Themes and Meanings
Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” enunciates the most basic political values by which Americans define themselves. Although Jefferson’s ownership of slaves seems a troublesome contradiction of those values, it can be rationalized in the context of his times. Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1790) that “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” To assert that he maintained for thirty-eight years a sexual relationship with a woman whose body and children were his property, in violation of law and his own stated moral principles, calls for a serious reassessment of a national hero and also for a deeper awareness of moral ambiguity in the American self-image. That reevaluation is clearly one of Chase-Riboud’s main purposes in this novel, along with the attempt to recover the story of a black woman whose experience has been erased from historical consciousness.
Chase-Riboud also forces a reexamination of the meaning of the term “the American family.” Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson Randolph watch by Elizabeth Hemings’s deathbed in a “strange and southern circle of complicity,” bound by...
(The entire section is 453 words.)