Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” as Want to Read:
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  477 ratings  ·  60 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 29th 1998 by University of Virginia Press (first published March 1st 1997)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
really liked it Average rating 4.00  · 
Rating details
 ·  477 ratings  ·  60 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 06, 2011 rated it liked it
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 b ...more
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 fo ...more
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
Apr 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Mar 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Sep 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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. ...more
Dec 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Incredibly neutral and factual presentation. I felt like I was on a jury.
Guyler Winter
Dec 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Written by a lawyer writing in a style you would expect from an investigative legal, logical mind.
Gail Holman
Aug 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Bill reilly
Jun 19, 2018 rated it liked it
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 p ...more
Sep 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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, ...more
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: race-racism, history, 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 p ...more
Robert Emmett
Feb 28, 2018 rated it liked it
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 var ...more
Dec 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 impos
Jan 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 Jeffe ...more
Jul 10, 2017 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Jan 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
Enid G. Ballantyne
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.
Beth Angeli
May 25, 2019 rated it liked it
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.
Cameron Stevens
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jun 03, 2017 rated it liked it
This was a pretty dry read but learned a lot.
This book was written by a legal historian and it shows. Not bad, I like the topic. As far as historical books go it could have been worse.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
May 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
compelling and deep dive
Byron Woodson Sr.
May 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Gordon-Reed removed the cloak hiding the ineptitude, bigotry and prejudice of Jeffersonian historians.
Dec 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Scholarly book. Controversial subject but the author did her homework and proved her point.
Nov 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
I first read this in grad school and, recently, decided to reread it. It may be common knowledge now that SH's children were in some way related to the Jefferson clan but I remember in grad school being shocked by this revelation, or the possibility of it. I also remember that a question asked wasn't necessarily did it exist but rather could a romantic relationship ever exist between one in power and one enslaved.

In any event, like I said, I wanted to revisit it to garner more background knowle
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Although, after recovering from the initial shock years ago, I have believed that Sally Hemings was Jefferson's long time mistress and mother of 4 surviving children. As a Jefferson fangirl, I decided to read this book because it was written by a well-respected, female, African-American law professor. Wise decision. Gordon-Read took the arguments of major historians--pro and con--and applied her own logic and research to them. Is anyone surprised that the noted (white male and dead) historians c ...more
Apr 08, 2015 rated it liked it
I find it interesting that I cannot find the proper title of the book on Goodreads. The book I read by Author Annette Gordon-Reed is titled, The Hemmings of Monticello. When I search for that book on this site, I get some funky collection of articles on Wiki-pedia. I have no idea what's going on there.

This book differs from others on the subject perhaps from the perspective of the author. She is writing and investigating a much rehashed topic from the inside out. Being a woman of color, she unde
« previous 1 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South
  • Sally Hemings
  • 24 Years of House Work-- And the Place Is Still a Mess: My Life in Politics
  • Junkyard Cats
  • Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
  • 1st Case
  • Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
  • The Butterfly Room
  • Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady
  • Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom
  • The Princes in the Tower
  • John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
See similar books…
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.

Related Articles

As this strange summer of staying put winds down, one thing remains truer than ever: Books offer us endless adventure and new horizons to...
57 likes · 30 comments
“Can we fairly say that the strength of convictions that existed during this time would have been weaker than the zeal and fervor of abolitionists who had won their struggle by the time Madison Hemings was interviewed in 1873?” 0 likes
“Until Harriet Hemings left in 1822, Jefferson had never freed a female slave. There may have been several reasons for this, but we know at least one that was probably the most important to him. Two years before Harriet Hemings left Monticello, Jefferson wrote a letter to his former son-in-law John Eppes in which he said that he considered female slaves to be far more valuable than male slaves. Why? Because female slaves had children and, thus, added to capital.43 At the time of Harriet’s departure, Jefferson was in dire financial circumstances. Bad economic times in Virginia, along with Jefferson’s expensive way of life, had set him on” 0 likes
More quotes…