Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family


Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. W. W. Norton, 2009.

A couple of months ago, Sally Hemings meant nothing more to me than a political “distraction”—a woman who, like Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s, was used as a weapon to disparage the character of the sitting president. When allegations are made against a famous person, I never know who is telling the truth. Hype can be manufactured, facts distorted, words twisted beyond all meaning. All I knew was that Sally Hemings was a fallen woman—an unmarried slave, perhaps a temptress, in a scandalous relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

I recently listened to an episode of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast featuring historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf discussing their collaborative work in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. When I looked for the book at the library it was unavailable, but they had another by Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I had seen the book cover before and assumed it was more of the speculative fiction I’ve seen on the topic. Finding it on the non-fiction shelf instead, I picked it up.

I did not make it far into the book before Gordon-Reed overturned all of my misconceptions about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The parallels I drew off-hand between Sally and Monica Lewinsky broke down quickly in the light of Gordon-Reed’s interpretations. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family humanized the players, both black and white, in the Hemings and Jefferson story and showed me several of my own historical blindspots.

According to Gordon-Reed, the story of Sally—the most well-known Hemings—is incomplete without telling the story of her family, beginning with her grandmother and ending with her own siblings and children with Thomas Jefferson. The family’s history shows how cruel and perverse American slavery was and how inextricably linked the black and white races were in the South, all the way down to the family level. Sally’s grandmother, an African brought as a slave to Virginia, had a child with a white man, a Captain Hemings. Their daughter Elizabeth lived for many years as her owner John Wayles’s “concubine,” bearing him many children, one of whom was Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson married Wayles’s white daughter Martha and, through their marriage, acquired Elizabeth and her children and moved them to Monticello. Put another way, Sally and her siblings were slaves owned by their half-sister Martha.

After Martha’s death, Jefferson’s political career took off and he served as Ambassador to France for nearly a decade. For part of that time, Sally lived in Jefferson’s household in Paris. At some point in Paris, Sally and Jefferson entered into a sexual relationship; Sally was pregnant with their first child when the household prepared to return to Virginia. Sally and Jefferson reached an agreement, a “treaty,” in which she would willingly continue in their relationship in exchange for Jefferson’s granting their children’s freedom when they reached adulthood. In time, Jefferson fulfilled the agreement.

This is only a brief glance at the family history, and the facts alone leave behind a bad taste. But beneath this outline lie layers of meaning and subtleties lost over time. Starting with the facts (including the DNA evidence that Sally’s children were Jefferson’s children), Gordon-Reed connects the dots, bridging the psychological gaps between known events and turning Jefferson, Sally, and all of the Hemingses back into real people with thoughts and emotions. It is hard to condense what takes Gordon-Reed hundreds of pages to say, but the central idea, I believe, is this: the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was, in all likelihood, not what it is (or was) popularly thought to be. And because they were two very real people, it is worth trying to discover the truth. There is, of course, a lot of extended conjecture involved, but in Gordon-Reed’s words, we can “reference what we know of human beings as we try to reconstruct and establish a context for their lives.”

According to Gordon-Reed’s construction, it is vital to remember the context of Jefferson’s relationship with the Hemings family. Jefferson, a man who was always torn between his enlightened ideals and his dependence upon slavery, found a middle ground at Monticello where he could live with the enslaved Hemings family in a way that did not injure his conscience. He treated them in what he considered to be an enlightened manner; we can assume he treated Sally the same way.

In Paris, where their relationship began, Jefferson allowed Sally to earn a salary and enjoy a freedom of movement unknown to her counterparts in Virginia. In France, she was free to leave slavery and continue her independence with the legal backing of the French government. At Jefferson’s request, she did not. This fact, coupled with Jefferson’s temperament and personality, makes it unlikely that he coerced her into a sexual relationship. It is likely, instead, that they formed a genuine attachment.

Jefferson and Sally created as conventional a relationship as possible, given the constraints of their eighteenth-century slave society. Sally used their attachment to bargain for her position in the household and the eventual freedom of any children they had together. Marriage, of course, was not an option between a master and a slave. Sally could never be the respectable society wife that Martha Jefferson had been. But she could fill many other “wifely” roles—lover, companion, mother, and housekeeper. So she requested a “treaty” (their son’s word for the agreement) to formalize their relationship in the absence of marriage. They then lived in a faithful marriage-like relationship for over thirty years until Jefferson’s death.

Jefferson prepared his children with Sally for a life of what we would call “middle class” independence. Knowing that they were only one-eighth African and would likely pass for white, he invested years in their training in respectable trades. Gordon-Reed points out the irony in Jefferson’s public belief in the impossibility of moving slaves to freedom in one generation, while accomplishing it for his own children.

The Hemingses of Monticello was an intriguing read for me. Not only did Gordon-Reed turn my expectations on their head, she told a great story about the people behind the facts. I found the narrative fresh because she avoided the many de-humanizing stereotypes about slaves and she wasn’t afraid to look at Jefferson’s character in a new way. It was interesting to think, for example, of Jefferson in Enlightenment Paris, where he was a relatively small-time provincial man trying to camouflage his dependence upon an antiquated labor system. Seeing him in that light knocked him down off of that “Founding Father” pedestal too often used in Revolutionary history. I was also impressed with how Gordon-Reed managed to walk a fine line between advocating for the humanity of slaves and turning the slaveholder Jefferson into a monster. 

