The Root: Sally Hemings and Me

Annette Gordon-Reed
Historian and Author
Wednesday, September 24, 2008 12:00 PM

Over a decade ago, historian Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, a book about the well-documented relationship between the Founding Father and the slave woman who lived in his home. She has continued researching Sally Hemings and her ancestors and descendants, and the result is her brand-new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which is excerpted this week in The Root. In her words, "Indeed, there was much more to Sally Hemings, who most often appears in the pages of history as a 'problem' or a symbol, not as a flesh and blood person. I knew there was more of her story to tell."

Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of history at Rutgers University and Professor of Law at New York Law School. She was online Wednesday, September 24 to discuss her new book, what she has discovered about who Sally Hemings and her family were, and why this story remains so controversial to this day.

A transcript follows.


Annette Gordon-Reed: Hi, this is Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. My book explores the lives of four generations of the Hemingses, an enslaved family who lived almost fifty years at Jefferson's Monticello. I look forward to talking with you about the excerpts from the book that have already run in The Root, as well as about slavery at Monticello.


Atlanta, Ga: I'm curious about your fascination with Sally Hemings. Why all the research involving this particular slave? Is it because Sally was the mistress of a Founding Father? Thanks for your response.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I began by being interested in Jefferson while in elementary school, and only came to the Hemingses later as a teenager. My research is not all about Sally Hemings. My first book was really a work of historiography. I was interested in the way historians had written about the topic of Jefferson and Hemings and what that said about the treatment of blacks in the writing of history.
My current book, which is quite long, is not just about Sally Hemings. There are portraits of all of her family members about which I could get any information. The aim was to show the progression of an entire family through slavery. So, it's not just about her. Sure, part of the interest in her comes from my interest in Jefferson. I think that's probably true of everyone. Why do we care about Martha Jefferson or his legal white children? Because they were connected to him.


VA: I have read most of the scholars commission report.  It has convinced me that Jefferson did not father Sally's children.  What is your opinion of the report?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I have problems with the Scholars Commission Report-- by the way-- anytime a group has to call itself a "Scholar's Commission" you know something is up. Sort of like an establishment calling itself a "Gentleman's' Club". In any event, as I recall there was not one scholar of slavery in the group. It would be as if someone were claiming to be an expert on France in the 18th century, and they didn't know how to speak or read French. That would not pass muster. The lives of French people would be taken too seriously for that. That some think it should pass muster when dealing with the lives of enslaved African Americans speaks volumes about blacks' position in this country. The scholarship about slavery in America is really the crown jewel in American historiography. It is a subject worthy of study and mastery (if I may yes that ironic term) and that anyone could purport to seriously talk about an issue involving slavery without having input from people who spend their lives studying the institution- and I mean multiple people--is beyond mysterious.


College Station, Texas: Thank you for your good work on this fascinating piece of history. To what extent did Fawn McKay Brodie's exploration of Hemings issue, in her psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson several decades ago, influence your work? In light of the scientific evidence that wasn't available to Brodie, how accurate was Brodie's assessment?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Brodie's biography was influential because it was the first time I saw printed the recollections of Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, whose real last name was Gillette, that's the way I refer to him in my book. The first I had heard of the Hemings family was in Winthrop Jordan's book, White Over Black". Working without science, she did pretty well. I think she overreached on some points, but she was curious, marvelously observant and intuitive as a historian, traits that separate great minds from mediocre ones. Those kinds of people will often go too far, but they will also be astonishingly prescient and accurate along the way.


Foxhall Village: Why do you think there is so much more historical research and reporting on Jefferson's slaves than George Washington's -- or any other Founding Father for that matter? What drew you specifically to Monticello?

