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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American…
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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (edition 2009)

by Annette Gordon-Reed (Author)

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Title:The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
Authors:Annette Gordon-Reed (Author)
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2009), Edition: Reprint, 816 pages
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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the difficulties of tracing family history and 'bloodlines' of enslaved persons, and this is also must reading for anyone who wants to understand the difficulties of people of color, particularly the so-called Mulatto Families.

In Solidarity with All Kind People,
Peace via Cooperation and Non-Cooperation,
ShiraDest
8th of December, 12015 HE

( )
  FourFreedoms | May 17, 2019 |
A fascinating book about the inconsistencies of Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery, as well as his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, after his wife died. The book is well written, but, as others have noted, it is extremely repetitive. The author takes each event in the life of Sally or one of her brothers and dissects it. She uses other sources extensively, but also tries to get the reader to imagine what it would be like to be in that person's place and make a particular decision. For example, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and one of her brothers spent a couple years in Paris. They could have been free if they had stayed when Jefferson left, but they came back with him. Why? In Sally's case it was because the future children she would have with Jefferson would be freed when they became adults. Is that sufficient reason? Why didn't she free herself? It gets complicated. She is a woman, so if her brother didn't stay with her in Paris, she would be alone and in danger. It was just before the French Revolution, so there was a lot of unrest everywhere. The author goes through each life change in great detail. So, it is a loooong book. There are discussions of Jefferson's changing ideas on slavery, how he treated black slaves versus those who had a white ancestor, his plantation slaves versus his house slaves etc. There are discussions of his finances and how it affected slaves, many of whom lost family members when he had to sell his "human property" to pay the bills.

I had to take breaks, but I am very glad I read it! ( )
  krazy4katz | May 13, 2019 |
This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the difficulties of tracing family history and 'bloodlines' of enslaved persons, and this is also must reading for anyone who wants to understand the difficulties of people of color, particularly the so-called Mulatto Families.

In Solidarity with All Kind People,
Peace via Cooperation and Non-Cooperation,
ShiraDest
8th of December, 12015 HE

( )
  ShiraDest | Mar 6, 2019 |
The first thing to understand about this book is that it is not just a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, nor is it in fact focused on Jefferson, although he naturally plays a large role in this history. The author took the opportunity provided by Jefferson’s fame and record-keeping to profile a slave family, the Hemingses, because accounts about the lives of slaves in early America are few and far between. As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.

It begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father. Elizabeth and her mother came into the ownership of John Wayles when Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took his slave Elizabeth Hemings as his mistress, and was the father of six of her children. Sarah (Sally) Hemings was one of their daughters. The mixed-race children of John Wayles were kept in slavery. Virginia had a number of laws to ensure this rule obtained.

The Virginia House of Burgesses was called upon in the late 1600’s to answer the question of “whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free” on account of challenges to enslaved status by mulattos (people of mixed race). Their response was to turn English law upside down by reaching back to an archaic Roman rule, partus sequitur ventrem (you are what your mother was). That is, Virginia passed laws establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, as stipulated in Britain, determined the legal status of the child. The author explains that this change from British law ensured that white masters could retain the value of "increase" when these female slaves gave birth, because as long as the child's mother was a slave, it wouldn't matter who the father was. Masters could therefore continue to exploit the popular option of using female slaves for sex without having to worry that this would cause them to lose their "property." [Other states, particularly in the South, quickly followed suit. Further laws were passed to ensure that even "one drop" of "black blood" made the difference between slavery and freedom. You can read more about the history of the "one drop rule" (and its uniqueness to the U.S.) here.]

