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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

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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.

In the mid-1700s the English captain of a trading ship that made runs between England and the Virginia colony fathered a child by an enslaved woman living near Williamsburg. The woman, whose name is unknown and who is believed to have been born in Africa, was owned by the Eppeses, a prominent Virginia family. The captain, whose surname was Hemings, and the woman had a daughter. They named her Elizabeth.

So begins The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed’s “riveting history” of the Hemings family, whose story comes to vivid life in this brilliantly researched and deeply moving work. Gordon-Reed, author of the highly acclaimed historiography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, unearths startling new information about the Hemingses, Jefferson, and his white family. Although the book presents the most detailed and richly drawn portrait ever written of Sarah Hemings, better known by her nickname Sally, who bore seven children by Jefferson over the course of their thirty-eight-year liaison, The Hemingses of Monticello tells more than the story of her life with Jefferson and their children. The Hemingses as a whole take their rightful place in the narrative of the family’s extraordinary engagement with one of history’s most important figures.

Not only do we meet Elizabeth Hemings—the family matriarch and mother to twelve children, six by John Wayles, a poor English immigrant who rose to great wealth in the Virginia colony—but we follow the Hemings family as they become the property of Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. The Hemings-Wayles children, siblings to Martha, played pivotal roles in the life at Jefferson’s estate.

We follow the Hemingses to Paris, where James Hemings trained as a chef in one of the most prestigious kitchens in France and where Sally arrived as a fourteen-year-old chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter Polly; to Philadelphia, where James Hemings acted as the major domo to the newly appointed secretary of state; to Charlottesville, where Mary Hemings lived with her partner, a prosperous white merchant who left her and their children a home and property; to Richmond, where Robert Hemings engineered a plan for his freedom; and finally to Monticello, that iconic home on the mountain, from where most of Jefferson’s slaves, many of them Hemings family members, were sold at auction six months after his death in 1826.

As The Hemingses of Monticello makes vividly clear, Monticello can no longer be known only as the home of a remarkable American leader, the author of the Declaration of Independence; nor can the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president have been expunged from history until very recently, be left out of the telling of America’s story. With its empathetic and insightful consideration of human beings acting in almost unimaginably difficult and complicated family circumstances, The Hemingses of Monticello is history as great literature. It is a remarkable achievement.

798 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Annette Gordon-Reed

21 books524 followers
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.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 895 reviews
Profile Image for Bruce.
61 reviews15 followers
January 10, 2009
This is an extremely well written and thought provoking boook. Gordon-Reed addresses the history of the Hemings family, the slaves whose live were so completely intertwined with the life of Thomas Jefferson. She focuses on them and their individual lives, not just as extensions of Jefferson, although he was of course, central to their existence.

I am surprised at some of the comments I have read about this book. I did not find Gordon-Reed to be particularly angry, although, God knows, people of African American heritage have every right to be angry about so much of this country's history. It is also true that she had to extrapolate some of her conclusions, but the fact that white Americans essentially made their slaves historically invisible, and white historians did not focus any of their attention on slaves, or people of color in general, so what primary sources there are are few and far between.

While I knew about Sally Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson there was so much I did not know that illuminates both sides of the relationship, freeing it from the cliche'd image of master and slave. It was that, but it was much more as well. Hemings was Jefferson's half sister in law, sharing a father with Jefferson's widow Martha.

Her brothers, James and Robert, were close to Jefferson throughout their lives as well, and the entire family were treated in Monticello as a special kind of "family", never treated as the other slaves on the "little mountain" were treated, but it was never ever forgotten that they were, indeed, Jefferson's chattel property.

I found it fascinating to learn that during the time that Sally and James were with Jefferson in Paris for five years, they lived in a city where slavery was essentially illegal. Had they wanted to sue for their freedom, Gordon-Reed argues that they almost certainly could have won it. This implies a certain willingness in their return to Virginia and legal slave status. The discussion of the "representations" made by Jefferson to Hemings is remarkable. The result was that Hemings spent thirty eight years in a relationship with Jefferson and ultimately, won the freedom for her children that she had demanded from him.

By dealing with the Hemings family, and their multigenerational relationship with Jefferson and his family, Gordon-Reed does much to illuminate not only their forgotten lives, but the forgotten (at least by white historians and culture) lives of so many other families in their same situation. It is a painful book to read in many ways, but a rewarding one as well.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
73 reviews13 followers
December 7, 2010
I will not finish this book. For a non-fiction work there is too much conjecture and speculation about the character's feelings without sources to back it up. I also felt manipulated while reading. I do not need to be reminded over and over again about how morally wrong, cruel and degrading slavery was - I possessed this opinion long before I picked up this book. There seemed to be an angry tone throughout.
Perhaps there are some redeeming qualities to this book - it did win the National Book Award - I am just not willing to commit to reading another 500+ pages to find out.
Profile Image for Rachel Aranda.
865 reviews2,257 followers
August 3, 2019
My opinion on this book isn't a popular one. For that reason and because the subject matter is so sensitive, I debated whether to write a review as my thoughts are a bit complex. I've done my best to explain why I feel the way I do.

The author does a really good job of showing how it's possible for people to have complex feelings about their circumstances in life. While I can't begin to compare my hardships to those slaves have faced, it does showcase a universal themes of people doing their best to overcome whatever hardships they may face. I will also say that it's nice seeing how families evolve as time goes on. It's one reason why I enjoy reading historical books. All this being said I can't say this was an easy or as engaging book as I had hoped it would be due to problems I had while reading.

The author really harped the whole idea of how incredibly unfair and unsafe slaves lives were to where I felt I was getting lectured and scolded by an extremely bossy person. I do not need to be reminded repeatedly about how wrong, disgraceful, and just plain ugly slavery was. I, and many people around the world, possessed this opinion long before any of us picked up this book. If you need further proof of this then you can read many negative and positive reviews saying how they agree slavery is wrong and how everyone wishes it never existed. This author seemed to think that everyone who read this book might be of the idea that slavery was good and that slaves didn't have a tough life. Really felt the preaching was unnecessary, yet anger would certainly is justifiable as a black author discussing slavery. Those who feel slavery was okay would more than likely not pick up a book about a famous slave family. Slavery was never and will never be okay and some people do need to be told this fact, but I doubt those who need to be told this would bother to read or listen to this book. It makes me sad that this practice continues in many different ways to this day. With this being said, everyone has different experiences while reading. While I may have heard an angry tone, others may feel there isn't one. All I can report on is my experience.

One thing I kind of liked, but not a whole lot for a research non-fiction work, is that there was too much conjecture and speculation about all these character's feelings and at times actions without sources to back it up. Usually researchers look to personal writings, interviews, etc. for verification but this author didn't do any of that. I'm all for creative license and speculation on feeling of people who have long past, especially when the people involved more than likely didn't know how to write or read since it was illegal for slaves to know how to do either of those things at times, but I think it belongs a bit more in historical fiction not a research book. Maybe I'm nitpicking but it just felt out of place without some idea to referencing people who we know existed. The Hemingses were a well-known family based on who their owner/master was, so I find it a little hard to believe there wouldn't be some kind of information on them. No matter how much time has passed, everyone looks at what the President of the United States is doing. This book is presented as a factual historical book but there just didn't seem to be a lot of facts in here so it feels like it leans on the fiction instead of nonfiction side.

