Review of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello

While chatting with my former student, Chris Tucker, at TCH last weekend, I asked him if he would be willing to let me cross-post a review of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello that he posted on his own blog. He graciously gave me permission.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello examines the state of affairs in eighteenth century America through the eyes of the Hemings family, and argues that the actions and achievements of Thomas Jefferson were heavily influenced by the presence of this singular slave family in his life. Indeed, she successfully argues that the Hemings family– especially Sally Hemings– was not merely a minor existence in Jefferson’s personal history, nor were they the one-dimensional figures history previously considered them as. Like other great American families, they were active agents in their own personal histories, each with their own hopes for the futures, despite knowing such dreams would never be achieved. Gordon-Reed proves these claims with unprecedented research and dissection of the scholarly works that came before hers, as well as the personal writings of the numerous families and descendants of the families discussed in the book.

Gordon-Reed is trained as a lawyer, and the major strength of The Hemingses of Monticello is her impeccable attention to detail and the massive undertaking the book represents. Her analyses of the major players of the Hemings family, from the matriarch Elizabeth, to brothers Robert and James, and of course Sally, give the reader an unparalleled view into the lives of this single American family during some of the more tumultuous times in American history. Her sections on James, Sally, and Jefferson in Paris are easily the most powerful segments of this family history, especially when one takes into consideration the ultimate choice James and Sally were faced with: stay in France and pursue freedom, or return to Virginia as slaves. Further, while Sally Hemings is perhaps the most (for lack of a better word) famous of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello is first and foremost a history the family as a whole. The work achieves greatness not because of a discussion of one or two people, but due to a strong investigation into each member of the family (the narrative arc of James Hemings, Sally’s brother, and a near-constant companion of Jefferson, is especially captivating, if devastating), as well as the Jefferson and Wayles families.

While Gordon-Reed excels at painting an unseen portrait of the Hemings family, if there is a weakness in the work it is perhaps her focus is at times a bit too broad. Throughout the book, various cousins, in-laws, and other third parties weave in and out of the story, and the appearance of some distant relatives and acquaintances tends to muddle the narrative. This is hardly a weakness in such an exhaustive work; it does, however, prove to be distracting at times, especially in the latter part of the book.

The story of the Hemings family proves that the Hemingses were (and continue to be) a unique and extraordinary example of slavery in America, an exception to the rule. It can be correctly assumed that most slave families, that is families linked by blood relation to one another, were few and far between during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the fact that the Hemingses were such a close-knit family is remarkable. Indeed, much of this can be attributed to the Hemingses’ relationship to Jefferson’s late wife, and of course, the birth of his own children with Sally Hemings. Nevertheless, Gordon-Reed does not portray the Hemings as one big happy family, nor is Jefferson described as a saint. Take, for example, the section of Jefferson’s will; Jefferson, Gordon-Reed writes, “believed… in taking life by the ‘smooth handle.’ Putting the name of Sally Hemings in his will, along with their two children, would have been the very opposite of smooth” (657). Thus, despite how strongly Jefferson may or may not have felt towards his slaves, least of all Sally, even towards the end he was more dedicated to his legacy than the freedom of his “servants.”

Was Thomas Jefferson a lonely widower who found comfort, and perhaps love, in the form of his teenage slave, or was he acting on the devious, lustful impulses of an eighteenth-century American slave owner? Is the idea of “love” between a slave and master simply a contemporary construct? Gordon-Reed resists offering a definitive answer to Jefferson’s motives; she does, however, provide the definitive truth of the Hemings family; indeed, they were an American family, as deeply-rooted in the soil of Monticello as Jefferson himself.

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