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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

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When Annette Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson's renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars' evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson's life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence--especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that provided further evidence of a Jefferson and Hemings liaison.

Possessing both a layperson's unfettered curiosity and a lawyer's logical mind, Annette Gordon-Reed writes with a style and compassion that are irresistible. Each chapter revolves around a key figure in the Hemings drama, and the resulting portraits are engrossing and very personal. Gordon-Reed also brings a keen intuitive sense of the psychological complexities of human relationships--relationships that, in the real world, often develop regardless of status or race. The most compelling element of all, however, is her extensive and careful research, which often allows the evidence to speak for itself. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy is the definitive look at a centuries-old question that should fascinate general readers and historians alike.

320 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1997

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About the author

Annette Gordon-Reed

20 books542 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 72 reviews
Profile Image for Sara.
483 reviews
October 26, 2019
A masterful book. Since this was written in 1997, DNA testing has confirmed that Sally Hemings was NOT the mistress of any of the men in the Carr family. And the evidence available, now that it has been examined fairly and in detail by Annette Gordon-Reed, makes clear that she was very likely the loved mistress of Thomas Jefferson.

I'm glad I went to the appendices to read the memoirs of Madison Hemings, Sally's son, born in 1805 and freed by the terms of Jefferson's will in 1826. There are also the memoirs of Isaac Jefferson, another house slave at Monticello, written down in 1842 by the historian Charles Campbell, and the statement of Israel Jefferson, also a house slave, born in 1800 and thus a contemporary of Madison Hemings, made to the Pike County (Ohio) Republican. Reading these testimonies and hearing the voices of the witnesses goes a long way to enlivening Gordon-Reed's discussion of the available facts.

I find it comprehensible that Jefferson specialists have bent over backward to discredit and avoid the implications of the evidence for this situation, since I grew up about an hour and a half from Charlottesville in the 1950s. As a child I visited Monticello several times and remember the official story of those days - we never even realized that Jefferson kept slaves! Some of us would have been horrified. Jefferson was presented as a scientist, interested in everything new and experimental as well as in farming. As a human being, you got little or no idea of what he was like, except that he was very intelligent and loved France and all things French. That did impress me.

Gordon-Reed gives full credit to Fawn Brodie for "breaking the story," so to speak, in such a way that it couldn't be ignored - and yet it was ignored, and she was vilified, because the South would much prefer to guard myths about its heroes. Especially in Virginia, miscegenation was swept securely under the rug. Yet the facts speak clearly. Almost as distressing as the vilification of Sally Hemings (who must have been an extraordinary woman in intellect and self-control as well as beauty, and who was related by blood to Jefferson's first wife, who went with his youngest daughter to France and by all accounts was well received there) is the vilification of the witnesses to the real situation and the omission of the facts in most of the historical accounts. Dumas Malone alone struggled to reconcile the conflict, but he ended by just omitting most of it. I've tried to read his books and failed. It's much too one-sided an approach for me. Gordon-Reed tries to understand all points of view, and she respects him greatly as an historian but makes totally clear how short he fell on exploring this issue.

There are lots of videos available on YouTube now, one of a long interview with Gordon-Reed which is great to watch. If I ever need a lawyer, I'd go to her. She is unstoppable and her logic and patience in unraveling evidence is without peer. I'm now interested to read more about the Hemings family - she has more books - since they were by all accounts worthy descendants of Jefferson and extremely interesting in their own right.
Profile Image for Brandon Dalo.
130 reviews5 followers
January 22, 2023
In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, author Annette Gordon-Reed sets out to discover the truth behind whether or not Thomas Jefferson had a 38 year relationship with one of his enslaved women named Sally Hemings, a controversy in his own lifetime, and one that remains so. The book is split into five parts with a chapter for each of the main players involved in this story: Madison Hemings, James Callender, The Randolphs and Carrs, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Annette Gordon-Reed was a Professor of Law at New York Law School (and now a Professor of History at Harvard), and her arguments here read like how a lawyer would present their case in court. She relays in each chapter the arguments against a Jefferson-Hemings relationship from all of the popular historians who have commented on it over the decades, and then refutes their arguments strongly and with passion. There were multiple mic drop moments throughout this book and her arguments all make sense. It never feels like she is grasping at straws or twisting facts.