After a while I thought it would behoove me to get a copy of the audiobook once I began to really struggle to finish this book. The audiobook didn't help the situation at all. The narrator's voice and just the way she read this story started grating on my nerves after a while. It was oddly easy to tune her out so I feel she could have added a little life into her reading. A friend of mine who speaks friends heard a little of this narrator pronounce some French words and she said they were being mispronounced. I feel that someone should have better prepared the narrator to pronounce French words, or at least hired someone who knew had at least a high school education level of understanding another language.

At this moment, I couldn't suggest either version of this book. If this book hadn't been needed for me to do some research then I wouldn't have finished this book. I got what I needed (names and locations) so that's all that matters I suppose. There are plenty of books to read about the Jefferson and Hemings family so I'd recommend to another reader to choose one of them. All this being said, if you truly feel this book is interesting to you then give it a few chapters of a listen or read to see if you might find enjoyment and hopefully enlightenment on the Hemingses, Monticello, and slavery.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,276 reviews119 followers
February 7, 2022
Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction 2009; National Book Award for Nonfiction 2008. Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children was confirmed with DNA testing showing a link between a male Jefferson and Eston Hemings, putting to rest the adamant denials by the white descendants of the former President. Gordon-Reed researched the voluminous Jefferson papers and multiple sources to uncover the experiences of the Hemings family over three generations. It was not an easy task as Jefferson took great pains to obscure his relationship with Sally Hemings.

Gordon-Reed’s tome is as much about Thomas Jefferson as it is about the Hemings' family. She points out the contradiction between the ideals of the country’s founders and the reality they lived. Indeed, while Jefferson wrote of mankind’s inalienable right to liberty, he owned more than 100 slaves. He claimed to hate slavery, but truly believed that blacks were inferior in ‘body and mind’ to whites.

Jefferson began his relationship with Hemings while serving as the American minister to France. He was thirty years older than Hemings’ 16-years. If she had remained in France, she could have lived her life in freedom. However, to convince Hemings to return to America with him, Jefferson agreed to a ‘treaty’ stating that he would free her children when they reached adulthood.

The only weakness in Gordon-Reed’s recounting of the Hemings’ family is when she ascribes motivations and feelings on behalf of the various family members. There is no historical documentation to support these conjectured assertions.
Profile Image for Sara W.
200 reviews36 followers
October 30, 2008
I just cannot finish this book.

I found parts of this book to be excellent. When the author presented a narrative about what the people did based on primary sources (and some secondary sources), I was hooked. It was well written and incredibly interesting. I would easily have given those parts 4 stars.

The problem is, those parts are less than half of what I managed to read. A good part of the book is just speculation. She even tells the reader when she is departing from the narrative (at one point she mentioned that the next four chapters would be a departure - that was a warning sign to me). The author literally asks a bunch of unanswerable questions (such as what must Sally Hemings have felt doing x, y and z, what must have been going through James Hemings mind while he did a, b and c), and then proceeds to hypothetically answer them. I think her ideas would make for a pretty good novel (which I would read), but I just don't want to read that type of stuff in non-fiction writing (at least to the degree that it is done here). I am well aware that the author probably did not have many sources to work with due to the subject matter, so she may have to fill in some holes. However, the narrative fact-based sections that the author did write probably could have stood on their own without all this excess filler. The book may have been half the length, but I think it would have been much better to cut out the majority of the speculation and use it only when absolutely necessary.

In addition, the author constantly brought up the fact that Sally Hemings and her family were "human chattel", but that they were human beings as worth while as any other human being. Clearly this is true, and mentioning it once or twice wouldn't be a problem, but it came up time and time again. If someone is reading this book, I'm sure they are aware of what Sally Hemings' status was and realize that it was wrong to enslave people. I just don't need to be beaten over the head with it. I finally gave up on the book when the author went off on a lengthy tangent about the perils of teenage girls living virtually alone with heterosexual males - it seemed to go on forever. I managed to finish that chapter, but I decided to just stop reading the book at that point.
Profile Image for Cinda.
Author 28 books11k followers
January 21, 2018
This was difficult to get into at first. At first, I felt like I was hacking my way through a thicket of speculation and scholarly argument. But Gordon-Reed faced a daunting challenge--how to tell the story of a family that has in many cases been intentionally erased from the record. We never hear from Sally directly. Much of what we know about her comes from the oral history of her descendants. And though Jefferson produced reams of documents during his lifetime, they were artfully crafted and edited to keep his secrets.
To me, the best of history and biography convinces me to look at the past in a new way, to shake loose long-standing assumptions and biases. Gordon-Reed does not romanticize the institution of slavery, but she requires us to view the members of this family as agents of the changes in their own lives. I cannot shake the image of a sixteen-year-old, pregnant Sally Hemings in Paris, negotiating with the future president of the United States to assure a better future for her children.
Profile Image for Krenzel.
34 reviews20 followers
December 16, 2015
I admit, I chose this book to read because I was looking for details of the affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. For someone who is interested in learning more about Thomas Jefferson, there are a lot of award-winning biographies to peruse. Interestingly, all of these books turn out to be written by white males who treat Sally Hemings as a footnote in Jefferson's life and discount the idea that she could have had a relationship with Jefferson or conceived his children. The one historian willing to assert that this relationship likely did exist, Annette Gordon-Reed, made her claims in the 1997 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," and a year later DNA results seemed to corroborate her claim. In her new book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," Gordon-Reed attacks Jefferson’s biographers who "had the power to write the ‘official’ record of [Jefferson’s:] family life, and [...:] essentially wrote the Hemings out of it." In Gordon-Reed’s book, the Hemingses are not side characters, but in fact they are the story. While I initially started this book hoping to learn more about the affair between Jefferson and Hemings, a much more interesting story emerged not just about Sally, but about her entire family and the fate they suffered as slaves in America.

At its heart, this book is about the Hemings family – how they are introduced to America, how they come to be the property of their own relative, and how they are unceremoniously auctioned off following Jefferson’s death. And at the core of the book is the key question in Sally Hemings’ life: why she gave up her freedom in order to be with Thomas Jefferson. Following the death of her half-sister, Jefferson’s wife Martha, the twelve-year-old Sally Hemings followed Thomas Jefferson to Paris to help care for his daughters. In Paris, with its "Freedom Principle," Sally Hemings was no longer a slave, and she and her brother, James, who was Jefferson’s chef, could have, at any time, appealed to the government and won their freedom from Jefferson. However, neither Hemings sibling applied for freedom, and, in fact, when it was time for Jefferson to return to Virginia, both Hemingses willingly gave up their freedom to return with him as his slaves. Sally Hemings, at this time, was thought to be pregnant, and she initially refused to go back to Virginia but ultimately agreed when Jefferson promised that her children – their children together – would be freed from slavery when they turned twenty-one. But why would she trust Jefferson and his promise of a faraway freedom and return to Virginia where she would be forced to live under slavery?

