American Roots: THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO

Annette Gordon-Reed – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
Thomas Jefferson’s contradictions have long baffled historians. His clarion assertion of human equality in the Declaration of Independence became the battle cry of the abolitionist movement. Yet he lived on the fruits of slave labor and never risked political capital (or his own comfort) to oppose the institution of slavery. He regarded blacks as odorous, intellectually inferior and incapable of creating art. Yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed convincingly argues in this monumental and original book, he cohabited for more than 30 years with an African American woman with whom he conceived seven children.
Liberating the woman known to Jefferson’s smirking enemies as “dusky Sally” from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers.
In Sally Hemings’s day, Gordon-Reed writes, she was “the most well-known enslaved person in America.” Her connection to Jefferson was brutally exposed and mocked by his political opponents during his first presidency, while black churchmen in the early republic preached sermons on her “family situation.” The publicity was sufficiently embarrassing that Jefferson’s partisans and descendants crafted a sanitized and sexless version of life at Monticello that continued until our own day. Although controversy persists, recent DNA research has caused most historians to accept Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s children.
Gordon-Reed first probed the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in her 1997 book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.” Now she deepens and widens her view to encompass the entire sprawling Hemings clan as actors on the stage of history. Members of the Hemings family came to Monticello as part of the inheritance of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. They were the offspring of Martha’s father and his enslaved concubine Elizabeth Hemings, and thus Martha’s own siblings. (In a different society, they would never have been Jefferson’s slaves at all and would instead have shared in the inheritance that Martha acquired from her father’s estate; the same could later be said of Jefferson’s own mixed-race children.) Gordon-Reed’s exploration of the lives of other members of the Hemings family — most notably Sally’s mother, Elizabeth, and her brothers, Robert and James, who served as valets to Jefferson — is also exhaustive and fascinating in its own right. But Sally is the most compelling figure.
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