Annette Gordon-Reed: The obvious, of course, is that Jefferson is infinitely more interesting that George Washington. Just kidding!
We talk about Jefferson and enslaved people because he wrote the American creed with his words in the Declaration of Independence and because of his insightful writings about the evils of slavery. So, you have a person who understood that slavery was wrong, wrote about it, as a young man drafted plans to end slavery, but nevertheless failed to act upon his stated beliefs. Anytime someone says one thing and does another, we tend to focus on it. He created expectations that Washington simply did not. There were,and are, a number of people who felt that Washington could have done more. I believe that of all the members of the founding generation, he had the greatest potential for doing something about slavery at the country's origin. We have never had, and probably never will have, a person who enjoyed such high regard and great political capital as Washington. He freed his slaves upon his death, or really upon his wife's death. But just think of what it would have meant if he had used some of the goodwill that surrounded him after the Revolution to say, "Now, folks there's something else we have to attend to."
What drew me to Monticello was that I was impressed by the range of Jefferson's interests and influences on the founding of the country, along with his involvement with slavery. That has been a topic that has long interested me.


Sterling, Virginia: Do you think your book will influence the Monticello Association (family) to accept the Hemings family into their cemetery?

Annette Gordon-Reed: No I do not.


Indianapolis, IN: Can you tell us a little more about James? He spent half a decade in France holding an important position in a reasonably important household. In all those years, he must have made business connections and was certainly exposed to life as an apparently free man. Why did he return to America, and slavery?

Annette Gordon-Reed: James Hemings was indeed a fascinating man. Writing about him was one of the most satisfying parts of doing the book. There is no question that France was a pivotal time in his life. But even before he went there he, along with his older brothers Martin and Robert, had an unusual amount of autonomy for enslaved people. While Jefferson was away from Monticello they lived in Richmond and other towns hiring themselves out and keeping their wages.
He was used acting on his own, and was very strong-willed. That continued in France where Jefferson started out giving him spending money that would allow him to go around on his own. He was literate at an apparently high level. He trained as a chef in some of the best kitchens in France. Jefferson paid him wages at a rate much higher than the norm for chefs in well-to-do households. The same was true for his sister Sally Hemings. He was such a forceful personality. I tell a story about him beating up the tutor he had hired to teach him French grammar. We don't know how the man asked him for the money, but it evidently displeased James who really lit into the guy. I don't want to recapitulate all my chapters on him, but he was definitely my favorite person to write about in this story.


Columbus, Ohio: How difficult is it for you to find the historical documents used in your research? It appears that more and more becomes available each year to sanctioned researchers, but not to the general public.

Annette Gordon-Reed: It was not very difficult to find the documents. There were just lots of them to go through. Jefferson was an inveterate record keeper and creator of all sorts of documents. So, I really had to comb through lots of material. A good portion of his documents have been published. So it was not a matter of finding them, just going through them. Some haven't been published, letters and other stray documents. One fascinating set is his record of vaccinations of enslaved people at Monticello, members of his family (also all his children with Sally Hemings), and some of the white workers over the years.
People who work in archives were wonderfully helpful to me. One of the advantages is that many of them knew my work and knew the kinds of things I might interested in and gave me documents that I would never have found on my own--or it would have taken an eternity for me to ferret out. You are suggesting that archivists are keeping things from the public and just giving them to certain researchers. I really don't know about that. I do know that one day, all the stuff that can be put up on line will be there. Then we'll all be historians.


Carbondale: I am interested in hearing your opinion as to how the lives of African-Americans in the first decade of the 21st century are improved by reading your Hemings' books.

...and how are lives of white Americans improved by reading the same books.

I have a related question. I have asked my fellow residents in Carbondale the following question. What percentage of African slaves were transported to the United States? In other words, what fraction of slaves had, as their final destination, the USA? The vast majority of answers (from both blacks and whites) are in the area of 90%; 95%; or even 100%.

When I supply what I believe the answer is (somewhere in the neighborhood of 10%), most are shocked, do not believe me, and, I think, nullify my response in their own minds.