That is the key question of "The Hemingses of Monticello," and ultimately it is never answered. Sally Hemings left no record of her thoughts, and so there is no way to determine what she was thinking. In fact, according to Gordon-Reed, the veiled nature of Sally Hemings' existence is the "most important theme in her life." While there is, unfortunately, no historical record to answer some of the key questions about the Hemingses, the most important thing is that Gordon-Reed, unlike the preponderance of Jefferson’s biographers, actually asks these questions in the first place. The Hemingses are not invisible to her; in fact, her book is told from their point of view, not Jefferson’s. And while Gordon-Reed cannot answer some of these key questions, she provides invaluable insights, not through speculation, as other reviewers have suggested, but rather by providing context. For example, in trying to explain how the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings may have started, Gordon-Reed uses the historical record we do have – of Jefferson’s relationship with his manservant/slave, Burwell Colbert, and how Jefferson went to great lengths to win his affection, to explain how Jefferson might also have used similar tactics with Sally Hemings. By explaining the world of Monticello, and the institution of slavery which pervaded it, even without specific information on Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed is able to tell her story.

While Gordon-Reed may not be able to tell us specifically what Sally Heming’s private life was like – what her thoughts or goals may have been – she is able to tell us what the life of a slave was like in the 18th and 19th centuries: what it was like to be entirely dependent on the whims of an owner, to be separated from family, to be treated as a piece of property recorded in a “Farm Book,” to be a half-sibling with the very person who owns you, to fight for your freedom, and to be treated as an invisible or side character in the lives of white people. The reviewers who say this book spends too much time talking about slavery don’t seem to understand that the institution of slavery is, in fact, what the heart of this book is about. The beauty of this book is that it transforms James Hemings from a "personal servant" to Jefferson to a professional chef and world traveler and Sally Hemings from a passive concubine to someone able to negotiate her children's freedom. They were not nameless slaves, footnotes to the larger story of Thomas Jefferson, but in fact they were important historical figures in their own right. In the end, readers looking for details on the love story between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson will be disappointed, but those with an open mind will appreciate the far more compelling story being told of an American family living through the ordeal of slavery.
Profile Image for Nicole.
367 reviews23 followers
March 16, 2017
When I read the review Goodreads has on top of the pile for this book, I got a little outraged. The reviewer, after making what I now know to be some valid points, then goes on to put themselves in the corner reserved for white people who say they aren't racist because they have a black friend. The reviewer accuses the author of manipulating their emotions talking about slavery, which the reviewer already knows was horrible so why do they need to hear it any more about it, and mentions the "angry" tone of the author. I wondered if this reviewer would ever dare to say that a history about the holocaust written by a Jewish author had too angry of a tone, or that the author was trying to manipulate the emotions of the reader by trying to show on a human level what happened during internment. I doubt it. Almost more than the fact that I'm going to Monticello, and that my mother loved this book, that made me want to read it.

Before reading, more than anything, it's important to know that author Annette Gordon-Reed is a lawyer as well as a historian. 'The Hemingses of Monticello' reads like a trial lawyer making a case of a jury. The tone is measured, the wording careful, and the story is put together piece by deliberating piece, like a puzzle made out of various bits of known history. A better subtitle might have been "A Speculative History", because of all of Gordon-Reed's close attention to factual history, that's what it is.

In the beginning, I enjoyed the author's close attention to the laws that governed slavery in early Virginia. It was a different take on slavery than I had thought before, and Gordon-Reed's breadth of knowledge and close attention to detail was insightful. Any tone of moral outrage the author had seemed valid to me given the nature and legacy of slavery and not out of context in a work of popular history--this isn't a text book after all. However, as the work went on, and detail mounted on detail, I began to wonder at the editing and if a length of over 600 pages was entirely necessary. The lawyerly tone started to grate as I got deeper into it, with so many "he/she may have felt" or "he/she would have been exposed and most likely known x, y and z", I started wishing that the author had just said to hell with it and written it as historical fiction. This type of writing was so pervasive throughout the entire work that I ended up stopping a little after 400 pages because I couldn't take it anymore.

In all, I thought that despite its annoying tendencies, 'The Hemingses of Monticello' is a worthwhile work. Gordon-Reed attempts the laudable task of trying give us an accurate as possible portrait of people who have been silenced by the historical record. She does this without villainizing Thomas Jefferson and his family or casting Sally Hemings and hers as a agentless victims. Gordon-Reed gives figures obscured by time and legacy some humanity to relate to, and illuminates a period in history with a story that very well may have taken place. Doing so, she relies a bit too heavily on context, and the work suffers for it. And as for the "angry" tone or any emotional manipulation, I ended up viewing Jefferson with more sympathy than when I went into it, which seems counter to those accusations.
Profile Image for Jay Perkins.
119 reviews11 followers
October 7, 2015
Truly amazing book. Gordon-Reed offered more than expected. She is extremely thorough, careful, and fair. You can tell she is very passionate about this topic. I was surprised by many of her arguments, but was convinced by most of them.

Learning about the lives of the slaves and how they dealt with their situation was incredible. Too often the oppressed American slaves are portrayed lacking individuality and even humanity. Yes they were oppressed, but little is explained how they creatively dealt with their terrible situation. Gordon-Reed presents an oppressed people, but returns their humanity, creativity, and individuality.

I also admired her ability to use historical context to come to conclusions and paint a better picture of life on Monticello. Some have criticized the book, saying she used too much conjecture or offers too many conclusions that lack source material. However, she is actually supporting her observations with well informed and broad historical context. This is probably the best aspect of the book.

Her empathy for Jefferson was also surprising. I walked away with a better impression (more positive) of Jefferson than many of his modern day biographers allow. She offers a better picture of his personality and home life than I've read before.

Though very long, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in early American slavery or Jefferson.
Profile Image for Erin .
1,203 reviews1,106 followers
October 4, 2021
This book was a monster!

I dont know how Annette Gordon Reed did it. The amount of research that was put into this book. Not only going through Thomas Jefferson's papers but the papers of those closest to him. I wouldn't have even known how or where to begin researching newspaper articles and pamphlets.

This book is about an important American family that doesn't get the respect or attention that other families receive. The Hemings family is best remembered for it's most "notorious" member Sarah "Sally" Hemings, who bore seven children with the 3rd President of the United States Thomas Jefferson. Sally was Jefferson's wives half sister and she was a mulatto slave. For well over 100 years Sally Hemings has been talked about and her reputation has been either trashed or shes been a footnote in the history of Thomas Jefferson's life.

The Hemingses of Monticello sets out to tell not only the story of Sally Hemings but the story of her family which starts in the mid-1700's when an African woman is sold to a Williamsburg farm. Her name is unknown but her legacy would be passed on to generations of Hemingses and Jefferson's.