However, this is not just a stale and scholarly look at all the angles of this controversy. It reads as a personal and meaningful endeavor for the author as her ultimate stated aim is to not prove one way or the other if this relationship happened or didn’t happen, but really to criticize the way scholars have talked about it in the past. There is a mission here against the larger issue of white supremacy and racism that has been a part of the commentary on this subject in the past. She’s trying to have a bigger conversation here.

While this book is excellent in its research and very convincing in its arguments, it can be a bit long winded and repetitive at times. I’m not sure that someone who wasn’t fascinated by American history and/or Thomas Jefferson would find it fascinating throughout. But if you are interested in those subjects, I think you will find this highly interesting. If you are deeply familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s life, you may still learn some new things about him here that aren’t often talked about in other works.

The book opens with a new author’s note talking about the DNA evidence that was found after this book was first published. The DNA evidence did not prove that the descendent of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) was a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson. But it does establish this descendent is genetically linked to the Jefferson family and not to the Carr family (who were the main men historians have traditionally linked with fathering Sally Hemings children). This, along with the entirety of the arguments presented here in this book make me almost 100% sure that Thomas Jefferson did have a 38-year relationship with Sally Hemings. There is still that slight doubt in the back of my mind (why though I’m not sure). I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested to see what they think about it all!
Profile Image for Sharon Huether.
1,459 reviews10 followers
November 22, 2021
This book brigs out the truth about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings with evidence and facts.

Before reading this book my beliefs were held by fiction and appearances.
Profile Image for Darlene.
370 reviews132 followers
May 16, 2011
This book was originally written before DNA testing were completed which ultimately showed that Sally Heming's children were indeed Jefferson children. It must be emphasized that although tests confirm that Sally Hemings did indeed have children which were a match to Jefferson DNA, it is not necessarily so that Heming's children were the offspring of THOMAS Jefferson. This book, although repetitious and sometimes dry, was very interesting. Dr. Gordon Reed is an attorney and therefore wrote the book as if she were presenting a case in court. I can't say, however, that she convinced me with her arguments. Her main argument which was repeated many times is that racism and the idea of 'white supremacy' are so ingrained in our society and consequently, most historians cannot look at the evidence presented regarding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in an objective manner. I am not disputing that racism is ingrained in many levels in our society. I was just not swayed by Dr. Gordon-Reed's arguments.

