American Roots

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Reviewed by Fergus M. Bordewich
Sunday, September 14, 2008


An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Norton. 798 pp. $35

Thomas Jefferson's contradictions have long baffled historians. His clarion assertion of human equality in the Declaration of Independence became the battle cry of the abolitionist movement. Yet he lived on the fruits of slave labor and never risked political capital (or his own comfort) to oppose the institution of slavery. He regarded blacks as odorous, intellectually inferior and incapable of creating art. Yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed convincingly argues in this monumental and original book, he cohabited for more than 30 years with an African American woman with whom he conceived seven children.

Liberating the woman known to Jefferson's smirking enemies as "dusky Sally" from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers.

In Sally Hemings's day, Gordon-Reed writes, she was "the most well-known enslaved person in America." Her connection to Jefferson was brutally exposed and mocked by his political opponents during his first presidency, while black churchmen in the early republic preached sermons on her "family situation." The publicity was sufficiently embarrassing that Jefferson's partisans and descendants crafted a sanitized and sexless version of life at Monticello that continued until our own day. Although controversy persists, recent DNA research has caused most historians to accept Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children.

Gordon-Reed first probed the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in her 1997 book "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy." Now she deepens and widens her view to encompass the entire sprawling Hemings clan as actors on the stage of history. Members of the Hemings family came to Monticello as part of the inheritance of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles. They were the offspring of Martha's father and his enslaved concubine Elizabeth Hemings, and thus Martha's own siblings. (In a different society, they would never have been Jefferson's slaves at all and would instead have shared in the inheritance that Martha acquired from her father's estate; the same could later be said of Jefferson's own mixed-race children.) Gordon-Reed's exploration of the lives of other members of the Hemings family -- most notably Sally's mother, Elizabeth, and her brothers, Robert and James, who served as valets to Jefferson -- is also exhaustive and fascinating in its own right. But Sally is the most compelling figure.

Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782. Thomas Jefferson would remain a nominal bachelor for the remainder of his long life. During his service as U.S. ambassador to France, which began in 1784, he summoned Hemings to Paris as an attendant for his youngest daughter, Polly. According to Gordon-Reed, the relationship became sexual in Paris, on the cusp of the French Revolution, when Hemings was 16 and Jefferson was 46. They remained together until Jefferson's death in 1826. Hemings left no written testimony, and Jefferson was careful to leave few traces of the true nature of their liaison.

"When it came to the care and deployment of his image, which if managed properly would leave him with the positive legacy of 'great man,' Jefferson was supremely disciplined and controlled," Gordon-Reed observes. Her deconstruction of this occluded relationship is a masterpiece of detective work. Although she employs a considerable amount of deductive reasoning, she resists facile speculation and relies on a very close reading of the surviving documentary record wedded to copious knowledge of slavery as it was practiced by members of Jefferson's social class at the time.

For instance, Gordon-Reed delves into the startlingly open relationship between Sally's oldest sister, Mary, and a prosperous Charlottesville merchant, Thomas Bell, to whom Jefferson had hired her out. A mutual attachment developed, and Mary eventually asked Jefferson to sell her to Bell; Jefferson agreed. "Within the extremely narrow constraints of what life offered her -- ownership by Thomas Jefferson or ownership by Thomas Bell -- Mary Hemings took an action that had enormous, lasting, and, in the end, quite favorable consequences for her, her two youngest children, and the Hemings family as a whole," writes Gordon-Reed. "She found in Bell a man willing to live openly with her, and to treat her and her children as if they were bound together as a legal family."

Gordon-Reed bravely attempts to untangle a particularly fraught question: Could genuine love exist between master and slave? With its acknowledgment that slavery's unequal balance of power "grossly distorted" the play of human emotions, her conclusion is necessarily subtle and may not satisfy those who require monochromatic answers. Had Hemings been merely a plaything, Gordon-Reed points out, Jefferson could have simply let her stay in France, where slavery had been abolished and a well-trained servant like her would have had little difficulty finding work. Instead, he wanted Hemings to return with him to Virginia so intensely that he was willing to bargain with her, by promising her personal privileges as well as eventual freedom for their offspring. Hemings, for her part, was "a smart, if overconfident, attractive teenage girl who understood very well how men saw her and was greatly impressed with her newly discovered power to move an infatuated middle-aged man."

Had sex been all that Jefferson wanted, he could have hidden her away at one of his several farms in Virginia. But he arranged his life at Monticello so that Hemings would be in it every day that he was there. She led a life as close to that of a wife as any enslaved woman could in antebellum Virginia. To Jefferson, Gordon-Reed plausibly argues, Hemings offered a "familiar presence, telling him what he needed to hear about what was happening on the farm, having sex, attending to his needs, being the person of his private world who listened to him complain or voice fears about matters that he might not want to reveal to others." She says of Hemings, "At the end of her life she would be able to say that she got the important things that she most wanted."

Defenders of slavery tirelessly promoted the canard that emancipation would lead to an epidemic of miscegenation that would ruin America's blood stock. The truth -- the great open secret of the antebellum South -- was that race-mixing was embedded, quite literally, in the culture of slaveholding, where masters' sexual exploitation of their female "property" was not a crime. Gordon-Reed writes, "The pervasive doctrine of white supremacy supposedly inoculated whites against the will to interracial mixing, but that doctrine proved to be unreliable when matched against the force of human sexuality." American slaves and their descendants, she says, "are the only victims of a historically recognized system of oppression who are made to carry the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that things endemic to their oppression actually happened to them." In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery.

Jefferson kept his promise to Sally Hemings. All their children eventually went free. Of the four children who reached adulthood, three lived as whites. The fourth, Madison Hemings, married a woman so fair-skinned that some of their children were also able to pass for white. The Hemingses were, of course, in a class by themselves, as Gordon-Reed frequently underscores. The rest of Jefferson's many slaves were sold off to pay his debts. "The only route to freedom . . . was the possession of Wayles, Jefferson, or Hemings blood," writes Gordon-Reed. "No one else had a chance."

Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is "Washington: The Making of the American Capital."

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