Slave stories are always hard to read and this one was hard to read on many levels. Because the Hemingses were not your average slave family. Sally's grandmother and siblings were claimed by her white slave master father. Sally's mother and siblings were also claimed by her white slave master father and Sally and her siblings were claimed by their white slave master father who was also the father of Jefferson's wife Martha. The Hemingses didn't really live as most people would assume slaves lived. And their ability to pass as white was seen as proof of their specialness. Sally and her brother James read and spoke French and James was trained at one of the most prestigious kitchens in France.

The Hemingses were not living the life of a slave from Roots.

I've never been one to view things in black and white and with the Hemings family that came in handy. I often found myself thinking about what the non-Hemings slaves on the plantation thought of this family of slaves who were treated very very very different than them. Because while I would NEVER EVER EVER want to be a slave being a Hemings would have been my choice. Annette Gordon Reed tries to paint as complete a picture of the relationship between Sally and Thomas as is possible. This is incredibly hard to do because Sally Hemings left no written records and Thomas Jefferson's records are extremely vague. Sally and Thomas's son Madison did give an account of his mother's life and from that we can glean some insight into their relationship. And through the way Jefferson's surviving white daughter and her kids treated Sally and her 5 surviving children with Jefferson we can get a tiny glimpse at the Jefferson's and the Hemingses coexisted.

If anything this book further proves the stupidity of slavery and racism. It's also more proof that we shouldn't put elected officials on pestials, Thomas Jefferson was a founding father and the 3rd President of the United States but he was also a hypocrite. He said he believed in the freedom of all men but he really only believed in the freedom of landowning white men. He publically upheld the belief that Black people were less than white people. While privately treating a certain family of Black people like they were white. He "freed" the Hemings family not because he was a "kind master" but because he didn't believe the Hemingses were Black anyway.

Alot of our views on race and slavery are actually based on the antebellum era, which came after Jefferson's death. In Jefferson's time Black people could become white through having the "right" kind of white bloodline. The 1 Drop Rule wasnt really a thing in the upper south.

I feel like I need to reread this book because I'm sure a second read would uncover even more things. This book should be required reading in schools. I couldn't stop thinking about this book even when I wasn't reading it. This book is why I barely read in September. How could I read anything else when this amazing book was around.

All the stars!

All the recommendations!

God this country makes it hard to enjoy being an American....especially for us Black folks.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,685 reviews1,218 followers
March 8, 2018

As I read this I kept grasping for things that would make me feel better about Jefferson as a slaveowner, and they were there: he never whipped a slave (although his overseers sometimes did); he treated the large Hemings family (Elizabeth Hemings and her descendents) well, exempting them from the hardest work, having them trained in trades such as blacksmithing, carpentry, gardening, and cooking; gave them spending money; allowed several of the males to ride freely about Virginia conducting his business for him; outfitted James and Sally (his dead wife's half-siblings) with nice new clothes in Paris; bought expensive French culinary lessons for James; and many more. There were also details that made me feel better about Jefferson the man, such as when the wife of his white coachman in Philadelphia, where he was serving in the Washington administration, accused his white French butler Adrien Petit of engaging in sodomy and loving men; Petit angrily denied the charges and threatened to return to France unless the couple was banished, which Jefferson did (and wrote to Petit in response, "je suis et serai toujours votre ami"). In fact, the story of the Hemingses is so relatively comforting, given all the horrors we know about slavery, that you can coast through the narrative with your emotions on neutral, until the last chapter, when the patriarch dies, massively in debt, and all the slaves he hasn't freed either during his life or in his will have to be sold. So the last image we're left with is little Peter Fossett, ten years old, great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, standing alone on the auction block in Charlottesville. Fossett's family tried to ensure that he would be sold to someone they knew, so that they could buy him back at some point. But Peter's new owner reneged on his agreement and the Fossetts (the father having scrounged up enough money to buy most of his family) eventually left for Ohio without him, since freed slaves were only legally allowed to remain in Virginia for one year.

Why couldn't Jefferson free all of the Hemings? Why couldn't he at least free Sally Hemings during their time together?

Sally had had an opportunity to be free when in Paris with her brother James, living in Jefferson's lodgings. Jefferson was sent there on a diplomatic mission in 1785, three years after the death of his wife, and took along his daughter Patsy (her adult name was Martha) and his slave James Hemings. In 1787, he sent for his nine year old daughter Polly (adult name Maria), who was living in Virginia with relatives. Polly had almost no memory of her father, and wasn't enthusiastic about going to Paris. The relatives boarded the ship with her, and the ship stayed in port for several days. During the middle of the night, they quietly left, so Polly woke up the next morning far out to sea, alone except for Sally Hemings. Sally was only 14, and a last minute choice to make the journey; Jefferson had requested an older slave woman, but she was indisposed.

Jefferson's friend Abigail Adams met Polly and Sally in London and outfitted them with new clothes, and they made their way to Paris. We don't know much about Sally. It is unknown if she could read or write, although by the time she left Paris in 1789, she could speak French (and James had hired an expensive tutor to teach him). Most people who came in contact with her found her very attractive, or beautiful. She had long, straight hair, according to the Monticello slave Isaac Jefferson. Her parents were the biracial slave Elizabeth Hemings (daughter of a white captain Hemings) and John Wayles, white father of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. So she was one quarter black, and she was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife. Sharing a good chunk of Martha Jefferson's DNA, it's possible she resembled the wife Jefferson had loved deeply. Jefferson's two daughters attended a convent school during the week and came home on weekends, and Sally served as a lady's maid to Patsy. When Patsy began to socialize in high Paris society, Sally accompanied her to balls. After Patsy returned to the States, one of her good French friends wrote to her, asking her to say hello to "Mlle [Mademoiselle] Sale [Sally]" for her, indicating that Hemings may have been considered, at that point in their lives, more of a companion and friend to Patsy than a servant. At some point in 1789, as the French Revolution swirled about them, 16-year-old Sally became pregnant by 46-year-old Thomas Jefferson.


Jefferson in 1786, by Mather Brown

Jefferson's four-year term in Paris was up and he was preparing to sail back to America. France was "free soil;" slavery was not permitted. (Not counting the French colonies.) The law was particularly strongly enforced in Paris. If a slave sued for his/her freedom in the Paris courts, he/she always won. The Hemings siblings would have known about this law, since there was a substantial free black population in Paris, and they spoke at least decent French. We can only speculate about why neither of them petitioned to be free. In an interview with a newspaper in 1873, Madison Hemings (Sally's son by TJ) explains the "treaty" his mother and Jefferson entered into:

...during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.

Sally was ensconced at Monticello (her first child, born in 1790, did not survive). James acted as Jefferson's chef.*

Jefferson couldn't free Sally Hemings because he needed her slave status as cover to carry on their relationship. Certainly there were white men who lived with free black women all over America, but none of Jefferson's status and fame. Already by the early 1800s there were gossipy articles in the press about "dusky Sally" being Jefferson's concubine and mother of multiple of his children. She couldn't continue to live under his roof as a free woman, and she certainly wouldn't have wanted to be freed and leave her very young children behind. Besides, where could she go and what could she do, as a single woman whose only training was in needlework, housekeeping, and caring for a man? Freeing her and continuing to live with her would have meant giving up his entire public persona and his legacy, and Jefferson was fanatical about creating and protecting his legacy. So were his white descendants; his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge (who also claimed that Samuel Carr had fathered all of Sally's children) wrote in a letter to her husband, "No female domestic ever entered [Jefferson's] chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze."