So does your view of the Hemingses, and the publicity of their plight, add heat or light to our country's awareness of the legacy of slavery?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I hope it adds some light by approaching the subject from a different perspective. I've tried to talk about the lives of individual people in a way that would allow the reader to feel a connection to them. I hope that connection could spark empathy for their plight as enslaved people.
I'm not surprised that Americans don't know that the vast majority of enslaved people went to Brazil and the Caribbean and not the U.S. There is a lot to be learned about the institution of slavery in this country.


DC: "Historiography" ... did you coin that word or is it widely in use? Isn't it redundant to, simply, "biography"?

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, I didn't coin that phrase. Historiography is writing about the writing of history. Biography is writing about the life of a person.


Fort Washington, Md.: Annette, in your first book on this controversy, which was used along with the Pike County newspaper article of Madison Hemings (in all of its inaccuracy), by an in-house Monticello Study Group, you twisted and rendered a complete different meaning to a very important letter from Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter to her husband. See the Scholars Commission Report (13 prominent and full scholars, black, white and female) at, which found NO proof of slave children fathered by TJ. Do you not place faith in your fellow academic associates? Where is your references to this blue ribbon panel in your book, what page?

In your earlier book you also state that the Eston Hemings descendant has NOT been DNA proven to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. A bit of truth and caution shown here, but why abandon this thought when it came time to write your current book. WHERE did you get proof to support your several inaccurate statements in your book???

Yet, in this new book and on the dust cover you state that Sally Hemings bore 7 children in 38 years. You recognize that the period covers the Thomas Woodson FALSE CLAIM and that DNA did not match the Jefferson DNA. This is the same tactic used in two earlier films on Thomas Woodson, but these were FICTION, your book is passing as NON-FICTION and some are suggesting that it is the all time final conclusion to this controversy. SO my question is, how can you, a respected professor and author, make such unsubstantiated claims? You are completely WRONG and are misleading the public. WHY? Give us your agenda.

This brings to mind the Professor Joseph Ellis (on your dust cover), in a Boston Globe expose lying to his students and YES, in Nature Journal, USNWR and elsewhere. We of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( know WHY, but you tell the folks at your book signing! In this book you attempt to justify in your own brand of research as you did in your earlier book. It won't work again this time by YOUR "revision" of Madison Hemings' statement that he was named for Dolley Madison's husband as she visited Monticello on the date of his birth. I am appalled that you would take this FALSE and misleading statement (how can we believe anything in the Pike County article), and twist it to your desire? We can believe what Madison said or not believe it... YOU are not the "authority" to change his words. My own longtime research on this false statement makes one wonder why the reporter Samuel Wetmore thought he could convince serious researchers that this was an accurate and true statement. Just imagine a Dolley Madison hearing that a slave child was to be born at Monticello and she desired to be there to name HIM (well before sex was to be able to be predetermined by science, what if he had been a female) for her husband. Are we asked to believe that she departed from the warmth of her Washington home, where she was acting as Mr. Jefferson's White House Hostess and traveled for three or four days through the cold winter of January 19, 1805 to name MADISON? NO we don't believe it, and a little research reveals that the Madisons NEVER traveled to Virginia from Washington during winter. The Madison article was also most critical of Dolley, as your book is, as not carrying out a promise to his mother for a promised gift, but that was the way that whites did.

I ask you and the other recent "history revisionist" authors to STOP your attacks on Mr. Jefferson with inaccurate and FALSE and unsubstantiated statements. In all fairness please tell the reader that you have NO proof that TJ and Sally were 38 year lovers. Tell them also how Dr. Foster selected a known descendant (John Weeks Jefferson) of Eston Hemings whose ancestors had ALWAYS claimed descent from a "Jefferson uncle", meaning TJ's much younger brother with the Jefferson DNA. To test this DNA and if the family oral history was correct there WOULD be a match, and thus they were correct because the DNA did match. The present Hemings REFUSE to DNA test William Hemings, son of Madison, thus there is NO DNA proof that Madison and Eston had the same father. Eston NEVER claimed descent from THOMAS Jefferson as Madison did, but of course we know his Pike County article claims are greatly flawed. It was the DNA found of five male Jeffersons tested matching that of a man who "claimed" he had Jefferson DNA. The Eston Hemings family were correct all along, "a Jefferson uncle." I asked Dr Foster to convey this to Nature, Monticello, the media, etc. BUT he did not.