The Hemingses of Monticello is not a perfect book. It took a long time to get through and sometimes it was repetitive. A few times I found Gordon-Reed to be overly suspicious of the white people in the narrative. And I could not agree with every conclusion she drew. But the bottom line is, she came across as a historian who listens to the people of the past and thinks deeply about what she hears.

Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield

vicarAmong the earliest of enduring English novels is The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766 by Oliver Goldsmith. The English novel tradition had been up and running for nearly half a century by this time, producing, among other works, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I claim no extensive knowledge of literary history—I’m afraid that what I learned of it in college didn’t stay put for very long—but I am intrigued by it in certain historical contexts. What was going on in the world when The Vicar was published? Who would have been reading it?

In 1766, George III sat on the British throne and colonial Americans stewed over the Stamp Act—the Act which turned almost anything paper (newspapers, legal documents, playing cards—books were a notable exception) into an inconvenient expense for the colonists. Benjamin Franklin, the most well-known American at that time, was in London protesting the Stamp Act before Parliament. In March, shortly after his appeal, Parliament repealed the Act (only to replace it with another act shortly). I like to think that Benjamin Franklin was wending his way homeward after a day of international political machinations and saw a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield in a shop window and took it home with him, perhaps having heard about it from a learned colleague who suggested it to him for a good laugh. Franklin seems like the type to have found enjoyment in the farcical, moralizing novel.

I have no doubt that a great many Americans on both sides of the Atlantic gobbled up popular English novels, for in 1766 they had none of their own. It stretches the imagination to think that America, today the largest English-speaking country in the world, did not publish its first novel until 1789. [Read about the first American novel here.] Although there would have been a delay (even of years) in The Vicar’s arrival in America, the more cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, or Charleston certainly read what the British read. So in the years when American liberty was born, with deprivation and destruction on all sides, Americans had for comfort and entertainment only British-English novels on their bookshelves, The Vicar of Wakefield perhaps among them. (Now, wouldn’t that make for a fascinating topic—colonial reading habits during the Revolution?)

The Vicar of Wakefield is the oldest novel that I have read. For me, the non-literary-historian, the novel truly shows its age. The premise of the novel is this: Dr. Primrose, the vicar of the country parish of Wakefield, leads a comfortable life until all of his money is lost in an investment gone bad. The vicar, with his wife and children, removes to a much smaller parish where extreme misfortunes—including fire, theft, imprisonment, kidnapping, and even death—befall them with astonishing (and highly improbable) regularity. The vicar’s two eldest daughters, Olivia and Sophia, now penniless, appear to be removed from all marriage prospects. The only eligible men of the area include the womanizing Squire Thornhill and the also penniless Mr. Burchell. But as these things tend to go, Olivia, of course, falls for the Squire and Sophia for Mr. Burchell. Every melodramatic twist of fate possible comes to pass before the novel is resolved. Through it all, Dr. Primrose solemnly moralizes on the highs and lows. As the non-literary scholar that I am, I did not realize until at least one-third of the way through the novel that it has to be a comedic satire. I am sure any English major could have told me this.

Although I could hardly stop rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the story, the novel held interest for me in other ways. The Vicar of Wakefield says, for instance, a great deal about the world in which it was written. In The Vicar’s world, women have no power over their own lives. Their financial resources, modes of daily living, and marriage dealings are held entirely in the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands (or husbands-to-be). When Olivia falls for the slick (and slimy) Mr. Thornhill, she, according to the dictates of the period, cannot tell Mr. Thornhill of her affections or make any suggestion of a deeper relationship. She is forced to (I say “forced,” but in real life I’m sure few would go to such lengths) manipulate an elaborate plot to make Mr. Thornhill declare himself to her. That women such as Olivia have no power over their own lives is a symptom of the general male view that women are weak, both physically and mentally, and easily victimized. Indeed, there are no heroines in The Vicar; the females are all victims of something or other. Dr. Primrose views his own wife as suitable primarily for domestic uses—“she could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her”—and although he loves her affectionately, he portrays her from time to time as having a definite silliness.

Goldsmith, using the voice of Dr. Primrose, also delves into the matter of liberty and sovereignty for the length of an entire chapter. “I am … for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred amongst men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war, or in peace, is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject. … I have known many of those pretended champions of liberty in my time, yet do I not remember one that was not in his heart and in his family a tyrant.” In Dr. Primrose’s view, having a king lessens the likelihood that rich men raise themselves as tyrants over others and gather servile people around them. This chapter of The Vicar taken by itself surely gave Americans a lot to chew on.

I will probably not revisit The Vicar of Wakefield. It lacks the polish of the later novels that I enjoy, although the form of those later works lies here in seed form. My biggest take-away was in thinking of the novel in an early-American context, in a way that highlights the “everyday” behind the famous events of history. Literature is just one of those cross-over areas.

★ ★ ★/5