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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Familyby Annette Gordon-Reed
2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction
"[A] very important and powerfully argued history of the Hemings family....Gordon-Reed...has the imagination and the talent of an expert historian....[W]ith this book Gordon-Reed explores Jefferson's relationship to Sally Hemings and the rest of his household slaves with a degree of detail and intimacy never before achieved." Gordon S. Wood, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
"Pathbreaking....and very moving" (Edmund S. Morgan) — the multigenerational story of Thomas Jefferson's hidden slave family.
This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings's siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson's wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family's compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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' 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' 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. Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782. Thomas Jefferson would remain a nominal bachelor for the remainder of his long life. During his service as U.S. ambassador to France, which began in 1784, he summoned Hemings to Paris as an attendant for his youngest daughter, Polly. According to Gordon-Reed, the relationship became sexual in Paris, on the cusp of the French Revolution, when Hemings was 16 and Jefferson was 46. They remained together until Jefferson's death in 1826. Hemings left no written testimony, and Jefferson was careful to leave few traces of the true nature of their liaison. "When it came to the care and deployment of his image, which if managed properly would leave him with the positive legacy of 'great man,' Jefferson was supremely disciplined and controlled," Gordon-Reed observes. Her deconstruction of this occluded relationship is a masterpiece of detective work. Although she employs a considerable amount of deductive reasoning, she resists facile speculation and relies on a very close reading of the surviving documentary record wedded to copious knowledge of slavery as it was practiced by members of Jefferson's social class at the time. For instance, Gordon-Reed delves into the startlingly open relationship between Sally's oldest sister, Mary, and a prosperous Charlottesville merchant, Thomas Bell, to whom Jefferson had hired her out. A mutual attachment developed, and Mary eventually asked Jefferson to sell her to Bell; Jefferson agreed. "Within the extremely narrow constraints of what life offered her — ownership by Thomas Jefferson or ownership by Thomas Bell — Mary Hemings took an action that had enormous, lasting, and, in the end, quite favorable consequences for her, her two youngest children, and the Hemings family as a whole," writes Gordon-Reed. "She found in Bell a man willing to live openly with her, and to treat her and her children as if they were bound together as a legal family." Gordon-Reed bravely attempts to untangle a particularly fraught question: Could genuine love exist between master and slave? With its acknowledgment that slavery's unequal balance of power "grossly distorted" the play of human emotions, her conclusion is necessarily subtle and may not satisfy those who require monochromatic answers. Had Hemings been merely a plaything, Gordon-Reed points out, Jefferson could have simply let her stay in France, where slavery had been abolished and a well-trained servant like her would have had little difficulty finding work. Instead, he wanted Hemings to return with him to Virginia so intensely that he was willing to bargain with her, by promising her personal privileges as well as eventual freedom for their offspring. Hemings, for her part, was "a smart, if overconfident, attractive teenage girl who understood very well how men saw her and was greatly impressed with her newly discovered power to move an infatuated middle-aged man." Had sex been all that Jefferson wanted, he could have hidden her away at one of his several farms in Virginia. But he arranged his life at Monticello so that Hemings would be in it every day that he was there. She led a life as close to that of a wife as any enslaved woman could in antebellum Virginia. To Jefferson, Gordon-Reed plausibly argues, Hemings offered a "familiar presence, telling him what he needed to hear about what was happening on the farm, having sex, attending to his needs, being the person of his private world who listened to him complain or voice fears about matters that he might not want to reveal to others." She says of Hemings, "At the end of her life she would be able to say that she got the important things that she most wanted." Defenders of slavery tirelessly promoted the canard that emancipation would lead to an epidemic of miscegenation that would ruin America's blood stock. The truth — the great open secret of the antebellum South — was that race-mixing was embedded, quite literally, in the culture of slaveholding, where masters' sexual exploitation of their female "property" was not a crime. Gordon-Reed writes, "The pervasive doctrine of white supremacy supposedly inoculated whites against the will