gordon-Reed is attempting to do, which is to put forward her best guess of what was occurring over this long period among and between free and slave residents of Monticello. It is, so to speak, one African-American historian's suggestion of a complete picture of Monticello life as it centered on the Hemings family and its interaction with that of Jefferson. For Gordon-Reed this is an necessary step to enable her to explore the whole range of issues that make the book so extremely valuable. Until we get that time machine, much can be learned from the author's hypotheses regarding life at Monticello with that most complex of American characters, Thomas Jefferson.
on April 1, 2010
Never did I think I would find a book that managed to both be so over complicated and simplistic at the same time. While this is ostensibly a book about the Hemmings family of Monticello, anyone reading it without knowing the title could be easily forgiven for thinking otherwise.
This author uses droning and ceaseless historical commentary to compensate for a near complete dearth of accurate historical evidence and then, when a piece of evidence is finally avaliable, she spends 10 pages or more beating it relentlessly into the ground. For example, in the chapters involving Sally Hemming's stay in France the author spends great stretches explaining a diet and exercise regimen sally MIGHT have had for an illness she MIGHT have had, goes into a never-ending recital of the French laws concerning slavery and engages in the most mind-numbing guesswork of motives when absolutely none were present.
There is no information presented in this book that has not been stated elsewhere, in a better fashion. I was literally yelling at the pages at times with sheer frustration. The closest I can compare it to is a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. A historian will spend hours discussing the motives of her sons, father and husband and laboriously attempt to pick through them to discern any possible role she had in them. Now imagine if the historian had equally little knowledge of her sons, father and husband as they have of Eleanor herself and you will roughly approach the problems within this book.
Moreover, evenas a person of mixed white and black ancestry, I found the constant harping on the evils of slavery entirely excessive. This is a book of a slave family, not of slavery, but you could barely tell.
The only possible good words I have for this book is that the author tried to expand on a topic not often covered in such detail.
I have to begin by saying that I only read about 100 pages of what should have been a 200 page book. I rarely put a book down, but I simply could not get through this. I gather that hard facts about Sally Hemings are hard to come by, but rather than explaining what we do know and noting what we don't, Reed goes through endless pages of speculation. Talking about the origins of the Wayles family, ancestors of Jefferson's wife, Reed says the name was rare in England, so the people described in old records with that last name "must" be related. She then proceeds to tell us everything known about those people in such excruciating detail that my head was spinning. It's all speculation. And she explains at great length things any literate reader already knows. For example, she tells us that "People are prone to having sex, especially when they are in daily contact with potential objects of sexual attraction." Really? Or "In European culture surnames signal the paternity of those born in wedlock. . ." How about "Designating an item . . . as property gives the owner the right to use, sell, and prevent others from having access to that item?"
There's no doubt that the author did an extensive amount of research, and scholars will probably find many useful tidbits here. The book itself runs to 662 pages. Then there's a 17 page bibliography, a 43 page index, 68 pages of notes, and 5 pages of acknowledgments. But for the general reader, help! Unless you're a scholar wait for the condensed version.
on October 22, 2008
I bought this book out of an interest in the subject matter and relying on the impressive credentials of its author. I anticipated that this would be an actual history that would bring many primary source materials together to paint a cohesive picture of the "Hemingses of Monticello."
As Gordon-Reed expressly states, Sally Hemings is a cipher, since there is so little epistolary or other primary source material extant to flesh out her presence in the narrative. Gordon-Reed seems to believe that that gives her unlimited license to project whatever thoughts, experiences, and motivations she likes upon someone who is very close to a blank page in history. It is unfair that Sally Hemings is very nearly a blank page--which injustice is not rectified by essentially inventing a persona and events for her life out of the author's imagination and suppositions. The grossest disservice of all is Gordon-Reed's supposition that Sally Hemings was defined entirely by her enslavement, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Human beings, even enslaved ones, are more than the sum of their circumstances.
Gordon-Reed herself discusses the dangers of speculation about and projecting modern values upon historical subjects--and then disingenuously proceeds to do just that. Concerning both the Hemingses and Jeffersons et al, this book is full of outrageously broad generalizations, wild speculation, and leaps of imagination made and taken from the historical and moral perspective of a modern academic. One would expect more rigorous intellectual discipline from any author who purports to interpret history.
No one who picks up this book is likely to need convincing of the horrors of slavery--or even of 18th-century white male European patriarchy--but Gordon-Reed spends the better part of 700 pages bending others' scholarship to serve an agenda which admits of no historical context for, or alternative understandings of, actual facts. Gordon-Reed is welcome to an agenda, but it isn't history.
Since I am one of those who cannot stop reading a book--any book--before the end, I have spent the better part of the last 24 hours seething over "The Hemingses of Monticello" and what I consider to be false marketing of this work. Evidently I will have to track down and read the materials cited in the bibliography to get real information on the subject.
I hope it will be helpful to other readers to indicate what this book is and what it is not.
First of all, it is a work of scholarship. It traces, with lawyerly precision, the members of the entire Hemings family and their associations with Thomas Jefferson. The use of the word "family" in the title of the book is important, as the book begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an African slave woman and a white man. She and all of her children had relationships with Jefferson; the book is about several individuals, not just her daughter, Sally Hemings.
Second, the book is meticulous in building its case for the nature of the relationships between Jefferson and the various Hemings family members. It relies on what records do exist, and it is careful not to project contemporary values onto eighteenth century relationships. Sometimes the author does speculate about how an individual might have felt or thought, but she makes it clear that it is indeed speculation.
Third, it is true that the book does, at times, become repetitious. Gordon-Reed ponders every possible aspect of the Hemings "case" like a lawyer determined to present overwhelming evidence. However, although at times I did skim, I did not put the book down. It was just too interesting.
Now for what the book is not. It is not popular history. Gordon-Reed is not Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough, to name two eminently readable historians. To enjoy this book requires an interest in Jefferson and a bit of patience.
Nor is it the "story" of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, although that liaison is part of the book. It is about much more than that.
Above all, this book is an account of how slavery distorts human relationships. Jefferson was sometimes a benevolent master. He freed several in the Hemings family. Yet his relationships with these enslaved people, some of whom were his own children, are complicated, calculated, and often painful. Everything in "The Hemingses of Monticello" underscores the truth of what another enslaved man, Frederick Douglass, would publish in his Narrative, two decades after Jefferson's death.