The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
By Annette Gordon-Reed
(W.W. Norton, 756 pp., $35)
Although Thomas Jefferson spoke out strongly against slavery, he was always pessimistic about actually abolishing the institution. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, which appeared in 1785, he declared that the "unfortunate difference of colour" between the black slaves and whites was "a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people." In 1798 Jefferson's prot?g? and "adoptive son" William Short decided to confront his patron's pessimistic views head on. In a long and remarkable letter, Short outlined what he believed to be the most practical way of ending slavery in the United States. Short had been Jefferson's secretary when Jefferson was minister to France in the 1780s, and he had remained in Europe in various diplomatic capacities. Apparently influenced by his experiences in Spain in the 1790s, the thirty-nine-year-old Short had concluded that intermixture between whites and blacks offered the best solution to America's racial predicament--a solution that may be as meaningful today as it was two hundred years ago.
Short knew, of course, about America's "deep rooted prejudices," and he was aware of Jefferson's "great aversion" to miscegenation between whites and blacks. Consequently, the young diplomat approached the idea of racial mixing with great care, realizing, as he said, that some of "the most enlightened & virtuous minds" believed it to be an "evil." Still, Short asked, was not "the mixture of the two colors" a much lesser evil "than keeping 700,000 people & their descendants in perpetual slavery"? And he continued: "Even admitting that this mixture should change our hue & that all our Southern inhabitants should advance to the middle ground between their present color & the black . . . still they would not be of a darker color than the inhabitants of some of the provinces of Spain." And these slightly darker Spaniards suffer no "inconvenience" from other Spaniards or from the rest of Europe "merely on account of their color."
Even in America, Short told Jefferson, there were "some people darker, than the gradual mixture of the blacks can ever make us," and they experienced no prejudice. In fact, he maintained, there were dark-complexioned women in America who were quite attractive. He gave as an example Frances Bland Randolph Tucker, mother of John Randolph of Roanoke and wife of St. George Tucker. "There is no country that might not be content to have its women like her," he said. Short concluded by claiming that those who were the products of a black and white mixture could be as inspiringly beautiful as "those who can boast the perfect mixture of the rose & and the lilly."
Jefferson never acknowledged what Annette Gordon-Reed rightly calls "this utterly astounding" letter, even though Short twice asked him for a response. The reason is not far to seek. For Jefferson, Short's idea of racial mixing and the beauty of dark-complexioned people cut too close to home. Shortly before receiving this letter, Jefferson's mulatto concubine, Sally Hemings, had given birth to a baby whom Gordon-Reed and most historians now believe to be Jefferson's son, Beverley Hemings. Of course Jefferson could never openly recognize his son. Neither could he publicly acknowledge his relationship with Sally Hemings, nor could he publicly regard what he called racial "amalgamation" as anything other than "a degradation." Why this should have been so is only one of the many questions that Gordon-Reed attempts to answer in this very important and powerfully argued history of the Hemings family.
Although Gordon-Reed was trained as a lawyer, she has the imagination and the talent of an expert historian. In addition to being a professor of law at New York Law School, she has also become a professor of history at Rutgers University. And with this book Gordon-Reed explores Jefferson's relationship to Sally Hemings and the rest of his household slaves with a degree of detail and intimacy never before achieved. If anyone had any doubts about whether Sally Hemings was Jefferson's concubine, The Hemingses of Monticello should put them to rest.
In 1998, Nature magazine published a brief article reporting on DNA tests that strongly suggested that Jefferson was the father of the last son of his slave Sally Hemings. Although the general public was excited by this finding, many historians thought it simply confirmed a relationship that they had already come to accept--largely owing to a book that Gordon-Reed published a year earlier, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. In that work, Gordon-Reed had devastatingly criticized the manner in which professional historians had treated the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison. She approached the controversy as a lawyer investigating how historians analyzed and used evidence and conceived of proof. Out of white pride or hero worship, she concluded, the Jefferson scholars had mishandled or ignored evidence of a relationship between Jefferson and his female slave, and had demanded a burden of proof that was impossible to attain. Above all, they had played down the extent of racial mixing that existed in the country and had ignored black testimony. Why, Gordon-Reed asked, should historians have dismissed out of hand Madison Hemings's claim that Jefferson was his father?
