+ Book: “The Hemingses of Monticello”

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Annette Gordon-Reed’s book “The Hemingses of Monticello” has been called  brilliant,”  a “splendid achievement” and “compulsively readable.”  It is a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the book, Gordon-Reed tells the story of four generations, giving a reconstruction of the century-long saga of the Hemings-Jefferson connection in slavery and freedom, beginning with Sally Hemings’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings.  The Hemings family came to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton — Sally was Martha’s sister, the child of  John Wayles and Elizabeth, his slave.    

Gordon-Reed, a legal scholar, is a professor of law  at New York University, as well as a professor of history at Rutgers.  She is the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (whose argument in part helped convince Joseph Ellis that Hemings’s children might be Jefferson’s), and co-author with Vernon Jordan of “Vernon Can Read.”   She also edited “Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History.”  

Joseph J Ellis, historian and award-winning author of “American Sphinx,” says this book,  “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’. ” 

Jefferson has been on Gordon-Reed’s mind ever since she read about him as a child in Fawn Brodie’s “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait.  “He loved books and I loved books.  It was mainly the personality, the endless curiosity that I … found attractive in him,” she told Jennie Yabroff in a Newsweek article.

The fact 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, has long engaged the imaginations and puzzled scholars as well ordinary Americans.  Some contend that Sally and the Hemingses had no role in, or influence on, the life and mind of Thomas Jefferson.  Gordon-Reed strongly disagrees. 

Why and how these people participated in a web of such tangled physical, legal and emotional relationships is one of her motives for writing this book.  She says that the Jefferson-Hemings saga is a very complex American response to matters involving not only slavery, but even more particularly race and gender.

And here, she has said, is where her training as a lawyer gives her an advantage.

“The first thing you learn in law school is people are crazy.  They’ll come into your office and explain their motivation, and it will be totally a lie.  They don’t even understand themselves what their motivations are.  It’s not all going to fit.”

Historians often think, she says, that because their subjects are all dead you don’t have to worry about being truly exact when  you’re treating their shattered lives.  But lawyers don’t have that luxury.  

“We’re training people to deal with people’s lives.  Somebody’s going to go to jail, somebody’s going to lose a child.  You have to be for real.”

After combing through more than a thousand sources to uncover the patterns in the mosaic that was the Jefferson-Hemings relationship she writes:

Slavery simply provided families in the South with many more ways to be bizarre than in regions where it never took hold or was abandoned early on.  Fathers owning sons, brothers giving away brothers as wedding gifts, sisters selling their aunts, husbands having children with their wives and then their wives’ enslaved half-sisters, enslaved black children and their free little white cousins living and playing on the same plantation — things that by every measure violate basic notions of what modern-day people think family is supposed to be about.

Elizabeth Hemings, Sally’s mother, left 8 living children, 30 grandchildren and at least 4 great-grandchildren behind when she died in 1808. 

Eric Foner writes in the New York Review of Books,

The most fascinating parts of Gordon-Reed’s book deal not with Sally Hemings herself but with other all but unknown members of her extended family.  Initially because they were related to Jefferson’s wife and later because of his own connection with Sally Hemings, the family was treated quite differently from other slaves at Monticello.  The women worked as house servants, never in the fields, the men as valets, cooks and skilled craftsmen.  Jefferson paid some of them wages and allowed a few to live in Charlottesville or Richmond and keep their earnings. 

Once Jefferson took ownership of them, he began a process of shaping all the Hemingses to suit his self-indulgent aims: it was his needs and preconceptions that governed all activities.  Sally’s children were given names he favored, names of  prominent and respected Virginia friends.  John Hemings was selected to be a maker of furniture in the joinery that was an enormous point of pride to his master.  Robert was trained as a barber.  James and Peter became chefs of a high order, having traveled to France with him and learned much about the art.  Martin and Robert served variously as valets, coach drivers and butlers.

The Hemings girls were trained up in traditional European feminine lines, dressed in finer clothing than field workers.  They were “married” to slaves of equal stature, or thrust into relationships with high-status white males or workers at the plantation.

Hemings’s son, Beverly, and his daughter, Harriet, were able to get away.  Harriet was “nearly white” and very beautiful according to a plantation overseer, who said he was instructed to give her $50 and pay for her ride, by stage, to Phildelphia.  She is then lost to history;  she married a white man and became an anonymous part of Washington’s white world, living within plain sight of the White House.  As did Beverly.

 Madison Hemings called his mother’s relationship with Jefferson that of a “concubine.”  Jefferson never admitted that the Hemings children were his.  It has taken a very long time for historians to take seriously the evidence that they were.  For Annette Gordon-Reed, the real scandal isn’t what Jefferson did, it is what historians did in scanting the evidence. 

“The Hemingses of Monticello,” by Annette Gordon-Reed, is published by WW Norton & Company.  ISBN 978-0-393-06477-3.  There are audio versions on CD.

Note:     FYI — Monticello Catalog Item # 111006 is the Campeachy chair, crafted by plantation joiner John Hemings (brother of Sally, but not so identified.)

sources — check out these articles in their entirety:

  • “Jefferson’s Concubine,” by Edmund S Morgan and Marie Morgan, in the 10/9/08 editions of the New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com).
  • “A Lawyer’s New Jefferson Memorial,” by Jennie Yabroff in Newsweek on 10/4/08 (http://www.newsweek.com). 
  • “President Tom’s Cabin: Jefferson, Hemings, and a disclaimed lineage,” by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker on 9/22/08 (www.newyorker.com). 
  • “The Master and the Mistress,” by Eric Foner in the NY Times on 10/5/08 (www.nytimes.com).

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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