Pulitzer Prize winning lawyer and historian Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University discusses her new book the Hemingeses of Monticello: An American Family, which chronicles the lives of Thomas Jefferson and the often neglected Hemings Family, owned by Jefferson on his Virginia plantation, including his concubine Sally. In December 1789, Paris was engulfed in the burgeoning French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson convinced his pregnant fifteen-year-old slave Sarah “Sally” Hemings to leave the bustling Parisian world where she was working for him as a free contractor and return to a life of slavery on his Virginia plantation, Monticello. By doing this, they enslaved their unborn child. Jefferson did not record how their relationship changed from slave and master to parents in his Farm Book, where he chronicled the names, birth dates, and family trees of all the slaves he owned. We know simply that “During that time,” as Madison Hemings wrote of his parents’ final year in Paris, “my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine.”
Historians dedicated to the life of Thomas Jefferson animatedly disputed how the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence kept humans in bondage, whether the Founding Father forcibly slept with Hemings, and if they conceived children. The paucity of records about their relationship penned by Jefferson compounded the debate, regardless of multiple documents written by their descendants at the turn of the nineteenth century confirming their paternity.
In this book, Gordon-Reed uses both the infamous 1999 DNA analysis which proved a genetic tie between the Jefferson clan and the Hemings and the work of an archeologist at Monticello who validated a correlation in the timing of when Jefferson was visiting Monticello and Sally Hemings’ pregnancies. Gordon-Reed additionally gives a close reading of historical sources produced on Jefferson’s plantation, as well as the 1802 testimony of James Thomas Callendar and interviews with the Hemings descendents to confirm that Jefferson did in fact father some of Sally Hemings’ children.
This riveting social and family history follows three generations of slaves starting in 1730 with the birth of Elizabeth Hemings, Sally’s mixed race slave grandmother and ending in the 1820s, with the lives of the 7 children (4 of whom lived to adulthood) who were the product of the 38 years Sally Hemings and Jefferson were sexually involved.
Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, an interracial slave, and her owner John Wayles. Wayles was the father of Martha Wayles Jefferson. Martha Wayles Jefferson was the only wife of Thomas Jefferson, who died prematurely. This made Sally the light-skinned half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife (and we thought keeping up with the Kardashians was difficult!). As Sally possessed very similar facial features to Jefferson’s deceased wife, Gordon-Reed posits that it is understandable that she would be physically attractive to Jefferson. Heming’s ancestry was three-quarters European and one quarter African. Gordon-Reed asserts that, “central to the Hemingses’ identity was their being of mixed race.” The Hemings seemed to be highly aware of the benefits from coupling with white men and producing offspring possessing greater degrees of European ancestry as it increased the likelihood of achieving manumission (freedom granted from their owner in a will) or ensuring the freedom of their children. Gordon-Reed discovered that no Hemings women married fellow slaves “down the mountain” (a term Monticello slaves used to distinguish slaves who worked the tobacco fields from slaves who worked as servants in Jefferson’s house), but rather partnered with white men. Beyond Sally’s sister Mary who petitioned Jefferson to be sold to the white man who fathered her children, it is unclear the extent to which these illicit affairs were coerced, but it is important to note that no slave woman’s body was their own but the property of their owners.
Isaac Jefferson, a Monticello slave, described Hemings as “mighty near white.” Jefferson favored the Hemings family due to their predominately-European ancestry and their connection to his deceased wife. Jefferson trained each Hemings man to learn a craft, making them artisans. James and Robert Hemings, Sally’s brothers, wrote Jefferson letters, which is historically significant as it shows their literacy. James Hemings, who extensively travelled with Jefferson, was a celebrated pastry chef at the Hotel de Langeac, while John Hemings heavily contributed to the construction of Monticello’s extensive woodwork as a carpenter, joiner, and designer. Hemings women were never field hands. Gordon-Reed insists that, “not having an African mind, Jefferson defined the Hemings women, just one generation separated from Africa, along European lines. He saw them as the kind of women formed for the ‘attentions’ of men, not for ‘hard labor.’” Sally’s position as a house servant gave Jefferson daily contact with her. Please enjoy Annette Gordon-Reed’s discussion of her book and its larger historical implications.