I'm focusing mostly on the book's narrative, but Gordon-Reed focuses extensively on historiography, and these parts are not less interesting than the tale of what happened to these families. The book engages in a lot of speculation, but it's meticulously reasoned speculation. There is much reading between the lines, which is necessary if you want to attempt to know anything about Hemings' and Jefferson's relationship.




* In the same interview Madison explained how he got his name: "As to myself, I was named Madison by the wife of James Madison, who was afterwards President of the United States. Mrs. Madison happened to be at Monticello at the time of my birth, and begged the privilege of naming me, promising my mother a fine present for the honor. She consented, and Mrs. Madison dubbed me by the name I now acknowledge, but like many promises of white folks to the slaves she never gave my mother anything." And on Jefferson: "He was uniformly kind to all about him. He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen..." "My brothers, sister Harriet and myself, were used alike. We were permitted to stay about the "great house," and only required to do such light work as going on errands. Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation. We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy. We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father's death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing..."
Profile Image for Judy.
1,945 reviews28 followers
August 20, 2010
While not an easy read, this is a fascinating book that deserved every honor that it was given when it was published. When Thomas Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton she brought with her, and then Jeffrson inherited from her father, a family of slaves (Hemings) who were the product of John Wayles's long sexual relationship with a slave women. These slaves were half-brothers and half-sisters of Martha Jefferson. Unfortunately Martha Jefferson died at the age of 34 leaving Jefferson with three young daughters to raise. Jefferson had always treated the Hemings slaves differently from the other slaves at Monticello because of their blood relationship to his wife. In fact, the slaves who were the offspring of Wayles all had three white grandparents and one African grandparent. When Jefferson was the American Minister to France, he insisted that his two daughters (one had died shortly after he left for France) join him in Europe and 14 year old, Sally Hemings, was also taken to France to serve as a maid. Sally grew to closely resemble her half-sister, Martha, and during her time in France, she became Jefferson's mistress. Sally Hemings and her brother, James, who had been taken to France to be trained as a French chef, knew that they could easily achieve their freedom while in France yet each elected to return to Virginia with Jefferson. Gordon-Reed speculates that Sally negotiated an agreement with Jefferson while still in France that any children born of their relationship (who would be 1/8 white and, therefore, considered white under the Virginia law of the day) would be freed when they reached adulthood. The couple had five children together and most of those children enter into the white world as soon as they became adults. This book details Jefferson's relationship with the entire Hemings family over several generations at Monticello and how his relationship with Sally affected his political career and his dealings with both his white family and his family with Sally. A compelling look into how complex the institution of slavery was and how its interpretation was left up to each participant.
Profile Image for Bruno Bouchet.
Author 14 books8 followers
December 8, 2009
Like many people reading this book I found its length and repetitiveness utterly frustrating. I ended up putting it aside for a few weeks before returning, persuaded by the glowing references on the cover to finish it. There is a fascinating story here of the slave family ‘owned’ by Thomas Jefferson. For a newcomer to writings about slavery there were many great insights into the realities and repercussions of slavery but so much repetition. Sometimes it felt like a record stuck on a long groove, going over the same point over and over again. The Paris section was particularly frustrating, with about 40 pages of speculation as it why Jefferson had Sally come over with his daughter on their own. So what, he did?
For all the speculation that was included there was some surprising speculation missing. One of Sally’s older brothers who was also in Paris, trained to be chef, was a good looking man who had great friendships and ‘fallings out’ with other men never married, never any hint of a relationship with a woman, was wracked with personal issues when emancipated - he was a talented but troubled drama queen who sadly killed himself. For any reader this screams the question, was he gay? It could have lead to a fresh avenue of exploration, exploring the impact of homosexuality. Yet the author stubbornly avoids this. Given one of the biggest issues of the book is the free white-defined members of Jefferson’s family refusal to mention or talk about the taboo of Sally’s enduring relationship with Jefferson, to avoid speculating about someone's sexuality almost seems like repeating the mistake of deliberate omission.
The book contains vast amount of detailed speculation based scant evidence available about everyone else so this seemed lacking.

Having said all that, the main frustration is there is so much that is fascinating and important in this book and it’s lost in all the long-windedness and repetition. More than concrete evidence, what this book was really missing was a decent editor with a ruthless red pen.
42 reviews
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April 23, 2010
The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed , poses and answers a question which should have been asked long ago; what if the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings controversy isn’t really ‘about’ Jefferson at all? What if instead we put the surprisingly well-documented story of the Hemings family front and center? Viewed in that light, the entire picture changes. Gordon-Reed brilliantly and sometimes movingly draws the group portrait of several generations of slaves who had both a keen interest in freedom and an acute awareness of just how much their mixed-race ancestry — in some cases 7/8 white — and their varying degrees of kinship to Jefferson counted for in terms of bettering their own lives. (Fifty years later these things would have made no difference at all.) Sally Hemings herself, described as “mighty near white” with “long straight hair down her back” looked far more like half-Indian Norah Jones than the Aunt Jemima caricature drawn by Jefferson’s enemies (and latter-day defenders).

And Jefferson — anxious to do the right thing (as he saw it), provided always that it didn’t inconvenience him too much or force him to confront the harsher realities of slave ownership — comes off far better than one might expect. Unsettling as it may be to 21st-century sensibilities, Jefferson and Hemings appear to have set up a situation between themselves in which all parties concerned got what they wanted. Much has been made of his failure to free her in his will; the author shows how difficult this would have been to legally do. Instead he simply saw to it that she was allowed to go free after his death without any embarrassing paperwork.

On page after page here you will find incisive discussions on a range of topics — the meaning of race in America, the nature of slavery, the dynamics of power between master and slave, intimate relationships between men and women (free white women as well as enslaved ones), relationships within families — which are full not merely of insight and common sense but of profound wisdom. (We are shown the irony of two generations of Jefferson’s womenfolk grappling with the very unwelcome reality that both they and a widowed father or father-in-law might be better off if he kept a slave mistress instead of marrying a hostile stepmother with an agenda of her own.)

I cannot say enough good things about this book.

-Alan
Profile Image for Hava.
178 reviews
December 3, 2011
I just read another review which said that she couldn't continue with this book because the author belabored the point that slavery is evil, and that her tone can came across as being angry. I couldn't agree more. I just started this book (I was listening to it in the audio form) and finally had to quit. I am absolutely, un-equivocally, 100% against slavery. I totally agree with the fact that slavery is evil and that its abolishment was one of the great struggles in our nation's past that needed to happen.

However, once I agree with that sentiment and espouse it wholeheartedly, I don't need to be beat over the head with it again and again. No, Jefferson was not a perfect man, and anyone who immortalizes him as such is flat-out wrong. But many, many people had slaves during his time, and the fact that he did have slaves does not immediately put him into the "shit pile" either. There is a middle ground between saint and ass, I promise.

