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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  4,609 ratings  ·  753 reviews
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 Engl
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Hardcover, 798 pages
Published September 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2008)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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 ·  4,609 ratings  ·  753 reviews


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Bruce
Jan 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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Kimberly
Dec 08, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: stopped-reading
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 Awa
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Rachel Aranda
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 bes
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Sara W
Sep 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
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 poin
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Cinda
Jan 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Krenzel
Dec 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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. Th ...more
Jay Perkins
Apr 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 deal
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Nicole
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 "angr ...more
Hava
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 ...more
Bruno Bouchet
Dec 07, 2009 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Lobstergirl
Mar 07, 2018 rated it really liked it

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
...more
Judy
Aug 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Andrew
Feb 16, 2009 rated it liked it
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
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Susan
Apr 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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, lo
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Porter Broyles
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 mis
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Jeff
Apr 23, 2010 added it
Shelves: u-s-history
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 intere ...more
Louise
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 p
...more
John
Apr 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Susan
May 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.
Michael Kress
Apr 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2000s-late
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 ...more
Larry Bassett
Feb 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, history
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 un
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Jill
Nov 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 o ...more
Jean
Aug 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Gordon-Reed has written an meticulously researched epic of the Hemingses, an 18th century Virginia slave family. Thomas Jefferson inherited the Hemingses and other slave families from his father-in-law. The Hemingses received special treatment from Jefferson and Gordon-Reed argues that was because they were half brothers and sisters to Jefferson' s beloved wife, Martha. After Martha’s early death Jefferson began a thirty-eight year liaison with Sally Hemings, Martha's beautiful, mixed-race, half ...more
Thomas DeWolf
Jan 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
The Captain
Dec 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Ahoy there mateys! This was another fantastic audiobook. This is the story of the Hemings family from their 1700s beginnings in Virginia to what happened to them when Jefferson died in 1826. Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress. She was first mentioned in a newspaper in 1802. And yet, the Hemingses were systematically erased out of history because of the problems that arose with the glorious Thomas Jefferson having fathered children with her.

I actually remember readin’ a book for young adults
...more
Liz
Nov 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
did you know Sally Hemings was the half-sister (same white slaveowner father) of Thomas Jefferson's wife? Isn't that so fucked up? I didn't think I could think Thomas Jefferson's life was more fucked up but it's SO FUCKED UP.

I couldn't finish this because it got super invested in arguing something like the following: "but if we say the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson was rape, aren't we diminishing her agency? she chose to stay with him when there was a window of time in Paris where
...more
Roxanne Russell
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pulitzer-history
We all the know the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson- freedom father and slave owner. And we know how well this hypocrisy represents the broader tragic and paradoxical reality of the American story. This intimate story of the members of Jefferson's enslaved family is the most balanced and nuanced treatment of this history that I have read.
Gordon-Reed goes far beyond laying bare the human tragedy and absurdity of this hypocrisy and simply scoffing at it, she examines it thoroughly, decision by deci
...more
Amanda
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
...more
Jillian
Feb 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I feel so privileged just to read Annette Gordon-Reed's words. This book is a masterpiece of careful research, stellar nonfiction writing, and straight up historical truth-telling. Before reading this book, I knew that history was told by its victors and that the "facts" that I had been taught about this period were probably biased. But I didn't truly understand the extent that I was mislead- that movies and TV and edited history books mislead us all. What admirable restraint that Ms. Gordon-Ree ...more
Katie
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Incredibly researched, and as many other reviews have mentioned, speculates quite a bit based on limited first hand accounts from the Hemings family. However, the speculations seem on point to me and the author backs up her ideas very well. Lots of folks have mentioned in reviews that the author is “bossy” and they feel like they are being yelled at for slavery. That’s just white fragility talking. The author is actually pretty generous to Jefferson and other white slave owners. My biggest criti ...more
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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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