In the end, I found the book to be very interesting as far as the historical perspective she gave. She provided a great deal of information about the background of slavery in Virginia. And I found the little pieces of information she uncovered about Heming's children which were told in their own words to be fascinating. All in all, the book demonstrates what I (and probably MOST people)already knew.... there were ALWAYS relationships (sexual or romantic) between slave owners and the women they 'owned' as slaves. This relationship just happened to be between the third President of the United States and a woman who was his slave.
Profile Image for Bill reilly.
410 reviews7 followers
June 19, 2018
The wonders of modern science in the form of DNA have proven the theory of this book into a reality. Unfortunately, the same climate change science deniers are still around. Gordon-Reed’s introduction was written two years after the original publishing date of the book. Blood tests of descendents of Thomas Jefferson proved a familial connection with the founding father. T.J. was in Paris in 1789 when Sally Hemings, a slave girl, arrived with her brother James. The first piece of the puzzle was provided by Madison Hemings in 1873. An Ohio newspaper ran a story in which Madison claimed to be Jefferson’s son. Thomas’s supporters called it lies by enemies. Today it might be termed “fake news” by some. Madison was told by his mother that after two years in France with TJ, she came back to America pregnant with his child. She was 15 or 16, and he was 46. These days, it is called statutory rape. I am surprised that Reed, an attorney, does not point this out. Sally’s children were promised their freedom at age 21; while Jefferson’s other slaves were held in servitude for the rest of their lives. TJ was deep in debt and kept his slaves as valuable property. James Callender was the first journalist to spread the rumors of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings. Like any good lawyer, Reed argues with repetition the fact that all four of their offspring were freed at the age of 21. Fawn Brodie is used as a source for a possible fifth child, a son named Tom who was raised by the Woodson family. Tom remains an unsolved mystery. Reed played detective to shoot down easily proven time lines regarding conceptions and births. Jefferson’s detailed journals proved that he was at Monticello the six times Hemings conceived over the course of fifteen years. TJ was at home nine months prior to the birth of each child. Even when presented with this evidence, detractor’s still insist that the president’s nephews, the Carr brothers, were the baby daddy’s. Bull****. The line of power hungry, entitled, alpha-males continues, right on through JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton, and D.J. Trump. Some things never change. Sally never conceived at any of the times that Tommy was away as secretary of state, on through his presidency. He was absent for as long as six months, and, miraculously, Hemings was never once impregnated during T.J.’s road trips. Gordon-Reed, as a black woman, has an obvious horse in this race. She points out that most historians have denigrated Madison Hemings as a liar; only an ex-slave who was not to be believed, while the “legitimate” white Jefferson offspring had no reason to revise history. Miscegenation was illegal in Virginia until the 1960’s (ask Clarence Thomas), a pretty good reason to whitewash Thomas Jefferson. Even so, Reed remains in awe of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Reed further examines the beginning of the relationship in France when Sally was 14. Fawn Brodie speculated that the couple fell in love during that 2 year period, while historian Gary Wills called Sally “a healthy and obliging prostitute.” Ouch, just another black “ho”, right Gary? Reed returns once again to the timeline analysis and shows a precise correlation between T.J.’s presence at Monticello and Sally’s child bearing nine months late. This is the author-lawyer’s strongest argument. Hemings and her children were the only slaves released from Jefferson’s estate. Sally died nine years after her lover. Her status as a footnote of American history changed radically with DNA tests of the 20th century. Reed reinforces her strongest evidence with the diary of John Hartwell Cocke, a cofounder of the University of Virginia with Jefferson. He wrote in it of T.J.’s “slave mistress” in the 1850’s. All three sons of the happy couple played the violin, and the boys were said to have an uncanny resemblance to their slave master. With apologies to Colin Powell, this is a slam dunk. Although an important book, the author is more a lawyer than she is a writer. It reads like a trial transcript, with redundant details. In the hands of a true storyteller; John Grisham, for instance, it could have been much better.
Profile Image for Cathryn Conroy.
1,003 reviews30 followers
December 13, 2021
Was Thomas Jefferson—the country's esteemed third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of Virginia—the father of four children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings?

Thanks to DNA testing in 1998, the answer is most likely yes. In fact, it's so likely that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello has confirmed Jefferson and Hemings were lovers and had four children together.

But back up a bit. This book, an extraordinary piece of scholarship by attorney and Harvard Law/history professor Annette Gordon-Reed, was published in 1997 before the DNA testing. It is a deep dive and thorough examination of the documentary evidence—from letters, newspaper articles, oral histories, and records kept by Jefferson—to determine the answer to the question that has burned in the minds of many for generations.

It's a question that fell largely into a racial divide: Aristocratic Southern whites, as well as some esteemed historians and biographers, could not fathom that one of their own would have a decades-long sexual relationship with a black woman that had to be grounded in love since it lasted so long. And they have done what they can to hide a truth, rather than better understand it. This took some mental gymnastics at times. But the Hemings family and their descendants thought differently based on their family history and stories.

Gordon-Reed's skill at legal argument is on full display as she takes each piece of evidence from both sides and considers its validity—or not. While reading this, I often felt as if I were seated in a courtroom listening to her argue before judge and jury, and at times her tone is strident and scolding.

Just know this: While the book really is a fascinating, scholarly read, it consistently gets bogged down in the minutiae—so much so that it becomes a bit of a slog in places.
Profile Image for Hannah.
344 reviews9 followers
July 31, 2021
This was fascinating and truly well done. When Gordon-Reed wrote this book, she was pushing back against accepted beliefs and she made her argument so convincing that it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. We now, of course, have the DNA evidence to back her research but it is impressive that this was done before that information was available. This book is pure academic smack-down and Gordon-Reed came to win.
Profile Image for T Adams.
200 reviews
January 22, 2013
As stated in the preface, the author's goal is clearly to "present and analyze...the evidence that exists to support the story" (of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison). The author's other agenda, as stated in the conclusion, was also clear: " Blacks of today can reward those who suffered and endured for our benefit only through our present and future acts." "It means that we should let no negative charge, no offensive theory or supposition, no unsubstantiated claim about the nature of those who were forced to 'labor' for the 'happiness' of others, go unchallenged."