There is also, of course, the long oral tradition of the black heirs of Thomas Woodson claiming that their ancestor was actually the first of Hemings's children--a claim that, unfortunately for the Woodson heirs, the DNA finding does not substantiate. The best that Gordon-Reed can do with this embarrassing Woodson problem is to say that "it seems clear that the Woodson family is connected to the Hemingses," with "the only question that remains" being "exactly what that connection is."
In her new book Gordon-Reed has not abandoned her incisive legal approach to evidence, but here she has essentially become a historian, and a superb one. She has set out to do what she thinks professional historians should have been doing all along. With great historical imagination, she has done far more than put together a convincing case for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. She has also reconstructed the complicated and intimate relations between black and white families in Jefferson's household over several generations. And perhaps most important, she has uncovered the many expressions of humanity by both blacks and whites existing within a fundamentally inhumane institution.
Gordon-Reed's long, dense, and fascinating volume makes abundantly clear that there was no single slave experience in the Virginia of the early republic. "Tempting and romantic as it may be to construct a monolithic population of slaves who acted cohesively across color and genetic lines because of their common enslaved status," she writes, "it is more realistic to accept that different individuals and families had different understandings about where they stood in relation to other slaves, within the slave system, and, indeed, within America's racial hierarchy." The mixed world of the Jefferson-Hemings families "shows the problem with seeing slavery through the eyes of twentieth-century residential Jim Crow."
Indeed, suggests Gordon-Reed, there may even be a lesson for our own time from all this racial mixing that has created various distinctions among blacks. "There has been a tendency throughout American history, and into the present day," she remarks, "to see black people as symbols or representations rather than as individual human beings." Whites have too often assumed that "the concept of individual as opposed to group identity is meaningless for blacks." Although blacks themselves have contributed to that assumption of group identity, her book shows how wrong that assumption is. She wisely insists that "there was not then, as there is not now, one way to be black."
History, according to Gordon-Reed, "is to a great degree an imaginative enterprise." And since the evidence of the Hemingses and the other slaves in Jefferson's Monticello is so sparse and fragmentary (Jefferson scarcely ever mentions Sally Hemings in his extant papers), Gordon-Reed needed a lot of imagination to write this book. Conceding that "there is something strange" about Sally Hemings's "near-invisibility in Jefferson family exchanges," she has had to rely a great deal on conjecture and "reasonable inferences"--and on what she refers to as "connect the dots." At times Gordon-Reed's effort reminds one of Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, putting together "out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking" a story of shadows that seemed more imagined than real.
Despite all these difficulties, Gordon-Reed's account of the Hemingses at Monticello is persuasive. And it turns out that there exists much more evidence for her to work with than one might initially assume--or we might better say that she has uncovered much more evidence than other historians have been able to uncover. Although Gordon-Reed concedes that we know very little about Sally Hemings and her attitudes about her life as a slave, we do know quite a bit about the lives and attitudes of the other Hemingses, and we can use that knowledge to help us to understand Jefferson's relation to his young concubine. Gordon-Reed exploits that knowledge beautifully. By mastering a multitude of inter-related facts and coincidences, and by putting together and explaining dozens of complicated Jefferson-Hemings family relationships, black and white, she has indeed connected a multitude of dots, and thereby answered the many doubts some historians have had that Jefferson could have been sexually involved with his mulatto slave.
To answer these doubts, Gordon-Reed has occasionally had to rely on some exceedingly ahistorical generalizations about the ways all people behave regardless of time or circumstance. Although she is well aware of "the danger of 'essentializing' when making statements about people of the past--positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places," she nonetheless believes that there are "some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place." If there were no such common elements, she correctly contends, historical reconstruction would be impossible. So in order to explain how Jefferson might have become attracted to the beautiful mulatto teenage slave who was sharing his residence in the Hotel de Langeac in Paris, she begins by assuming that "males and females, even of different rank and race, engage in light banter that acknowledges the other's gender. That is one of the ways relationships--licit and illicit--are formed." So, too, in order to explain why Hemings might have felt some degree of equality with her master, Gordon-Reed posits that "oppressed peoples do not always internalize the stories that their oppressors tell about them."
