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Currently Reading Archive > The Hemingses of Monticello

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message 1: by Mike (new)

Mike | 27 comments Mod
Anyone who has read, or is currently reading, The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, 2008, W.W. Norton & Company (ISBN 978-0-393-06477-3) is invited to comment on the book.

message 2: by Jenny (new)

Jenny I find I have much more time to listen to audio books rather than read them, so I asked my local library in Culpeper Virginia (an hour's drive from Monticello) to get it as an audio download. They did within a week and I am now listening to it on my Zen player. It's read by Karen White who does a fine, straightforward narration. At more than 30 hours, this is going to take me awhile to finish, but I am certainly enjoying it. I am impressed with the level of research Ms. Gordon-Reed did - not just with the Hemingses and Jeffersons, but with such things as the laws in Paris at the time regarding American slaves brought into the city and how they were enforced or ignored.

message 3: by Mike (new)

Mike | 27 comments Mod
It's interesting that some people who have read the book and commented on GoodReads and other sites mention that the author seems to be "angry." There is of course a focus on the nature of slavery, which as an institution can certainly not be defended, but I guess the real question should be whether the author lets her views of slavery overwhelm historical facts and educated supposition. I'm about half-way through the book so far, and think that the author has mostly managed a balanced view. She has resorted to some very speculative assumptions regarding the emotions of both TJ and Sally Hemings, but balances that with objective counter-arguments. She also has provided some very insightful and under-reported aspects of TJ's personality that I find very compelling.

message 4: by Jenny (last edited Jan 12, 2009 04:14AM) (new)

Jenny I am copying a comment Mike made about "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings; An American Controversy" (1997) by Annette Gordon-Reed to this thread. It was in response to questions I had generally concerning how is this book (The Hemingses of Monticello) different from the first one:

"This book was written before the DNA evidence was presented. At the time, there was low acceptance of the Hemings relationship with TJ. To her credit, AGR was very objective and refused to speculate beyond the realm of knowable facts. It was a well-written and researched book though (for the time), and presents a less agenda-driven history than the new book. Personally, I think it's still worth reading, though in an ideal world it should be read prior to the new book." (posted by Mike in the book review section)

I wanted to say thank you for giving me a copy of "TJ & SH" some years ago. I'll confess I never got around to reading it, but it is coming in handy now. As I mentioned before, I am listeing to "HoM" and there's no way to go back and check on names or facts on audio. The "TJ & SH" book has several handy Appendix's I am now referring to: a Key to Important Names, The Memoirs of Madison Hemings, The Memoirs of Israel Jefferson, letters, notes, an index --- all very helpful to refer to.

message 5: by Jenny (new)

Jenny My parents lived in Waverly, Ohio for many years in the 1980's. It wasn't until I visited Monticello for the first time in 2000 that I learned that one of the historic buildings in town that I saw often was at least partially built by Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. It is called The Emmitt House and is still in use today. You can see a picture of it on this Pike County web site:

message 6: by Mike (new)

Mike | 27 comments Mod
Thanks for the Waverly perspective, Jenny! There's an interesting paragraph in Madison Hemings memoirs (Pike County [Ohio:] Republican, March 13, 1873) which references his time in Waverly;

"In 1834 I married Mary McCoy. Her grandmother was a slave, and lived with her master, Stephen Hughes, near Charlottesville, as his wife. She was manumitted by him, which made their children free born. Mary McCoy's mother was his daughter. I was about 28 and she 22 years of age when we married. We lived and labored together in Virginia till 1836, when we voluntarily left and came to Ohio. We settled in Pebble township, Pike County. We lived there four or five years and during my stay in the county I worked at my trade on and off for about four years. Joseph Sewell was my first employer. I built for him what is now known as Rizzleport No. 2 in Waverly. I afterwards worked for George Wolf Senior. and I did the carpenter work for the brick building now owned by John J. Kellison in which the Pike County Republican is printed. I worked for and with Micajab Hinson. I found him to be a very clever man. I also reconstructed the building on the corner of Market and Water Streets from a store to a hotel for the late Judge Jacob Row."

message 7: by Jenny (new)

Jenny I finished the book this morning after a month of listening to the audio version. I thought it was well researched and written and highly informative. Some reviewers didn't like the author's use of speculation as to what the Hemingses and Jeffersons were thinking and possible motivations for their actions, but I found it interesting, especially since she backed up her ideas with historical context. It gives you much to think about. I only wish there was more documentation available about this family.

message 8: by Mike (new)

Mike | 27 comments Mod
“The Hemingses of Monticello” is part biography and part social comment. It is, most of all, a condemnation of slavery. The Hemings family, about whom there is comparatively little documented history, is utilized primarily as supporting actors to demonstrate both the logistics and psychological aspects of slavery. That said, the book is thoroughly researched and very readable. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed (AGR), presents many fascinating glimpses into Thomas Jefferson’s life and habits. Ultimately though, the primary focus of the book seems to be an attempt to define the presumed differentiation in Jefferson’s relationships with, and nurturing of, his white children and grandchildren versus that of his presumed black children. The premise of the book is based on Jefferson’s paternity of the Hemings children, which, though not scientifically certain, is believed to be likely. DNA testing conducted in 1998 established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings, the youngest of Sally Hemings children. Although there were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this particular chromosome living in Virginia at that time, the study concludes that "the simplest and most probable" conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings. A research committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was perhaps the father of all six of Sally Hemings' children listed in Monticello records.

AGR presents Jefferson’s paternity of all of Sally Hemings children as an established fact, and then critiques his character on the basis of his perceived treatment of these children. The fact that Jefferson never recorded his thoughts regarding his relationship to, or feelings for, the Hemings, causes the author to freely speculate on both. The result of this problematic tactic is sometimes one-dimensional; slavery is evil, Jefferson owned slaves, therefore Jefferson is evil. There seems little effort to consider slavery in the context of the period. The author often appears to struggle with the concept that acceptance of historical context does not mandate an endorsement of its weaknesses. As a result, her objectivity seems intermittent. At times, Jefferson’s actions are examined in relation to the conditions of the times and deemed reasonable; at other times, he is presumed unreasonable prior to examination. AGR often appears to view the Jefferson-Hemings relationships through the lens of “presentism” – a term used by historians to describe the application of contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past – in other words, viewing 18th century slavery through 21st century morality.

Historian Douglas L. Wilson, in his pivotal article, “Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue” [Atlantic Monthly, November 1992:] wrote that “the perspectives of the present invariably color the meanings we ascribe to the past.” Although Jefferson acknowledged slavery as a “great political and moral evil” in his book Notes On The State of Virginia, historical revisionists and presentists have made it politically correct to excoriate him for the so-called Jefferson Contradiction: how could a man who so clearly and publicly opposed slavery own slaves himself?. Wilson argues that proper historical context suggests that the question should be inverted; “How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished?”

Ultimately, “The Hemingses of Monticello” presents a fascinating, if sometimes speculative, narrative of colonial slavery in general, and the Jefferson “family” in particular. Both subjects are worthy of attention. In one chapter, the author writes that “Politics is theatre, and the successful politician is the one who can skillfully bring just the right symbolism to the cultural and political moment at hand.” It could be argued that her view of biography is similar.

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