to interracial mixing, but that doctrine proved to be unreliable when matched against the force of human sexuality." American slaves and their descendants, she says, "are the only victims of a historically recognized system of oppression who are made to carry the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that things endemic to their oppression actually happened to them." In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery. Jefferson kept his promise to Sally Hemings. All their children eventually went free. Of the four children who reached adulthood, three lived as whites. The fourth, Madison Hemings, married a woman so fair-skinned that some of their children were also able to pass for white. The Hemingses were, of course, in a class by themselves, as Gordon-Reed frequently underscores. The rest of Jefferson's many slaves were sold off to pay his debts. "The only route to freedom ... was the possession of Wayles, Jefferson, or Hemings blood," writes Gordon-Reed. "No one else had a chance." Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is "Washington: The Making of the American Capital." Reviewed by Fergus M. Bordewich, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"This is a masterpiece brimming with decades of dedicated research and dexterous writing. It is essential for any collection on U.S. history, Colonial America, Virginia, slavery, or miscegenation." Library Journal
"Gordon-Reed delivers a powerful composite portrait of the African American family whose labors helped make Jefferson's Virginia residence a fountainhead of American culture....A must-have acquisition for every American history collection." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A] riveting and compassionate family portrait that deserves to endure as a model of historical inquiry. In a field overcrowded with hagiographies of the Founding Fathers...this book stands dramatically apart for its searching intelligence and breadth of humane vision." Chicago Tribune
"There is no clue in the life of this intertwined family that Gordon-Reed does not minutely examine for its most subtle significance....Ponderous but sagacious and ultimately rewarding." Kirkus Reviews
"[D]eeply researched, often gripping....Gordon-Reed has given us an important story that is ultimately about the timeless quest for justice and human dignity." San Francisco Chronicle
An epic saga of the Hemings family, whose bloodline has been mixed with that of Thomas Jefferson since our third president took slave Sally Hemings as a mistress.
Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: "[A] commanding and important book."--Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
The immensely rich biography of a houseand#8212;Sylvester Manor, on Shelter Island, New Yorkand#8212;and of the unknown Colonial way of life it reveals The acclaimed author and landscape historian Mac Griswold brings alive the story both of the seventeenth-century provisioning plantation for the West Indies and of its English-Dutch foundersand#8212;the existence of which Griswold uncovered in her ten years of research in the secret family vault, beautiful Georgian house, gardens, and burial grounds. Nathaniel Sylvester and his seventeen-year-old bride, Grizzell, converted Quakers, were at the center of early New England radicalism. And yet they owned twenty-four African slaves, who lived in intimate connection with the family. On-site archeological excavations illuminating 350 years of habitationand#8212;the longest span one family has continuously occupied the same property north of the Mason-Dixon lineand#8212;are themselves a fascinating subtext of Griswoldand#8217;s story. The digs reveal, astonishingly, a Manhansett encampment less than a hundred yards from the house. A number of these people, too, labored on the plantation. The bookand#8217;s story of this forced merger of three cultures, fused in an extraordinary way of life, has never before been so powerfully documented.
The immensely rich biography of an American house--Sylvester Manor, on Shelter Island, New York--and of the unknown creole way of colonial life it reveals
Acclaimed author and landscape historian Mac Griswold brings alive both the house, a 17th-century provisioning plantation for the West Indies, and its remarkable English-Dutch founders--a tale uncovered in the course of her ten years of research in the Manor's family vault and barely disturbed grounds. Nathaniel Sylvester and his sixteen-year-old bride Grizzell, converted Quakers, were at the center of early New England radicalism. And yet they owned twenty-two African slaves, living in intimate connection with the family. Astonishingly, as revealed through the on-site work of highly trained archaeologists--excavations that are themselves an engaging subtext of Griswold's story--there was an encampment of Manhansett people less than a hundred yards from the house. A number of these people, too, served the plantation. The book's fascinating illumination of these three cultures fused in an extraordinary and fleeting creole way of life has never before been documented in early American history.
About the Author
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She lives in New York City.
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