In Paris, Jefferson occasionally bought clothes for Hemings, and this, says GordonReed, has important implications, because of the way males generally relate to females: "When a male buys clothes for a female who is not his daughter or wife, it almost immediately raises the intimacy level between him and the female recipient of his gifts, in ways that can make it much more difficult for the two to keep a safe emotional distance from each other." In order to explain why the Jefferson and Hemings families kept quiet and "closed ranks" in the face of the newspaper revelations of Jefferson's relationship with his mulatto slave in 1802, Gordon-Reed resorts to the generalization that "one of the great strengths (and great weaknesses) of the institution of the family is that family members protect or, depending upon the situation, cover for one another."
Most of Gordon-Reed's assumptions about human nature are commonsensical and not jarring, though her repeated reliance on them does occasionally make one uneasy. Still, she has more than her generalizations about human nature to make her case for the complicated relationship between the Jefferson and Hemings families. She begins by describing the prevalence of mulattos in late eighteenth-century Virginia and the complicated inter-relations among the leading planter families. No one among these families was more important to Jefferson than his father-in-law, John Wayles. Wayles was a self-made man who, in 1746, married Martha Eppes; she died two years later after giving birth to a daughter also named Martha (Jefferson's future wife). After marrying and burying two more wives, Wayles took up with one of his slaves, a mulatto named Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and with her he fathered six children, including Sally Hemings, who was born in 1773. By later Virginia law, Sally was a "quadroon," one-quarter black.
In 1772, Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, married Thomas Jefferson, and when her father died in 1773, the Hemings family of slaves passed to Jefferson and his wife. Martha Jefferson gave birth to six children, only two of whom survived into adulthood, Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Polly or Maria). In 1782, Jefferson's wife died, leaving her thirty-nine-year-old husband inconsolable. According to a contemporary, he promised his wife on her deathbed that he would never marry again--a remarkable pledge, since most eighteenth-century widowers quickly remarried.
In 1784, Jefferson went to Paris to engage in trade negotiations with the European states, and a year later the Continental Congress appointed him minister to France to succeed Benjamin Franklin. Accompanying him to Europe were his eldest daughter Martha and his nineteen-year-old slave James Hemings, the brother of Sally, who was to be trained to be a chef for Jefferson's household in Paris and for Monticello upon their return to America. When Jefferson learned of the death of his two-year-old daughter Lucy in Virginia, he determined to have Polly, his other remaining daughter, join him in France. In 1787, after many exchanges of letters back and forth across the Atlantic, the nine-year-old Polly was finally able to sail for Europe. She was accompanied by her fourteen-year-old maid, Sally Hemings. According to Abigail Adams, who met the pair in London, Sally was "still a child" and was "wholy incapable of looking properly after" Polly. Indeed, Mrs. Adams told Jefferson, the ship captain who brought the pair over thought that Polly's maid would be of "so little Service that he had better carry her back with him."
These comments have led some to believe that such a childlike Sally could never have become Jefferson's concubine while in Paris: she was, after all, thirty years younger than Jefferson. But GordonReed mounts a very convincing argument for the eventual relationship. Although Abigail may have thought Sally was too young and immature to be Polly's maid, she did think Sally was older ("a Girl about fifteen or sixteen") than she was in fact. Sally was unusually attractive, with a sweet temperament, and was, according to the testimony of another slave, "mighty near white," with "straight hair down her back." Gordon-Reed even suggests that the captain's offer to take Sally back to America may have been based on the young girl's beauty. He was "just a little too eager," and may have had designs on her--a suggestion that seems unfounded, and one of the few instances when GordonReed pushes her conjectures beyond the limits of persuasiveness.
Gordon-Reed shows that the age difference between Jefferson and Hemings was no barrier to a relationship, demonstrating just how common and acceptable marriages between older males and teenage brides were in eighteenthcentury Virginia. Jefferson's father was in his early thirties when he married his wife of nineteen. Thomas Mann Randolph married, at age fifty, seventeen-year-old Gabriella Harvie. Thirty-two-year-old James Madison's first engagement was with fifteen-year-old Kitty Floyd; and although the engagement eventually collapsed when Miss Floyd found someone else, no one thought it was a strange or unusual match. Jefferson's attraction to Sally may have been helped by the fact that she was the half-sister of his deceased wife, which Jefferson knew. She may even have resembled Jefferson's wife. And it is indeed hard to believe that the relatively young Jefferson, who called sex "the strongest of all the human passions," could have remained celibate the rest of his life.
