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5.0 out of 5 stars Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and much, much more..., October 14, 2008
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This review is from: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 27 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 21, 2008 11:07:09 AM PDT
I, too, Cynthia, have been fascinated by this history between Jefferson and Sally beginning with my visit to Monticello. The ladder to her attic room was just so "in your face." I wonder how often she slept in that room. This is a very interesting review!

Posted on Nov 18, 2008 2:44:07 PM PST
D. Wharton says:
When I toured Monticello about 10 years ago, I offended the guide when I asked about the staircase to Sally Hemings' room. I have read that room was less than 2 ft. high. Maybe it was just a storage space. Dorothy Wharton

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 21, 2008 12:45:01 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 21, 2008 12:46:08 PM PST
Eve Galewitz says:
Sally Hemings was Jeffersons mistress and bore him children. She did not however live in the attic next to Jeffersons bedroom - that was proved to be a myth.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 28, 2009 1:10:38 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2011 5:56:54 AM PDT
Most of the readers have been MISLEAD by an AGENDA that is desirable of finding TJ guilty of fathering slave children. I worked with Dr Foster and the test started out PREDICTABLE........he tested a KNOWN carrier of the Jefferson DNA and did not report this to Nature as I had suggested. See web pages and

Herb Barger

Posted on Jan 28, 2009 1:27:07 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2011 5:57:55 AM PDT
The reason Annette Gordfon-Reed did not include much of the DNA Study that the poster mentions is that SHE does not know much of the history of it.....I DO...... and what little she mentions is INCORRECT. There is absolutely NO PROOF that TJ fathered Hemings children. Read the Scholars Commission Report at Monticello and some authors like, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, Jan Lewis, Joeseph Ellis (yes, the same professor that admitting to lying to his students and graces the dust cover of this AGR book). This is all a large agenda to disgrace TJ by a biased study at Monticello, a misleading and amateurish study by Dr Foster, misinformation in the Pike Co. newspaper, AGR translating a personal letter meaning from TJ's granddaughter, to her husband to give a completely WRONG meaning, use of Madison Hemings claim that he was named for Dolley Madison's husband when she visited Monticello on the day of his birth, Jan 19, 1805..........NOT TRUE.........the Madisons NEVER visited Virginia from Washington during the winter. SO, might we not SUSPECT all that is written in this abolitionist article which was used along with AGR's book by the Monticello Study Group, headed by a member of the Getting Word Project (slave input at Monticello? This study HID the Minority Report as written by Dr Ken Wallenborn, from the original release, but when I confronted Monticello on this Dr Dan Jordan apologized to Dr Wallenborn.

Folks, the public is being CONNED by the stance of several authors, etc. Check out

Herb Barger

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 31, 2009 5:57:03 PM PST
Then why does the Monticello website state that Thomas Jefferson most likely fathered Sally Hemings' children? It's time for people to accept the fact that Jefferson was not a perfect man.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2009 1:21:13 PM PST
The Monticello web site is WRONG in it's conclusions, as shown by a biased Monticello Study as reported by Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( President, Dr Ken Wallenborn whose Minority Report was "swept under the carpet" by then Monticello President, Dr Daniel Jordan. I reported this and Dr Wallenborn was apologized to for this act.

They are trying to tie the slavery studies to a mishandeled amateur DNA Study that was "botched" by Dr. Foster. (I know, I assisted him in the study.) He knowlingly tested a known carrier of Jefferson DNA from a male-line descendant of Eston Hemings WITHOUT informing Nature, as I had suggested. Sure, there would be a match, and there was. Annette Gordon-Reed's 2nd book is also INCORRECT in claiming that TJ fathered 7 of Sally's children. There is no proof and she knows it. It's a large agenda to "pile on" and she has great media coverage BUT it doesn't make her charges correct. Read the Scholars Commission Report at and pre-order on Amazon for the hard hitting expose' book on this fiasco in "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Hemings Sex Scandal."

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 11, 2009 12:17:56 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 11, 2009 5:41:24 PM PST
"Most of the readers have been MISLEAD by an AGENDA that is desirable of finding TJ guilty of fathering slave children."

Mr Barger:

Why do you use the word guilty? Jefferson may have fathered the children or not - we will never know for sure. I think that is clear. Some including historians (professional and armchair) after examination of the evidence (DNA, records, and Hemings oral history) believe Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings children. Others especially the Monticello Mafia after examining the same evidence believe Jefferson did not father Sally Hemmings children.

If Jefferson was the father it was not a unique situation. If he did not father the children he knew about and tolerated a male family member consorting with Sally Hemings. Why would you label that guilt?

Jefferson was a man who clearly understood the immorality of slavery. He condemned slavery in the draft of the constitution eloquently and yet he continued to own slaves -- this hypocracy is far more troubling than whether or not he fathered children with Sally Hemings.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 11, 2009 9:32:52 AM PDT
Doug says:
As you say, the Monticello website states that TJ was probably the father of Sally's children. There is a mountain of circumstantial evidence to support the statement made in that way. But the book began with the assumption that it was true and did not review one piece of the evidence. This does not excuse stating the conclusion as an indisputable, scientific fact, since it is not.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 19, 2009 5:13:07 PM PDT
Ms. Gordon Reed did review the evidence in her book "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversey." I would suggest this book if you are interested in reading Gordon-Reed's review of the evidence surrounding the controversey.
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Cynthia K. Robertson

Location: beverly, new jersey USA

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