The legal degradation of blacks played a “useful” role in uniting the country as well. The sore point of inequalities of class, initially the cause of greatest tensions in the colonies, was superseded as the prime dividing line for status within the colony when race entered the picture: “Instead, poor whites, encouraged by the policies of the elites, took refuge in their whiteness and the dream that one day they, too, could become slave owners, though only a relative handful could ever hope to amass the land, wealth, and social position of the most prominent member of the Virginia gentry…”. (As historian Keri Leigh Merritt observes: "Throughout American history, the economic elite have used vile forms of racism to perpetuate the current hierarchy — politically, socially and economically. White supremacy is most commonly conceptualized as a way for lower-class whites to feel socially superior to people from other ethnic backgrounds.")

Before long, “whiteness” came to signify the superiority of one socially and legally defined population over others, while simultaneously inculcating notions that character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness or non-whiteness. Thomas Jefferson himself contributed to that idea with his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written by him in 1781, and updated and enlarged in 1782 and 1783. While the book also discussed Virginia’s natural resources and economy, it is remembered today primarily for Jefferson’s observations about slavery, miscegenation, and his beliefs that whites and blacks could not live together in a free society. Jefferson said he thought blacks were inferior to whites in terms of beauty (he cites such “superior” traits in whites as “flowing hair”) and reasoning intelligence. (He observes, for example, “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”). But as Gordon-Reed often has cause to point out, the “public” and “rhetorical” Jefferson was quite a different man than the private Jefferson. The author sardonically observes: "White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self interests, not sincere belief, is the signature feature..."

In fact in private, Jefferson had a long-standing relationship (38 years) with a mixed-race woman, Sally Hemings, who was, as noted above, Elizabeth Hemings’s daughter by a white father. (Elizabeth Hemings and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.) Sally (a nickname for Sarah), bore seven children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood, over the course of their liaison. Since Elizabeth herself was half white, Sally was one-fourth white, and by all accounts quite a beauty, “in spite of” (or because of) her part-black ancestry. Sally was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. When Martha married Jefferson, John Wayles had already died, and the whole Hemings family had moved with Martha to Monticello. Jefferson and Martha had two daughters that survived, and Sally became their ladies’ maid. Portentously, when Jefferson went overseas to serve as United States ambassador to pre-revolutionary France, he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion. But Jefferson’s daughters went away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Sally, then around 14, and Jefferson, in his early forties, began a sexual affair. [While this sounds egregious to us, “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.”] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.

The author explains how it was that Sally forwent the opportunity of freedom she could have had by staying in France. Rather, she opted (if that word even applies to a slave who was a young, impressionable, and inexperienced girl, not to mention one who was pregnant) to come back to Virginia with Jefferson, having apparently extracted a promise from him that their children would be freed when they came of age. [The author suggests that because Jefferson was both self-indulgent, ambitious, and anxious to make his mark on America without any mark on his reputation, Sally had a bit of “power” over Jefferson at that point since an affair with a slave would have sullied his image in America.] And note: the only promise she could apparently get was not that their children be freed immediately, but only at the age of 21. Sally herself could not be freed since "interbreeding" between whites and free blacks was illegal but having sex with a “slave” was not, and it seems Jefferson wanted to continue their "arrangement." [As the author observes, as long as white men did not try to elevate slaves and the children they had with them to the “status” of white people or bestow upon them the privileges of whites, they were left alone to do with their “property” as they pleased.] But again, allegedly, Jefferson agreed to treat Sally well.

The book is about more than Sally, however, and the author also goes into great detail about the other Hemings of Monticello, including the children Sally had with Jefferson, three of whom, being only one-eighth black, could apparently pass for white. While Jefferson was meticulous in recording even the smallest detail about most things and most slaves, including most Hemingses, his records are also notable for their omissions. The legacy-conscious Jefferson left out any information about Sally. When he had cause to refer to their children, it was only obliquely with no names, a markedly different practice than he used otherwise. His documentation of the minutiae of his life except as noted above allows us to know a great deal about the rest of this slave family.

There is no way to know whether the alleged affection and loyalty shown by slaves to Jefferson was genuine, but both his presence and his absence had serious consequences for them. As long as he lived, he endeavored to keep the Hemingses together and in a somewhat privileged position (vis-a-vis other slaves) at Monticello. But within six months of his death on July 4, 1826, the contents of Monticello and 130 slaves, including Hemingses, were auctioned off.