The argument supporting the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was well covered, with many historical quotes and references. Appendix A (Key to Important Names) and The Genealogical Tables were very helpful as we are introduced to many characters.

Some of the arguments seemed inflammatory and excessively defensive. Ex: speaking of Sally Hemings as "one of the most vilified women in American history"; referring to Jefferson's thoughts of slavery ending: "the real horror of horrors that T.J. saw..." This felt like the overriding tone of the book and put me on edge. Still, I am glad to have read more information on the topic and will likely seek out counter arguments to form a balanced picture.

Fabulous quote:
“The all too widespread practice of cannibalizing one’s family members for public consumption is largely a late twentieth-century sport.”
Profile Image for Doug.
318 reviews11 followers
October 25, 2020
I agree with Professor Gordon-Reed on one point; professional historians have made a mess of things. But she has done no better. Believers will be reinforced. Skeptics will feel secure. Those approaching with an open mind will be unable to decide.

Several attempts are made to prove a negative (e.g. some evidence doesn't exist perhaps because the Jeffersons destroyed it) There are factual misdirections (e.g. Edmund Bacon had close ties by 1801, not starting in 1806.) And some of the evidence is missing completely. (e.g. One of the prime suspects, Randolph Jefferson, is not mentioned once, even though the Eston Hemings family claimed him as their ancestor for 170 years.) The inconclusive DNA testing was completed after the book was published.

If you're looking for answers, read other books on the subject. Because no matter what your final conclusion, this is a poorly written book.
Profile Image for Omar.
16 reviews
December 31, 2013
A solid book. I particularly liked the textual analysis of previous historians' work (or lack thereof) on this topic.
This is not the book to read if you want a strong attempt to develop a picture of Sally Hemings as a person (it provides a better view of Jefferson, in that sense); also, far from a completely conclusive 'proof' of Jefferson fathering Hemings' children; but a great introduction to the flaws in the traditional scholarship on this topic (in that it's not been scholarly at all) and a strong argument that Jefferson may very well have been Hemings' co-parent. Also, an interesting look into the possible mindsets of Hemings' adult children.

If you want an attempt to extrapolate more about who Hemings was as a person and more about her relationship to Jefferson, read Gordon-Reed's follow up, 'The Hemings of Monticello'.
Profile Image for Raven.
379 reviews4 followers
April 18, 2016
An excellent lesson to scholars on how to apply meticulous academic rigor to an accretion of the evidence. Somewhat metatextual commentary, this is a history of how American culture has reacted to the idea that Jefferson had a lengthy relationship with Hemings and fathered her children. Gordon-Reed gives thoughtful commentary in the wake of lots of freaked-out accusatory handwaving and political points-scoring, while underscoring the emotional repercussions of history's handling of the question to people learning about it for the first time or hearing it discussed. I kinda want to go read a bunch more background info about Jefferson's life and then read this again -- the author is deeply versed in her subject and it can be a bit of a challenge to keep up if you're not familiar with the sources she cites. Still, work worth doing.
Profile Image for Mark.
30 reviews1 follower
August 7, 2013
A thoughtful pre-DNA test treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. While it reads like a lawyer's brief at times (unsurprisingly since the author is a lawyer), it would be an excellent book to use for teaching historical methodology to undergraduate history majors.
Profile Image for Emma.
203 reviews117 followers
October 8, 2013
I am a big fan of this book. It's certainly not your typical piece of historical writing--you can hear the lawyer coming through--but I wish more people took the care that she did to weigh the value of the evidence. Exquisitely reasoned.
Profile Image for Cameron Stevens.
57 reviews
July 15, 2020
while the question of “did they?” is the main topic of the book, what is more relevant and revealing, especially given today’s social unrest, is an unsurprising exposé of how racism exists in scholarship and written histories.
Profile Image for Guyler Winter.
2 reviews
December 17, 2016
Written by a lawyer writing in a style you would expect from an investigative legal, logical mind.
Profile Image for Gail Holman.
65 reviews
August 25, 2017
Well researched and eloquently stated. Dense argument that TOTALLY makes her case. If it's a topic that interests you, it's a must read.
Profile Image for Julie Kenkel Yates.
240 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2019
In this work Gordon-Reed, a Harvard Educated Lawyer, is looking at each piece of evidence about the paternity of Sally Hemming’s children and determining WHY previous scholars either accepted it as true or false. For example, why is the oral history of slaves less believable then the oral history of whites [especially when those white relatives have a strong reason to lie, which DNA testing has subsequently shown they did.] Excellent research and critique of the implicit assumptions and biases, prejudices and glaring -even deliberate - blind spots of prior historians of the Jefferson story. Her work is well-structured, analytical and thorough. Her arguments are sensible and convincing written in clear prose and sharp reasoning, making this an extremely compelling and thought provoking book.

