What Jefferson Wrought: the Hemingses’ American Story

Posted September 26, 2008 at 3:42pm

More than 10 years after her groundbreaking work, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” was released, Annette Gordon-Reed is back with the next chapter of this great American saga.

In “The Hemingses of Monticello,” Gordon-Reed delves deeper into the history and place of the Hemings family, and their role in Jefferson’s life. Rather than focus solely on Sally, arguably the most famous member of the family, she seeks to present an intimate portrait of the Hemingses as a family unique in their circumstances and their influence.

“I really wanted to bring the rest of her family out into public view,” Gordon-Reed said in a phone interview. “I thought it would be a unique thing to write about, the fact that they were somewhat unique in that they were together in the same place for an extended period of time. You have this remarkable continuity.”

While many slave families were split up, sold to separate owners or given to family members or other slave owners as gifts, the Hemings family remained largely at Monticello until the time of Jefferson’s death, allowing them to establish a stability and bond rare for the time.

The extensive novel, which Gordon-Reed began nearly eight years ago, chronicles not only the family’s life with Jefferson, but also the culture of the world in which they lived. Gordon-Reed explains the nuances of racism as it was directed toward Africans and toward mulattoes, and how even white indentured servants were considered better than the black slaves. She also expresses the particular perils of being an enslaved black woman, essentially powerless against sexual assault and without much hope of emancipation for herself or her children.

The children Sally Hemings had with Jefferson, of course, were exceptions. Gordon-Reed cites Jefferson’s own writings, in which he describes two of his sons as “assistants” or “apprentices” to conceal their relationship to him. He would plan, however, for the emancipation of his one daughter and three sons by Sally, and gave them tasks while enslaved that indicated his thought for their lives after becoming free. Harriet Hemings learned spinning and weaving, which “did not automatically signal a subservient status,” as Jefferson’s own mother and sisters had been spinners. His three sons with Sally were taught to be carpenters and joiners, “the types of workers [Jefferson] admired most,” according to Gordon-Reed.

Though Sally is not the sole focus of the book, her story factors largely into it, as influential perhaps as Gordon-Reed claims Elizabeth Hemings, Sally’s grandmother and the essential matriarch of the family, to be. Indeed, the Hemings family was also unique because they were considered exceptional and specially valued by their owner.

Throughout the book, Gordon-Reed alternates stories about the family with passages offering historical context. Her conclusions on how members of the Hemings family felt at certain points in their lives, their struggles and reactions to various situations, add to the richness of the book. For instance, when she writes of the sense of independence Sally must have had as a young woman living in Paris, coming and going as though she were free and earning an income, the conflict between that life and her position as a slave woman in Virginia is almost palpable. Perhaps the greatest success of Gordon-Reed’s work is that she is able to portray the Hemings family as dynamic and vivid characters, giving an intimate look into a fascinating historical family.

Certainly, this was her goal in writing the book.

“It’s rare that you get to know about individual enslaved people,” Gordon-Reed said.

Gordon-Reed said that although much has been written about slavery, it is important to understand the complexities and struggles of an enslaved life in order to fully grasp the tragedy of slavery.

“You react better to people than to social history,” she said.

The story that Gordon-Reed weaves is fascinating and insightful, but naturally also sobering and sad. Had this been a work of fiction, readers might find themselves rooting for the Hemings family, hoping for their triumph at the end of the story. As it is, they might be rooting for them, but know already that despite their complex and inspiring lives, their story is also laced with oppression and difficulty.

She touches on these themes during her epilogue, but will likely reveal them in more detail in a subsequent book, which she has already begun. She is also working on a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and is committed to continuing the story of the Hemings family.

“This will be my life’s work, I think, at this point,” she said.