In her reconstruction of life with the Hemings siblings in Jefferson's residence at the Hotel de Langeac, Gordon-Reed is at her imaginative best. French law had no place for slavery, and the Hemings siblings knew that they could gain their freedom in France. Jefferson knew this, too--and consequently he treated both James and Sally in a special manner. Gordon-Reed contends that the lives of Sally and James Hemings were transformed by their experience in France: "These two young people saw more of the world and experienced more of what was in it than the vast majority of their countrymen, white or black, who during that time lived and died without venturing far beyond the confines of the isolated farms where they were born."
They learned French, and they were often on their own in Paris earning their own money, paid to them by Jefferson. Indeed, Jefferson spent a good deal of money on Sally's clothing--not as much, of course, as on his daughters' clothing, "but enough to make a definite change in Hemings's self-image and her day-to-day existence," remarks Gordon-Reed. With Polly away at school and French servants running the household, Sally, in Gordon-Reed's account, "was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly." Of course, she helped out in the household, aiding her brother in preparing meals or running errands for him. And she had particular skill as a seamstress--a skill that Jefferson believed was one of the foundations of a woman's domestic life, even better for women than reading.
Their Paris experience was bound to make both Hemingses think of themselves in a different way--not as typical Virginia slaves, but as hired servants with special roles in the household. In fact, Jefferson and the two Hemingses would have had more interesting things to say to one another in Paris than they ever would back at Monticello. For some French friends of Patsy, Sally may not have even seemed to be a servant. One referred to Sally as "Mademoiselle Sally," a title that no normal servant would have been given. Before long Sally was given a regular salary and began acting as a chambermaid to Jefferson, a role that she would continue to play at Monticello upon returning to America. It is not surprising that both she and her brother would come to think of themselves as free persons with dreams about the future that few slaves back in Virginia could ever have. And it is not surprising that during that time in France, as Sally's son Madison Hemings recalled, "my mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine."
We will never know what the relationship was really like, since neither Jefferson nor Hemings talked about it. But in the absence of words, Gordon-Reed uses Jefferson's actions, his relations with Sally's male relatives, and the experience of other planters with concubines to tease out what it might have been. That the master of Monticello showed special affection toward some of his slaves suggests that his relation with Sally was consensual, and it may even have involved a degree of love. Occasionally, though, Gordon-Reed lets her imagination get out of hand. She suggests that many of the white women whom Jefferson met in France might have been too formidable, too unfeminine for him: "What a contrast Sally Hemings must have presented! When he came home to the Hotel de Langeac after spending time with the Cosways, Churches, and Madam de Tesses of that world, there he would find his wife's half-sister, the extremely attractive, sweetnatured, sewing, Virginia farm girl. She was the very opposite of frightening."
Gordon-Reed finds instructive the example of Jefferson's slave Mary Hemings, Sally's oldest sibling. In the 1780s Mary was hired out to a prosperous Virginia merchant named Thomas Bell, with whom she began a relationship that produced two children. Not long after Jefferson returned from Paris, Mary asked him to sell her to Bell, which he did, and the mixed-race couple, though not legally married, lived together openly for the rest of their lives. This was not a Jim Crow era, and no one-drop rule for the determination of blackness was yet in effect. Despite living with a black concubine, Bell held the office of justice of the peace and was appointed to important community committees in Charlottesville. Throughout this period he remained one of Jefferson's closest friends. They exchanged visits in each other's homes and "talked of quotidian things," Gordon-Reed imagines, "including, no doubt, the ways--good and bad--of the sisters with whom each was living."
Despite the gross inequalities of power between masters and slaves, Gordon-Reed suggests with this example and others that some slaves could occasionally have some control over their lives. In other words, "slavery was not just one, enormous act of oppression against a nameless, interchangeable mass of people." It involved millions of acts of oppression through several centuries against which individual human beings used whatever means available to them to assert their humanity. All the Hemingses of Monticello did just that: they asserted their humanity. "Members of [Sally] Hemings's family, free and enslaved, sometimes responded to Jefferson in ways that suggest they thought of him as more a version of an in-law than the rapist of their family member."
