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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  4,166 ratings  ·  667 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
Hardcover, 798 pages
Published September 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2008)
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3.91  · 
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 ·  4,166 ratings  ·  667 reviews

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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Michael Kress
Apr 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2000s
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Sarah Finch
Nov 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant work of scholarship infused with deep emotion. Gordon-Reed resists easy answers and armchair psychoanalysis of her subjects, instead challenging the reader to take a journey that lasts several generations in a family that is at once exceptional in the annals of American history and all-too-typical of the "peculiar institution" that molded it. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Sep 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I didn't get to finish the book, but I want to rate it anyway. It is a library book, and the rest of the books from this batch need to go back soon, and this one, being new, can't be renewed.

For the second time I've picked this book up and I've been caught by the author's very good writing style. In addition, right now the part of the book that I'm reading is more about what it was like to be a member of the Hemings family or any family black or white that was living around Thomas Jefferson, tha
This biography of a family, the progeny of Thomas Jefferson with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings, is an important picture of a revered founder and early President of the United States of America. Gordon-Reed is very thorough in the first portion of the book (between 1/3 and 1/2 of the book) to give the reader a most comprehensive understanding of life and culture at that time. While it seemed tedious at times, I found it critical for overcoming today's general population's tendency to deify ou ...more
Feb 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
When I think about the sex involved in American slavery, I see a lecherous white man and a fearful black woman; probably due to what I've seen on TV and read in books. When I was young, I began to hear of Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their children. "The image" entered my mind - Jefferson headed down to the slave quarters or Hemings summoned up to "the big house," while Jefferson's wife, Martha, turned her head in silence.

And then I heard fragments of Jefferson and Heming's time in Franc
Jan 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
Jefferson has always been one of my favorite presidents for a variety of reasons. But I've always been troubled by his ownership of 100+ slaves until his death, and then his failure to free them when he died because they were valuable property needed to pay his debts & leave some assets to his white heirs.

This family biography by Gordon-Reed of the Hemings family -- an extended family of slaves owned by Jefferson and which included Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave mistress for nearly 40 yea
This is the 3rd book that I have read about Sally Hemings and the most carefully researched.n It is also the first book I have read post-DNA evidence. Traditional scholars were always horrified at the thought that Sally Hemings was Jefferson love for 38 years. Parts are enlightening. Others are "well,duh". I found the section on Sally's arrival in Europe particularly irritating. She was the 14 year old maid to 9 year old Maria Jefferson. Abigail Adams met the ship and cared for the girls until t ...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
Paula DeBoard

I started reading this book on Jan. 7 and finished on May 17, and I attribute this incredible length of time to a few factors:

1. Halfway through I figured out I needed reading glasses and I'm stubborn and vain and it took a while to rectify that.
2. The book is 798 pages, and that includes a couple hundred pages of footnotes, and they're all pretty much fascinating, so yeah--read those too.
3. This book made me emotional in ways I struggled to understand. I'm not new to the conce
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Live Chat with Annette Gordon-Reed 1 27 Feb 23, 2010 04:56PM  

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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."
“American slavery at its beginnings—obscure, distant, and tragic—is probably for most people a less attractive point of focus than the story of the discovery and political founding of the American nation. If you like your history heroic—and many people seem to—the story of slavery in the early American period is simply not the place to go looking for heroes, at least not among the people most commonly written about. Second,” 3 likes
“Laws are sometimes put on the books not for purposes of strict enforcement but as statements about the community’s values.” 1 likes
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