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.