This controversy started out as "Campaign Lies" by James Callender and the DNA PROVED his claims were a lie, thus your 38 year claim is invalid also. NO match between Tom Woodson and the Jefferson DNA.

Please read my review on the Amazon web page.

Herbert Barger Jefferson Family Historian Asst. to Dr. E.A. Foster on the DNA Study

Annette Gordon-Reed: Okay, against my better judgment. Herb, you're wrong. It is "Herb," right, or Herbert? I don't recall ever meeting you. You are just wrong in so many ways, too many ways for me to begin state. If I tried with all my powers, I could not begin to exaggerate how wrong you are. You can't have read any of my books, certainly not the last 800 page one that just came out a week and you reviewed two days after that. I have never said I believe the Woodson story. No one who has read my first book could ever claim that and certainly not one who read the second. I am not attacking Jefferson. I think he was among the greatest Americans who ever lived, flaws and all. Period.


Virginia Beach, Va.: Do you have any plans to write more books on Jefferson?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes, I do. I have a book called Thomas Jefferson: A Reader on Race, that will be published by Princeton University Press coming down the pike. Then, I plan to write a biography of Jefferson. It will definitely be more than one volume. I'm thinking maybe three will do it. But if that's too scary for people, I will have to settle for two volumes. We have learned so much about slavery in Virginia and the Chesapeake since the basic narrative of his life was set really back in the 19th century. Also, the status of blacks has changed so much that a reworking of our understanding of his dealings with the people with whom he shared the mountain has to change too. So, yes, you bet. On to TJ!


Arlington, VA: Do you feel you have an agenda?

Annette Gordon-Reed: No more than any person who sits down to write a book.


Washington, DC: RE: "I was interested in the way historians had written about the topic of Jefferson and Hemings and what that said about the treatment of blacks in the writing of history."

I'm curious -- as you've read hundreds of years of U.S. history, how do you see historians doing a better or worse job of telling the stories of African Americans? For example, how about pre-Civil War vs. after? Pre-1964 vs. after? During colonialism vs. after?

What has surprised you about the changes in the way historians write and what hasn't? And, when do you begin to see (though I assume there has always quietly been) black scholars getting more respect from their peers?

Annette Gordon-Reed: There has been a sea change in the writing about black people in the past few decades. There are lots of reasons for it, but certainly the civil rights movement helped change things. Most of my answers have been too long in this chat, so I won't go into all the different time periods you mention. But we've come a long way from the "happy darky" versions of history that permeated scholarship in years past. Also, I should say the rise in the number of black scholars has helped this along. I really encourage young black people to get into this field. I know it can be painful to contemplate these issues, but it is imperative that we work through that and dive into it.


Atlanta, GA: Did your research on the Hemings' Paris years give a clue as to why Sally decided to return to America with TJ, or suggest that she even considered not returning?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I talk about this at length in the book. I did a pretty thorough consideration of the matter. There was a black community in Paris that was supportive of its members. It was no paradise, but the people who took their freedom there managed to make a living in various fields. The French favored servants of African descent. James and Sally Hemings could have made it there. They faced a dilemma that other enslaved people faced: do I run away from slavery and leave my family behind? I go through and discuss all the issues that were on the table for this pair as they made what was a momentous decision. She evidently believed that Jefferson would keep his word to free her children and give her good life and that it was better to be with her family. The Hemingses were very closely knit. I can't substitute my judgment for hers on this point, but she had her reasons.


Annette Gordon-Reed: I'm afraid that another appointment requires me to break this off now. I have enjoyed this very much. Take care all!
AG-R signing off.


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