When Jefferson planned his return to America in 1789, he was confronted with problems. Sally Hemings was pregnant, and she did not want to go back to Virginia. According to her son Madison, in order to induce his mother to return, Jefferson "promised her extraordinary privileges and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at age twenty-one years." At the same time, James Hemings told Jefferson of his desire to remain in France and to live off his newly acquired skill as a chef. To persuade him to return, Jefferson presumably promised him his freedom as soon as he trained another slave to cook in the French style.
After Jefferson returned to America and assumed his office of secretary of state in the Washington administration, his Hemings family began to break up. Mary was sold to Bell. Elizabeth Hemings's eldest son, Martin, demanded to be sold, and, according to a Jefferson letter, was "disposed of" along with a "chariot," both sold as pieces of property. James and Robert, who had been moving about and living rather freely, were formally emancipated by Jefferson. Yet Sally Hemings remained at Monticello, with, according to one witness, "a room of her own" within the house. She eventually gave birth to six or perhaps seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Two of them, Beverley and Harriet, left Monticello for freedom in 1822, and the other two, Madison and Eston, were freed by Jefferson's will, along with three other Hemingses. Jefferson kept his bargain with Sally. As octoroons, or one-eighth black, their children were legally white by Virginia law in the 1820s. Of the four, only Madison chose to remain in the black community.
The major problem that Gordon-Reed faced in dealing with the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is explaining why there is so little record of it. Jefferson seems to have been scrupulous in trying to avoid mentioning Sally in any of his writings. He never acknowledged his slave children, publicly or privately; he simply noted their births in his Farm Book, along with the new colts that he acquired and the hogs that he killed. Even Madison Hemings admitted that although Jefferson "was affectionate toward his white grandchildren," he "was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us [Hemings] children." And because Jefferson's grandchildren, and not Jefferson himself, taught Madison how to read and write, Jefferson presumably took little interest in their education. Although Gordon-Reed tries to play down Madison's criticism of his father, in the end she concedes that Jefferson could never truly see Madison and his other slave children "as human beings separate from him and his own needs, desires, and fears."
Other Virginia leaders--such as George Wythe, Jefferson's friend and law teacher--were not quite so cool and secretive in dealing with their mixed-race offspring. But Jefferson and his white family thought that the third president was special, and that he had a special American legacy to protect. When his many political enemies began referring to "Dusky Sally" and to all the little Toms running around Monticello, Jefferson and his white family reacted by closing ranks. Since Sally had become "the most well known enslaved person in America," the family felt that they had to establish a vast cover-up of the relationship, even to the point of perhaps culling Jefferson's writings of all references to Sally and planting false leads--as Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, did in 1858 by writing a letter to her husband naming her uncle Samuel Carr as the father of the Hemings children. Another grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, named Peter Carr as the father. According to the DNA findings, neither of these Carr nephews of Jefferson could have been the father.
By setting the Jefferson-Sally Hemings liaison in historical context, by placing it within a complicated web of family and white-slave relationships at Monticello, Gordon-Reed has disclosed what Jefferson and his white family tried to hide. But she has done more. She has thrown an extraordinary amount of light on what she calls "the shadow world of slavery," and has revealed a complex reality of white-black relations that one does not usually find in history books. Although Gordon-Reed defends Jefferson in many places in her story and humanizes both him and many other individuals, both white and black, she certainly does not lose sight of the essential horror of slavery.
Near the end of her book she quotes a chilling letter in which Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge reflects upon the consequences of the death of her black nurse, Critta Colbert, one of the Hemingses. The thirty-six-year-old Colbert left four young daughters and a grief-stricken husband, and all Coolidge can do is ponder which of the enslaved daughters she might claim and which might go to her sisters, "as if," writes Gordon-Reed, "they were puppies being picked from a litter." What is most disturbing about the letter is that Ellen Coolidge was considered by herself and others to be a kind and generous slave owner.
Gordon S. Wood's most recent book is The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin Press). This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.