Bruce's Reviews > The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
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's review
Jan 06, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, biography, 2009-reading
Read in January, 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.
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01/06/2009 page 350
03/30/2016 marked as: read
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message 1: by Wayne (new)

Wayne HI Bruce,
Thanks for bringing a bit of reasonable balance into the discussions of this book.I have just heard an hour interview with the author here in Sydney where she is presently visiting. She was very fair to Jefferson and was endeavouring to put us back into those times, over 200 years ago, which from our more comfortable perspective we can complacently and too easily label behaviours as "hypocritical" or refer to the relationship of which so much is unknown as a slave/master relationship and built on "rape". To get emotional and say that you will never read or 'like' Jefferson again is incredibly judgemental. Says more about the critic.
By the way, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed gave not one indication of rage or anger.
As Jung said: Life is Projection - which some of the reviewers of this book are amply proving.
Thanks for an interesting and balanced review.
Cheers, Wayne from Sydney.

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