The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
by Annette Gordon-Reed
The Virginia-born slave Sally Hemings was 16 and living in Paris when she conceived her first child with Thomas Jefferson. She could have petitioned the French government for her freedom from the 46-year-old widower, says author Annette Gordon-Reed, but chose instead to make a deal. Sally had learned from her mother’s example that there could be benefits to being a white gentleman’s concubine. After all, Sally and her five siblings held the choicest slave positions at Jefferson’s Monticello because they and Jefferson’s recently deceased wife had shared a father. Sally wanted more than favored treatment, though. She would return to Monticello, she told her new lover, only if he agreed that their offspring would be granted freedom at age 21.
What a bizarre household Monticello must have been, said Edmund S. and Marie Morgan in The New York Review of Books. In Gordon-Reed’s “brilliant” new book, neither the Hemingses nor the Jeffersons resemble any family we might know today. Jefferson apparently considered Monticello “a showcase of his version of slavery.” Though he sold or gave away hundreds of slaves, he kept Sally’s siblings and children close to him, seeing to it that each learned a valuable trade. What’s more, he maintained “a monogamous spousal relationship” with Sally from 1789 until his death in 1826. Sally is certainly “the most compelling figure” in Gordon-Reed’s 600-page volume, said Fergus M. Bordewich in The Washington Post. But the book shows virtually an entire family of slaves maneuvering intelligently “to achieve maximum advantage for themselves” within the bounds of an abhorrent institution.
Gordon-Reed first laid out her evidence about Jefferson and Hemings’ true relationship in a lawyerly book published 11 years ago, said Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. Now that most other historians have finally accepted the outlines of that story, she’s successfully expanded it into “an elaborate reconstruction” of a century-long American epic. Her account offers “unparalleled insight” into 18th-century Virginia, but a “tragic denouement,” said François Furstenberg in Slate.com. All four of Sally’s adult children eventually were freed, including three who “quietly passed into the white community.” But Jefferson died so deeply in debt that the Hemings family was eventually “torn asunder,” its older members sold away by the former president’s creditors.