There was a lot of PC in here too, which made me roll my eyes. Many times, people were not referred to as "slaves" but rather "enslaved people." Okay, I get the fact that the intentions are good - this historian is trying to make the point that slaves were people, and that being a slave wasn't who they were, it was just a set of circumstances that was forced upon them. But I think anyone who is predisposed to read this book would know that to begin with. Referring to a slave as a slave is no more demeaning than to refer to me as a librarian. No, my job title doesn't encompass 100% of who I am, but it certainly encompasses a large part of it. Working at a library shapes my view of the world - any long-term life status will do that, whether you're a banker, a lawyer, or yes, a slave.

So call a librarian a librarian, and call a slave a slave. Anything else is pure PC and doesn't deserve the place in a serious study of history.

For these two reasons, I had to quit listening to the book fairly early in. Perhaps it gets better; I don't know. I don't have the time to waste to find out.
Profile Image for Susan.
86 reviews6 followers
April 25, 2009
This is a really excellent historical work about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses, a family of slaves he inherited from his father-in-law. At the center of this story (though by no means the only focus) is his relationship with Sally Hemings, whom Thomas Jefferson took as his mistress several years after his wife died. They had seven children together, four of whom lived to adulthood.

This book is extremely well researched and presents a fascinating, and disturbing, look at the kinds of relationships that often existed between white slaveowners and their slaves, and the subtle tensions that no doubt existed between white members of a family and their mixed-blood, enslaved, siblings, nieces, aunts, uncles, etc.

The only real drawback to this book--and I hesitate to call it a drawback since, given the research that went into it, it is probably inevitable--is that it is quite dense. This is not a quick read. But it is well worth the read.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,622 reviews280 followers
May 6, 2020
Annette Gordon-Reed transcends the old debates and focuses on the Hemings family how they lived and how they might have felt about their situation.

Her research shows slavery as an even more peculiar institution than previously portrayed. Monticello appears to be an economic commune with 3 castes. One caste is born to rule, another to work the fields, and middle caste lives a precarious life between the two.

The Hemings family served as Jefferson's silent and hidden support system throughout his productive and retirement years. They profited little from his success and fell more deeply with his failures than their biological brothers and sisters who had the legal claims to not only Jefferson's but their grandfather's properties. This book provides a discussion of these and similar issues and their ramifications in the lives of individuals.

The family life presented in this work has implications not only for history, but also for the fields of sociology, family dynamics, psychology and organizational behavior. It was undoubtedly common for male heads of plantations in the US and abroad to have children with their enslaved females. While you can find research on slave homes, clothing, diets and other circumstances, to my knowledge there is little work on the sociology of the "master's" children. How were they raised? How did they cope with and relate to their overseeing relatives? How did the many like Sally and her children feel to be the unacknowledged spouse(equivalent) and children of the famous man who declared all men created equal?

(Fidel Castro is a more modern day product of a similar system, how much did resentment of his life vs. those in the "big house" fuel his political views?)

The Hemings of Sally's generation respectfully kept the secret, and Jefferson's white progeny protected it, so we know little of the relations of half sisters, brothers, parents, aunts and uncles. Hemings and her family, not Jefferson, were descended from the wealthy John Wayles whose estate came to Jefferson through marriage. Instead of receiving benefits from their father's wealth, their lot in life was to serve his other family.

While at times wordy, Gordon-Reed makes the case for the Hemings Family. Of Sally we have only clues. She was young and had lost her own powerful father at a young age. She was alone in Paris with the kindly, grieving widower of her half sister, in a real life this man would be her brother in law. Of Jefferson, grieving for his wife in Paris, his comments on a painting of Sarah bringing Hagar to Abraham stays with you. In later life I cannot imagine how Sally looked at her Hemings relatives, knowing that their fate (and hers) hung on Jefferson's good will and health. Similarly, I cannot imagine Jefferson looking at his own children (who resembled him) by Sally (who may have resembled his deceased wife) thinking that his famous words were a far away goal and not a reality.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic and hope to see more research in this area.
499 reviews3 followers
March 1, 2009
This is a very ambitious attempt to reconstruct the world of the Hemingses who lived at Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. Given the absence of diaries, letters, paintings, or direct accounts from the subjects in the book that would provide direct evidence for such a project, this was a very tricky task.

Gordon-Reed's approach is primarily to use the context of slavery, psychology, and business transaction ledgers to figure out what must of happened. She relies heavily on supposition and logic to describe the Hemings'-Jefferson relationships.

Gordon-Reed draws several conclusions that both challenge slavery apologists and caution against being overly judgemental of decisions made my Hemings. Jefferson's status does not rise in this book. Instead, he emerges as somewhat self-absorbed person who wanted everybody to like him, even when he enslaved them.

The book could easily be a 4 star if it were a few hundred pages shorter and had more evidence to support the author's positions. Nevertheless, there is a very interesting perspective provided and many fascinating questions to consider, particularly how slavery created such convoluted personal relationships.
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
411 reviews36 followers
September 8, 2020
I did not know what to expect from this book. A book about Jefferson's slave mistress? Doesn't sound too interesting.

I could not have been more wrong.

This book is one of the best books I've read this year.

Yeah, I've heard an inkling of stories about Jefferson and his mistress Sally Hemings, but I really could not have told you more than the fact that Jefferson had children with one of his slaves.

But this book is very eye-opening.

Gordon-Reed, an African American woman, does not understate or misrepresent the fact that Sally Hemings was Jefferson's slave--and as such, she really could not deny Jefferson his sexual advances. She is also very clear with the fact that based upon the reality of their circumstances (a single male living with a young attractive single woman [and her brother]) that the stack was set for a sexual relationship.

But Gordon-Reed makes a compelling case that there was definite affection and love between the two. The author doesn't pretend that it is "OK" nor that boundaries (both by modern or even 18th century norms) were not crossed. But at the end of the day, there was more to the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson affair than just an old white guy forcing himself on a young black slave.

Jefferson was very counscious of his image and reputation. When he moved to France, he brought with him James Hemmings. James was the 6th of 9 children between John Wayles and a slave woman. John Wayles was also the father of Martha Jefferson---Thomas's wife (to whom he made a death bed promise never to remarry).

Martha died relatively young (34). But Jefferson inheretted the slaves she inheretted from her father---this included James and and Sally.

So James, Sally, and the other Hemings children were half siblings to Martha. She dies and he becomes the ambassador to France. Slavery is illegal in France, but he brings James with him as a servant. James serves his loyally and is trained to become a master chef. A little while later, he brings 16 year old Sally to join him. (Both Sally and James know that they could have become emancipated at any time in France, but chose to stay with and return to the US with Jefferson.)

Needless to say, 16 year Sally does not know anybody in France but her brother---and the three of them are soon to become the occupants of a house together. Jefferson is quite a charmer. His reputation with the women is still legendary. He's also fascinated with the black experience---particularly those with mixed heritages.

