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Gordon-Reed Wins George Washington Book Prize for Tome on Jefferson, Hemingses


I was always struck by how picayune it could be. As you describe in the book, Jefferson was deciding who would get how many fish, or how much fabric -- just incredibly petty detail that he still wrote down. The president!

There was definitely a business aspect to it all. It's striking, the day-to-day mundane things, in the midst of this horrible institution, that people were thinking about. It was how life was lived.

Given your research into this racially mixed family, how would you answer this: Is Barack Obama the nation's first black president, or the nation's first biracial president?

Well, going by his own self-designation, and by the history of this country, he's the first black president. He was treated as a black person growing up, and a majority of black Americans have some white ancestry, we know that now from genetic research . . . blackness in America is by definition multiracial. I wouldn't have any hesitancy in describing him as the first black president.

Is there any written interaction between Sally and Tom? Any record of their relationship, as recorded by them? Letters or notes?

No, no, no, no, no. None at all. There are none between him and his wife, for that matter. He destroyed all those.

Heavens, why?

I think that it was something of a convention at the time. There was a sense of privacy between husband and wife, and destroying the letters was a way of keeping their relationship between them.

Was there love involved between Sally and Tom?

People often ask that. The most you can say is that it went on for 38 years. You don't think of someone maintaining a purely sexual relationship for that period of time. "Love," though, is tricky business.

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