The slaves themselves had no control over who was sold, who purchased them, or where they went and for what purposes. Family members were separated to the great heartache of those affected. This included the Hern family. David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks during his 50 years at Monticello. He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. His son, David Hern Jr., was a wagoner who made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. Nevertheless, after Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold. Similarly, Joseph Fossett and his wife Edith served as the blacksmith and head cook at Monticello, respectively. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.

This fact reminds us of an important point stressed throughout the book by the author. In spite of Jefferson’s relative “laxness” regarding his slaves, they were never totally free in any sense, because they were at all times living in a slave society under a regime of white supremacy. Thus “slavery was more than just the relationship between an individual master and an individual slave. The entire white community was involved in maintaining the institution and the racial rules that grew up around it…. ”

(At the same time, as the author also shows, “The profanity of slavery does not define the entirety of lives of enslaved people.”)

Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her disposition was made in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. This was a way to grant freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. (Martha did however permit Sally to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings's children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson's 1826 will.

The Monticello website reports:

“[Sally’s] son Madison told a newspaperman in 1873 that ‘shortly after’ Jefferson's death he and his brother Eston, who both had been freed in Jefferson's will, took their mother to live in Charlottesville with them. Sally Hemings had not been freed in the will, yet she appeared with Madison Hemings as a free person of color in a special census in 1833 (and the census of 1830 also suggests she was considered free). In a superseded will of 1834, Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph wrote that ‘to Betsy Hemmings, Sally & Wormley I wish my children to give their time. If liberated they would be obliged to leave the state of Virginia.’ This was probably a written reinforcement of a previous verbal arrangement. If it was made at Jefferson's recommendation before his death, no document has been found to confirm it.”

While, as stated previously, this book was not meant to be primarily about Jefferson, we get an excellent look at the man behind the legend from this story. As Roger Wilkins wrote in Jefferson’s Pillow: “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

Ironically, however, Annette Gordon-Reed paints Jefferson in rather a more positive light than other recent historians. While she mentions that he didn't like to lose on any issue, she also emphasizes how much he disliked conflict, almost suggesting he would "give in" rather than have disagreement be a part of his life. She thereby downplays his consistent record of using often vicious tactics by operating sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. One could see him using every aspect of this trait to bend Sally to his will.

The author wants to confer agency on Sally, but the entire time she was his mistress, she did, after all, continue to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She moreover was relegated to a hidden room in Monticello, while Jefferson's daughter served as the mistress of the estate.

Discussion: The Hemings and Jefferson family trees are a bit hard to follow, through no fault of the author’s. It seems there were a limited number of names in use by these intertwined families (in part because naming each other in honor of other family members was practiced). Besides having the same names, they had nicknames which bore no logical relationships to the names themselves. Access to charts detailing, for example, which Martha was which, is helpful. The hard copy of the book has a chart, and you can see a small portion of one below.

Evaluation:This is an excellent and detailed recounting of the complex nature and legacy of someone who was not only a seminal figure in the history of America, but the author of the founding credo “All men are created equal.” It explores the interrelationships between the man who wrote this, and the slaves he owned. It is also a story of slave family in greater detail than we often have access to; a story that has so many elements of tragedy, even while revealing occasional moments of triumph and joy.

Students of American history should not avoid this book because of its length. I found it consistently engaging and full of riveting details about the early years of America that are critical to understanding what our country was then, and what it has become. ( )
1 vote nbmars | Nov 3, 2017 |
The history and scholarship of this was very well done. I appreciated the conjecture into the possible emotions of these people and the historical justifications given. My only hang up was wishing the epilogue had been longer. I'm now anxious to seek out information about 20th century connections and how the truths of this tale were uncovered and brought to light. ( )
  lissabeth21 | Oct 3, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
The Hemingses of Monticello is a brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed's achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers.... While praising her grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter.
 
Engrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature (e.g., “Youth in females has attracted men in all eras across all cultures”). Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book.
 
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So the beginning of this was a woman... Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
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To my husband, Robert Reed, and our daughter, Susan Jean Gordon Reed, and our son, Gordon Penn Reed
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Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393064778, Hardcover)

Book Description
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.

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.

Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed

Amazon.com: One stunning element to this story, for someone who might only know its bare outline, is that these families, so intimately related across the lines of race and slavery, were so even before Jefferson's union with Sally Hemings: Hemings was not only his slave, but also the half-sister of his late wife, Martha Wayles. (That fact alone could provide enough drama for a hundred novels.) Could you describe the family he married into?

Gordon-Reed: Well, it has been sort of a mystery. Relatively little is known about Martha Wayles and her family life before she married Jefferson, and even after her marriage. A historian, Virginia Scharff, will be writing on this subject soon. But John Wayles, the father of Sally Hemings, five of Sally's siblings, and Martha has been something of a cipher. I tried finding out about him when I was working on my first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. I broke off the search because his life was not really the focus of the book, but I had to come back to him for this one. It turns out he was apparently brought to America as a servant, and was given a leg up in life by a prominent Virginian named Philip Ludwell. Martha’s mother, also named Martha (it gets confusing) died not long after she was born. Then she had two stepmothers who died. The first had three daughters with John Wayles. After his third wife died, Wayles had six children with Elizabeth Hemings, the last of whom was Sarah (Sally) Hemings. Jefferson married a woman who had known a great deal of tragedy in her young life. She had lost her mother, two stepmothers, a husband, and child by the time she was 23, just unfathomable stuff from a modern perspective.

Amazon.com: Of course, one other source of drama is that Jefferson, at the same time that he was one of the greatest advocates for equality and freedom, also held slaves, including one he was joined so intimately with. How did he reconcile that to himself, if he did?

Gordon-Reed: I don't think this was something that Jefferson agonized about on a daily basis. This is not to say it wasn't important, but it didn’t concern him the way it concerns us. I think the Federalists and the threat he believed they posed to the future development of the United States concerned him far more. Jefferson was contradictory, but we are, too. Who does not have intellectual beliefs that he or she is not emotionally or constitutionally capable of living by? I find it more than a little disingenuous to act as if this were something that set Jefferson apart from all mankind. It's always easier to spot others' hypocrisies while missing our own. He dealt with the conflict between recognizing the evils of slavery, to some degree, by fashioning himself as a "benevolent" slave holder and taking refuge in the notion that "progress" would one day bring about the end of slavery. It wouldn't happen in his time, but it would happen. That is not a satisfactory response to many today, but there it is.

Amazon.com: What was Jefferson's relationship with his children with Hemings like? What lives did they find for themselves after his death?

Gordon-Reed: That was one of the most interesting things to research and ponder. There are a series of letters between Jefferson and his overseer at Poplar Forest, his retreat in Bedford County, where he spent a good amount of time during his retirement years. In those letters, he announces his impending arrival. He'll say things like "Johnny Hemings and his two assistants will be coming with me," and depending upon the year, the two assistants were his sons Beverley and Madison Hemings or Madison and Eston Hemings. Poplar Forest is 90 miles away from Monticello. That was a journey of days together. Then, when they got there, John Hemings, Beverley, Madison, and Eston would work on the house where Jefferson was staying, where they evidently stayed, too. They were there together, in pretty isolated circumstances, for weeks at a time. Jefferson, who fancied himself a woodworker, too, spent lots of time with John Hemings and, in the process, spent time with his sons, who were Hemings's apprentices. Madison Hemings remembers Jefferson as being kind to him and his siblings, as he was to everyone, but said he rarely gave them the type of playful attention he gave to his grandchildren. The phrase Hemings uses is that he was "not in the habit" of doing that. Yet, all the sons played the violin like Jefferson, and one who became a professional musician, Eston, used a favorite Jefferson song as his signature tune. We have little sense of his dealings with Harriet, the daughter. He sent her away from Monticello when she was 21 with the modern equivalent of about $900 to join her brother, Beverley, who had left a couple of months before.