Note, it was written in 1997 before any DNA testing at which point “everyone” (IE white historians) agreed that one of the Carr brothers was the father. Now that DNA testing has proved a relation to the Jefferson line, some “scholars” are bending over backwards now saying that it was Jefferson brother, who was never suggested in the past 200 years.

From The Conclusion:
"I have trid to approach the writing of scholars and commentators on the subject of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as through their considerations represent serious attempts to get at the truth of the story ... And, to measure their commitment to ferreting out the truth, how did they respond to information that tended to favor the side to which they may have been personally opposed? ...
The failure to look more closely into the identities of the parties involved, the too ready acceptance and the active promotion of the Carr brothers' story, the reliance upon stereotypes in the place of investigation and analysis, all indicate that most Jefferson Scholars decided from the outset that this story was not true and that if they had anything to do with it, no one would come to think otherwise. In the most fundamental sense, the enterprise of the defense has had little to do with expand people's knowledge of Thomas Jefferson or the other participants int he story. The goal has been quite the opposite: to restrict knowledge as a way of controlling the allowable discourse on this subject.
271 reviews
January 31, 2021
This is the first of Annette Gordon-Reed's two books on Thomas Jefferson and his mistress Sally Hemings (the other being the excellent The Hemingses of Monticello, published eleven years after this volume). In it, Gordon-Reed launches an extended critique of the historical consensus that had existed against Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings' children. This is a great book on the ways that historians have periodically betrayed their craft, blinded consciously and unconsciously by their own prejudices, assumptions and hopes about both the past and present.

While she claimed in the introduction that her goal was neither to prove nor disprove the allegations, I think she doth protest too much, and her leanings are strongly in the Jefferson-as-father camp, but that may be influenced by having read her other book, in which she's much more direct, perhaps as a result of the intervening Y-DNA study. I do think she's right that this book is more about the historical failings of Dumas Malone, Douglas Adair and others; this book will appeal most to those interested in the historiography , as opposed to her later book, which I think is more about the history itself.

