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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy Paperback – March 29, 1998

3.8 out of 5 stars 75 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School, doesn't take a position for or against the proposition that Thomas Jefferson may have had a liaison of nearly 40 years with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that Hemings may have borne him several children. Instead, in this scrupulously researched book, Gordon-Reed examines the evidence both for and against Jefferson's liasion with Hemings. Among the strongest evidence in this provocative book is the fact that though Jefferson's time in Virginia was limited when he was in public life, Hemings's six children--born over 15 years--were delivered with months after each of Jefferson's stays at Monticello. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Historian Ellis (Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, LJ 4/15/93) does not attempt to give a full-scale biography of the Sage of Monticello. Rather, he offers a balanced meditation on Jefferson's character and ideals. Reaffirming and taking further what some previous authors have stated, Ellis maintains that Jefferson's ambiguous, secretive character was able to support mutually contradictory positions on a variety of issues. Moreover, Jefferson often retreated into romantic illusions rather than face reality. Ellis's work is based on many years of research into this period of American history, and it is perfectly pitched to appeal to both general readers and specialists. Attorney Gordon-Reed (law, New York Law Sch.) presents a lawyer's analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson's defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one. In sum, the Jefferson who emerges from these two books is a great though deeply flawed man. Both books are highly recommended as essential reading for all libraries.?Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., N.Y.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press; Updated ed. edition (March 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813918332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813918334
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jon Thomas on July 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
This is a very solid and well researched book. The author makes a very thorough and logical presentation to prove her case. Much in the manner of a courtroom argument. It is effective. I came away from reading the book convinced that Jefferson, in all reasonable liklihood, did father Sally Hemings five mixed race children.

Sally Hemings was 1/4 African in descent, 3/4's European. By all accounts, she was a picture of beauty. Jefferson was, apparently, unexpectedly presented with her youthful beauty when Sally accompanied his youngest daughter from his former, deceased wife to France where Jefferson was representing US government interests.

Some reviewers have referred to Jefferson as a rapist and a child molestor. I think that's a bit much. The "past is a different place" as some thoughtful historian once described it. Teenage girls in the 18th century--and for much of the 19th century--were seen as legitimate romantic interests and potential wives for middle aged men of substance. It, apparently, was not particularly frowned upon during that period. Gordon-Reed gives an example of this with Jefferson's friend James Madison who was hopelessly in love with a teenage girl. She rejected him for someone closer to her own age. However, he eventually wound up with a much younger Dolly Madison for a wife. And apparently was not socially condemned for it. The past is a different place. Not better by any means, necessarily, but different. Something to keep in mind....

The author makes the argument that Jefferson's real sin was not in loving a "slave girl." The real sin was his enslavement of other humans for his own financial benefit. He couldn't let go of the financial benefits and the ease of living that his slaves brought him.
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Format: Paperback
From the preface on, Annette Gordon Reed assures her readers that her intent is not to prove that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' four children. Instead, her thesis is to expose the racism that has clouded the argument for over 200 years; at that, she succeeds.

Malone, Dumas, Wills, Adair - all have tried to paint "Dusky Sally" as a prostitute, and Jefferson as something akin to a saint. Using letters and their "intellectual imaginations" they surmise that someone as morally impeccable as Jefferson could not have been involved with a slave, although he evidently wasn't morally impeccable enough not to sell many of them on the auction block upon his death.

I've always admired Jefferson for his contributions to American governance and culture - that he might have fathered children by Sally Hemings in a 38 year long affair only enhances his distinction for me. He was a man with needs - ok, a genius, but a man all the same. He promised his wife that he wouldn't remarry. And Sally, being the half sister of his wife, Martha, could have been the kind of arms he sought refuge in.

Becoming lovers with a slave was not uncommon. Although it was rarely discussed in polite circles, "masters" often found that taking slaves as concubines limited their responsiblities, while at the same time helped fulfill their needs. One has to remember that many slaves looked very similar to their white "masters." Sally Hemings, for example, was 3/4 white, "with long, straight hair down her back." This doesn't negate her slave status, or make her more "acceptable"; rather, pointing out the "whiteness" of these slaves shows just how incredibly foreign the idea of slavery is to the natural state.

Gordon Reed makes an excellent case in her book.
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Format: Paperback
I found this book fascinating not just for its intelligent analysis of the Jefferson-Hemmings controversy, its exploration of American racism, past and present, but for the insights it offers about the meaning of history and the nature of the culture wars which are taking place currently in academia. Gordon-Reed is an attorney and this shows in her style of argument, and I don't mean that in a manner which is completely positive, she organizes evidence in the way an lawyer might, subjects what she finds to juridical standards of proof, and, I think it's clear, concludes that Jefferson and Hemmings had the liason which was alleged, hence her accusation that historians have covered this up, or paid insufficient attention to the question, for decades.
The truth, unfortunately, is more complicated, and in an odd way this book hints at why historians are forced to use different standards. There is no compromise solution to this controversy, Jefferson either fathered these children or he didn't, some part of our regard for this important figure hangs in the balance, and yet there is no evidence which settles the matter conclusively, not even a perponderance of evidence which suggests that one outcome is more likely.
What of the famous "DNA evidence"? It's a wash. Those who pay careful attention to what the article in "Nature" found will discover that this scientific evidence disproved a whole branch of oral testimony of alleged Jefferson descendants which, ironicly, had been the strongest evidence up to that point for the liason. Hemmings did not have a child by Jefferson when the two were in Paris, that has now been proven scientifically beyond all doubt, so some arguments in this book have been overtaken by events.
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