Moreso than any of the other founding fathers, Jefferson observed blacked people. Gordon-Reed provides some interesting (and in some cases) radical ideas interpretting the words of Jefferson in light of his relationship with the Hemingses. But he wanted to understand them. Gordon-Reed hypothesizes that this interest, combined with her looking like his deceased wife, his charm, plus their living together created a situation which didn't pre-ordain their sexual relationship, but put the elements together than made the outcome unsurprising.

Despite this understanding---and her clear realization that the circumstances cast doubts upon the origins of the affair---Gordon-Reed paints the relationship as one wherein the two did fall in love (or as close to it as propreity allowed).

Most of the book focuses on James, Sally, and Thomas Jefferson. But other Hemings are covered in significant detail as are other descendents of John Wayles.

The complexity of the story and the relationship between the cast of characters makes this book an absolute must read.

When this year is over, it will be one of the 3-4 best books I've read this year.
Profile Image for Helga Cohen.
559 reviews
April 5, 2022
The Hemingses of Monticello is a detailed in-depth biography of the Hemings family and their relationship with the Jeffersons. The author discusses historic and political dimensions of the Hemings and their blood ties to Thomas Jefferson. The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was better known in the early 19th century during Jefferson’s term as president. It was then suppressed for many years until around the 1980’s. Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from it’s slave holding Virginia white origins in the 1700’s until they dispersed after Jefferson’s death.

The author discusses how Jefferson was affected by them and his children with Sally Hemings. We see them in vivid detail traveling in Paris and living in Philadelphia and Monticello. She describes the complexities of their lives and the varieties and choices they made even when some of the slave family could have chosen to live in freedom. There is debate about James and Sally Hemings and why they chose to return to Monticello knowing they could have freedom in France. Some reasons are that Sally Hemings was pregnant at 16 during this time and the French Revolution was ongoing.

The book is quite detailed and focused on sociology of slavery and interactions between Jefferson and the descendants of Elizabeth Hemings (Sally’s mother) who ended up as his “property” after his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton who inherited them. It gives details of our slave owning “founding fathers”. This is an enlightening book and of interest for Jefferson readers. It is an important book of historical significance. Be prepared for a lengthy and at times redundant but well researched book.



Profile Image for John.
343 reviews12 followers
April 3, 2020
This was my second reading of the book. My first came about when it was issued in trade paperback. The second reading was this year. I found this book to work on two levels: a narrative of the life of a woman, Sally Hemings, and those around her; and, secondly, the narrative of the time in which she lived. Foremost, and most importantly, this book places Sally at the center. There is also a journey story here, as her life represented a journey in both the literal and figurative sense. I'm glad I read this book a second time, as I was able to appreciate her story better.
103 reviews
May 28, 2010
a brilliant piece of research where information on this lovely family had to be culled from ashes and dust and few documents. a big book. a real american story.
Profile Image for Jill.
2,170 reviews80 followers
November 3, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Teri.
631 reviews70 followers
May 15, 2022
The Hemingses of Monticello is an in-depth biography of the enslaved family of Thomas Jefferson, who was more to him than chattel laborers. Many have heard of Jefferson's mistress Sally Hemings, but most do not know of her family history. This book spans the life of Sally's mother, Elizabeth Hemings, through the lives of Sally's children and grandchildren. Elizabeth was an enslaved woman who had 12 children. Many of those children were fathered by John Wayles, her owner. Her daughter Sally came to Jefferson through his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. In fact, many of the Hemingses made their way to Jefferson or members of his family through his marriage. Sally lived on the Jefferson plantation while attending to his post as Minister of France in Paris. Sally eventually came to Paris to act as a maid to his youngest daughter. It is during this time that the now widowed Jefferson and Sally ignited their romantic relationship.

Utilizing Jefferson's letters, farm books, newspaper articles, and a wealth of other primary sources, some from Jefferson's friends, family, and contemporaries, Gordon-Reed masterfully builds the family history of the Hemingses. Jefferson was certainly a focus of the book because without him, the Hemingses legacy would be much different. This book, though, centers on the lives of the entire Hemings lineage, trying to uncover as much information about the hotly debated history of the bond between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. There is speculation, as there must be without details on their relationship, and Gordon-Reed makes a strong case for her interpretation.

What Gordon-Reed surmises is that Jefferson was exceptionally kind to the Hemingses and, of course, Sally, yet reminds the reader that Jefferson was still a slave owner. Although Jefferson seemed to do what he could to protect those he enslaved, treating them more as paid laborers than chattel slaves, he was still a slave owner. She makes no apologies for him. He obviously had affection for the Hemings family yet treated others as slaves in bondage. It is sometimes hard to reconcile these two sides of Jefferson. Gordon-Reed does an excellent job of helping the reader understand his position as a statesman, slave owner, and affectionate family man.

The central thesis, though, is not Jefferson but the different members of the Hemings family. We get to know Sally's siblings in detail, most especially concentrating on James Hemings, who was Jefferson's french trained chef for many years. Gordon-Reed also follows the lives of Jefferson and Sally's children and explains how most go on to identify as white upon their emancipation after Jefferson's death.

This book is deserving of its Pulitzer Prize and is a must-read for anyone researching Jefferson. I don't know that you can fully understand Jefferson, the man, until you understand his connection to the Hemings.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,384 reviews292 followers
February 10, 2020
This book probably deserves a much longer and more lucid review then I will be able to provide for it. I listen to this book in the Audible format and found it to be a fascinating view of a family that shared the life of Thomas Jefferson and yet is nearly invisible In US history.

This book tells the story of the impact of slavery in the United States on the large number of people who were enslaved. Somehow the author has been able to draw a portrait of a family the Hemmings that seems real and understandable in spite of the fact that normal historical sources are completely unavailable.

The author does an incredible job reading between the lines of what information is available to tell the very human story of a slave family through several generations. She also tells the story of how Thomas Jefferson lived his public and private lives with this complex reality.

The book ends with the death of Thomas Jefferson and the dispersal of his property to pay his debts including his 130 slaves. The story after that of his white descendants and his biracial children would make a fascinating follow up text. But my kudos go to this author who has managed to tell a complex story with a reasonable amount of human consideration of almost all of the characters who were involved.

The book leaves no doubt that the people in the immediate area of Monticello were well aware of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings. The ultimate effort of Jeffersons white descendants to deny the relationship Would be a fascinating story.
Profile Image for Thomas DeWolf.
Author 4 books49 followers
January 26, 2011
As much as I was impressed with Gordon-Reed’s scholarship and all the fascinating details of the lives of the members of the Hemings family and their relationship to our third President, it was something other than the stories of these lives that had the biggest impact on me. This book, though it is certainly the story of one famous, extended family, is really a powerful symbol for the whole of the American experience. The complexity of relationships, the love, violence, power, horror, political intrigue, and even the mundane details of everyday life led me to ponder repeatedly other early Americans, rich and poor, black and white, famous and obscure; most of whom we will never know anything about.