Along the way, she demonstrates her trademark brilliance in historical reasoning and use of evidence, as well as an ability to write cogently about the past and its chroniclers with tongue planted firmly in cheek. This was a great book.
Profile Image for Robert Emmett.
18 reviews
March 1, 2018
This is a hard book to review. I was looking for a narrative history of the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave who now we know genetically bore him several children. When this book was published in 1997 historians had been and were still arguing whether Jefferson was the father of Sally's children. Annette Gordon-Reed is first a lawyer and the book, rather than the narrative I expected, was a legalistic analysis of the treatments of the alleged relationship through various eras of journalistic/political and historical review. As I grew to understand how little history of Sally Hemings was contemporaneously recorded, Gordon-Reed's analysis of the pros and cons of each of the major analyses of the relationship drew me in. It is a lesson of how historians have fit the facts to how they view the world should be. I learned much about Jefferson and his extended family and the sexual relationship of male slave owners with female slaves. The historical record leaves little or no information about the emotional relationship of Jefferson and Hemings. But Gordon-Reed builds a strong circumstantial case. In the end I found this a fascinating book
Profile Image for Gretchen Hohmeyer.
Author 2 books117 followers
September 24, 2022
It is so fascinating to read this, knowing that when it was first published that there was no DNA evidence that tied Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed's exhaustive style of looking down every possible avenue from every possible angle works much better here for me than her other book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The length of this made that style feel more manageable and I was able to follow the threads better, as well as being a bit more interested in her detective work in this text. While both books are critical reads if you are interested in this topic/time period, The Hemingses works much better as a written text while this flowed fine on audio.
Profile Image for Shlomo .
53 reviews
November 3, 2021
Truth be told, this book was hard reading but kept on because of the insulting tone of all those historians who just couldn't bring themselves to accept facts right In front of them that the great Thomas Jefferson had a long standing sexual relationship with one of his slaves who bore him children and freed all of them but none of the other slaves. The lengths people will go to disparage the African-American is never shortening; yet Sally Hemings never uttered a single word in her defence. Well researched but the author presented the narrative in such legalistic form, I nearly dropped it half way through. I think others should read it and get to understand how the victor has always written history to suite.
Profile Image for Zachary.
71 reviews
March 24, 2023
Excellent book by Prof. Gordon-Reed. An important read for anyone interested in the history of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings or individuals who want to understand how the history of their relationship was distorted. In this book, Gordon-Reed carefully examines and explains both the evidence available and how the evidence came out and was used or ignored by previous commentators, newspapers, and historians at various points of time.

I also appreciated the added introduction discussing the DNA evidence that took place after this book was published. Due to this addition, we have scientific evidence that supports the conclusions drawn based on the documentary record Gordon-Reed drew on when the book was originally written.
Profile Image for Linda.
70 reviews6 followers
December 14, 2020
This is a fascinating book that examines the investigations, facts, writings and opinions of historians who have written about Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings. There were some surprises in family relationships (Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, and Sally shared the same father) and that Jefferson destroyed all his letters he wrote to Martha.
Like many powerful politicians, Jefferson has his defenders, who have attempted to convince readers that Jefferson & Hemings relationship was impossible and either discount or dismiss facts and testimony which would suggest otherwise.
Profile Image for Karl.
200 reviews2 followers
January 7, 2021
While an intimate relationship between Hemmings and Jefferson cannot be proved, the author lays out a very strong case that it is likely. Using the facts known and logic and examining all testimony concerning the matter as if it were a legal case, she is able to show how discounters of the relationship were motivated by their feelings for Jefferson or their bias against the testimony of slaves and former slaves. In that way, it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about Hemmings and Jefferson.
496 reviews1 follower
January 12, 2023
An excellent example of deep research and the well reasoned conclusions which result. I don’t think this leaves much room for disagreement that Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings had a 38 year relationship that included the births of 7 children, 4 of whom grew to adulthood, and were freed by Jefferson upon reaching the age of 21. Once this is accepted it of course asks a lot of questions, many which the author addresses. It’s an unparalleled deep dive into the story and I strongly recommend it.
Profile Image for David.
90 reviews
July 10, 2017
Interesting analysis, though wish it had spent more time with the primary sources (which were a great addition in the appendix) vs contesting secondary ones. The book predates DNA testing which has shown a link between Jefferson and African American descendants, but I wonder-- given the rumors at the time that Heming's children may have been fathered by Thomas' nephew-- whether DNA can tell the difference and settle that particular dispute.
333 reviews2 followers
January 10, 2018
A somewhat different approach to examining historical evidence, the author uses her lawyer background to consider and for the most part, refute the rebuttals of historians who have argued against a Jefferson-Hemmings relationship. This is a good book on the topic. Information in the Founding Brothers and John Adams’ biography substantiates several of her observations and indicates that she is knowledgeable about Jefferson.
September 7, 2018
A lawyer's Brief

Ms. Gordon-Reed has laid out a detailed exposition of the pros and cons about Jefferson's being the father big Sally Heming's children. I would add one more pro: it was the custom! All the white off-spring seen in slave country shows this to be true. Read the 1937 WPA interviews with former slaves who readily state their parentage. It is rank hypocrisy to deny the existence of race mixing.
10 reviews
May 25, 2019
I agree with the previous reviews stated. I think I would have enjoyed this more had I not read another book on the same subject. That had evidence that Sally’s children where indeed Thomas Jefferson’s.
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