I think a very important, and telling, thing is that none of the Hemings children had an identity as a servant. The sons were trained to be the kind of artisans Jefferson admired the most, builders--carpenters and joiners--and the daughter spent her time learning to spin and weave. Women of all races and classes did that, even Jefferson's mothers and sisters. Harriet Hemings wasn't turned into a maid for his granddaughters, which would have been a natural thing for her but for her relationship to him. The Hemings children were trained to leave slavery without ever developing the sensibilities of servants. Beverley and Harriet left Monticello as white people, married white people, and pretty much disappeared, although they kept in contact with their nuclear family. When Jefferson died, Madison and Eston, who were freed in his will, took their mother and moved into Charlottesville. They were listed as free white people in the 1830 census, and as free mulatto people in a special census done in 1833 to ask blacks if they wanted to go back to Africa. They all said no. Not long after their mother died, Madison left Virginia for Ohio and Eston joined him later. At some point Eston decided that living as a black person was too onerous and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, under the name E.H. Jefferson. He had children by this time, and they all became Jeffersons. As all blacks who "pass" into the white community must do, in later years the family buried their descent from Jefferson. There was no way to claim him as a direct ancestor without admitting that they were part black, which would have cut off all the opportunities their children had as white people.

Amazon.com: Your title emphasizes Monticello, the rural retreat this family shared. What was the household on "the mountain" like for the Hemingses?

Gordon-Reed: Sally Hemings and her siblings along with her mother were personal attendants to the Jefferson family. They worked in the mansion most of the time. The next generation of Hemingses had more varied experiences. They became the artisans working on the plantation. We get some sense from Jefferson's legal white grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that some of the other people enslaved on the mountain were jealous of the privileges that the Hemings had. Martin, Robert, and James Hemings were allowed to hire their own time and keep their wages. They traveled to Richmond, Williamsburg and Fredericksburg to do this. The only people Jefferson ever freed were members of the Hemings family. They were people who were treated as, and saw themselves as, something of a caste apart from other enslaved people.

Amazon.com: How much of the evidence for this history has been available for centuries, and how much has only become available to us in recent years?

Gordon-Reed: Except for the DNA evidence showing a link between the Hemings and Jefferson families, all of this information has been available. I didn't discover or say anything in my first book that could not have been said or discovered by others, and I haven't found anything for this book that other people could not have found. It's always been there.

Amazon.com: And what are the limits of what we can know about these lives? What have you had to imagine, especially about Hemings and Jefferson's relationship, and how have you done so?

Gordon-Reed: Except for Madison Hemings, we don't have personal accounts from the Hemingses of their lives. Robert Hemings corresponded with Jefferson in the 1790s, but all of those letters are missing. We have descriptions of what Sally Hemings did from others' records--letters, census documents, things like that. As I say in the book, that's pretty much what we have to go on with Jefferson and his wife too, since we don't have any letters from her describing her life. Yet people use what we have to come to a conclusion about the nature of their life together. There's nothing wrong with that. I do the same thing for Jefferson and Sally Hemings. It's a combination of what people said about their lives, inferences from the actions they took, and a consideration of the context in which they were living. Some people have problems with the use of "inferences." I don't, so long as they are reasonable. In fact, I would trust the reasonable inferences from a person's repeated behavior through the years over what they say any day, because a people can say anything. I do believe that actions often speak louder than words. Contrary to popular belief, there are lots of actions on the part of Jefferson and Hemings that "speak" about the basic nature of their relationship.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:56 -0400)

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Historian and legal scholar Gordon-Reed presents this epic work that tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family and their close blood ties to Thomas Jefferson.

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