Read the complete review at my blog: http://inheritingthetrade.com/blog/?p...
Profile Image for Vincent Masson.
41 reviews23 followers
October 6, 2021
What an amazing, thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, and beautifully written book. It opened my eyes to so many aspects of Slavery I did not know, reminded me of some things that I needed to be reminded of, and simply told a fascinating story about fascinating people from beginning to end.

This book, in addition to telling the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings affair, is also a sort of intellectual exploration of slavery, as well. It reminds us that slavery was not inflicted on some abstract mass of people, but was, in fact, comprised of thousands of individuals, whose characters, ambitions, and knowledge had to be re-destroyed every single day in order to make the system work. It reminds us that slave owners' wealth and status were given priority over indescribable human suffering. People like Thomas Jefferson treated their slaves better than the average owner, though, as Gordon-Reed reminds us, that isn't saying much.

Much has been made about the speculation this author seems to do in this book. As Gordon-Reed suggests - The facts don't tell the whole story, including the notable fact that White people controlled the facts, and had a stubborn habit of only recording things that reflected nicely on them. Take the case of Elizabeth Hemings' slave owner, John Wayles. You can't "legally" produce a child with a slave, so no record would be kept, therefore the record that exists is flawed. A little speculation is required if we are to get at the full truth. If you don't understand the logic of connecting historical dots to uncover the humanity of people whose humanity was deliberately suppressed, then I can't help you.

Anyone who got annoyed by this authors' descriptions of the horrors of slavery has probably some insecurity within themselves that they need to address. Who in their right mind, after all, would pick up this 700-page book about a slave family, and get annoyed when the author explains in detail what slavery was like? Did you think she was going to be like, "I assume all of you already know the horrors of slavery, from incredibly inaccurate and whitewashed portrayals in TV and books, so I'll just skip over this stuff?" It's absurd. She's a Historian. She's explaining the history of slaves, not a Teddy Bears.

Saying "I already know how bad this was, therefore I don't need to learn anymore" isn't a philosophy that would seem to lend itself to a rich and nuanced view of the world, in my opinion. The more likely scenario seems to be that people can't handle learning more about the horrors of slavery, because that would mean reconciling with the icky parts of their history, which would make them feel bad. And what is Western Civilization if not feeling good all the time about everything?
Profile Image for Donna.
390 reviews
June 10, 2022
In this extensively researched and impressive scholarly work, Annette Gordon-Reed brings to life three generations of the enslaved Hemings family and their relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed’s thesis rests on the assertion that Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings (his wife’s half-sister) had a long-standing intimate relationship and had six children together. The book carefully lays out how the Hemings family members were set apart from Jefferson’s other slaves at Monticello and treated differently.

When Gordon-Reed first presented her case for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, it caused a stir, at least among some scholars, and until DNA evidence definitively linked the two genetic blood lines. Over the years, those who were in control of Jefferson’s legacy systematically presented a white-washed, image-building version of an iconic Jefferson. They erased or cast aside any evidence that might have hinted at a personal connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemings in order to preserve this image.

What Gordon-Reed has done with her work is to bring some much needed balance to the historical record. She has made everyone in the story fundamentally human and this is especially true for members of the Hemings family. Their humanity was initially stripped away by the institution of slavery and still further by historians and others who either disregarded their perspective or deliberately expunged any evidence of the nature of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship.

It’s remarkable how much Gordon-Reed was able to glean from precious little recorded information and it made for fascinating reading. My one quibble with the book is that she pushes the envelope a bit when she makes assumptions about how individuals may have felt. In spite of pretty conclusive evidence that Jefferson and Hemings did have a relationship, we just can’t know, for example, the exact nature of that relationship or what agency, if any, Sally had in the arrangement. Many scenarios are possible, from a romantic love to a zero sum bargain and everything in between. As historian Eric Foner says in his review of the book: “Sometimes even the most skilled researcher comes up empty. At that point, the better part of valor may be simply to state that a question is unanswerable. Gordon-Reed’s portrait of an enduring romance between Hemings and Jefferson is one possible reading of the limited evidence. Others are equally plausible.” I tend to agree with this assessment.

I understand that there is to be a follow-up to this book about the Hemings family going forward. That’s a book I will be sure to read. And even though I’ve been to Monticello several times, I’d like to visit again to see how they’ve incorporated the Hemings family story.
Profile Image for Amanda.
598 reviews92 followers
September 10, 2019
I enjoyed listening the the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Karen White. I admit that I hadn't ever really considered the Hemingses. I had, like most people, heard the name "Sally Hemings." I had assumed that Thomas Jefferson had compelled her to be his, to use the word used in the book, "concubine." This seemed fairly common in early America, and I never wondered about the rest of her family or what she thought about any of it (I assumed she had no real choice).

This book challenged many of my assumptions and gave insight into one slave family. Their lives and experiences are by no means typical, but is any person's life really typical? It's easy to lump slaves and slaves' experiences together and assume they all felt a certain way or had a certain type of life. I appreciated this look into the Hemings family.

While Jefferson's and Hemings's relationship, by today's standards, could not have been consensual, Gordon-Reed presents a possible alternative view. While I'm not sure how much I believe that a 17-year-old girl ever WANTS to be with a middle-aged man, let alone a man who literally owns her, this book did make me consider Sally and what she wanted. It made me think of her as a person with a choice, not someone who things were done to. Did the fact that their "relationship" began in France actually mean the whole things was Sally's choice? Or did she get pregnant and then try to make the best of it, afraid of being a single mother alone in a country where she knew no one? It's impossible to know. In any case, it presents something worth thinking about.

I agree with many other reviewers that there was more speculation about how the members of the Hemings family felt or what they thought with no real evidence than you'd hope for a work of nonfiction. However, I didn't dislike the speculation exactly, either. It added something to my understanding of the Hemingses to hear and think about their possible motivations.

I enjoyed learning more about the Hemingses and appreciated this book. I do recommend the audio version. It was easy to listen to and I enjoyed both the book and the narration.
Profile Image for Michael Kress.
Author 1 book11 followers
April 21, 2019
Annette Gordon-Reed says, and I agree, that this is a story of white-supremacy and male dominance. Thomas Jefferson was 46 and Sally Hemings was 16 when they consummated their "relationship." Although Jefferson treated the Hemingses favorably over other slaves and they may have acted affectionately towards him, as Reed points out, they had obvious reasons for strategically acting a certain way; surely they would have given anything to leave this deplorable situation. The end of many biographies are sad because of the death of the protagonist. But here, the fate of the slaves was unfortunate rather than the death of Jefferson himself. In his will, he freed Sally Hemings and his own children, but didn't free other slaves because they were property for his white family's inheritance. In the end, he put his white family's financial situation ahead of his black extended family's freedom. Some of them ended up on the auction block and separated from their loved ones.

When I finally finished this 30 hour long audiobook, I was glad to be done. A lot of it dragged on, the writing was sometimes dry, and I often drifted off, so there was a lot I didn't retain. I'd recommend one of Reed's shorter books on this topic, but this one is comprehensive if that's what you're looking for. I did appreciate how she used the facts to speculate on what life must have been like at Monticello and believe her conclusions are probably accurate. It can be very informative if you want to power through.
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