The Hemingses of Monticello

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the groundbreaking The Hemingses of Monticello, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. As Annette Gordon-Reed points out in her meticulously researched narrative, many others have inquired into the emotional and private life of Thomas Jefferson, especially the historian Fawn Brodie in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974). Brodie’s controversial work was praised and attacked because it was highly speculative. On the one hand, certain critics admired her effort to reconstruct Jefferson’s affairs with Sally Hemings and Maria Cosway, even when evidence was absent. However, to make her point, Brodie had to resort to a kind of psychohistory that many professional historians disparaged. Gordon-Reed made great advances on Brodie’s approach in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), but she did not argue then that there was conclusive evidence linking the two in a sexual liaison. Instead, she pointed out how previous historians (some of them racist) had discounted the stories about Hemings’s importance in Jefferson’s life and denied that he could have possibly mated with a slave. Jefferson was sanctified, and Hemings was disparaged.

Gordon-Reed’s first book on Jefferson and Hemings received respectful reviews because of her impeccable scholarship and handling of Jefferson historiography. The subsequent availability of DNA evidence that made it virtually certain that Jefferson had fathered children by Hemings shifted the ground, so much so that historians such as Joseph Ellis could no longer doubt Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings and his role as the father of her children.

In The Hemingses of Monticello, Gordon-Reed goes much further than her previous book in fully imagining the world in which Jefferson interacted with his slaves. This was an environment in which the Jefferson and Wayles families were intertwined with the marriage of Jefferson to Martha Wayles and with his inheritance of his wife’s property and slaves, including several of the Hemingses. Sally Hemings, the daughter of slave master John Wayles and thus the half sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, grew up in the privileged atmosphere of house slaves treated with special care by Jefferson himself.

The author avoids the kind of speculative language that weakens the narratives of Brodie and others. Largely absent from Gordon-Reed’s account are such suppositional words and phrases as “must have been,” “probably,” and “perhaps.” Rather than forcing speculation about Jefferson’s motivations, she carefully charts his stays at Monticello, Paris, and Washington, D.C., noting when Hemings became part of his household, when the births of her children occurred, the instances of special treatment that the Hemings family received from Jefferson, and the commentary Jefferson’s actions provoked among his neighbors, family, political allies, and enemies. Consequently, a dense historical context is constructed that reveals how integral slavery was to Jefferson’s physical and mental well-being.

Absolutely crucial to Gordon-Reed’s argument is Jefferson’s eight-year residence in Paris. Here he cohabited with his slaves, Sally Hemings and her brother James, even arranging for James to be trained as a superlative French chef. While tracing Jefferson’s behavior, Gordon-Reed also relies on the testimony of Sally’s son, James Madison Hemings, who provides the most direct evidence of his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. Earlier historians and biographers had accused Madison (the name he preferred) of fabricating and exaggerating his connection to the Jefferson family. Similarly, the oral tradition linking the Jeffersons and the Hemingess received little respect from Jefferson scholars. Gordon-Reed demonstrates, however, that Jefferson often remained in daily contact with the Hemings family, taking considerable pride in the accomplishments of Sally’s sons.

That Jefferson did not explicitly acknowledge the existence of his African American family should not be surprising, Gordon-Reed explains. Any avowed sexual link to Sally would be usedas indeed it wasby his political enemies to attack Jefferson’s integrity. John Quincy Adams wrote satirical verse about...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)