THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS An American Controversy By Annette Gordon-Reed University Press of Virginia. 288 pp. $29.95 THE PURPORTED 38-year affair of Thomas Jefferson with the slave woman Sally Hemings is the subject of a provocative new book by Annette Gordon-Reed. Rumors of the liaison surfaced publicly during Jefferson's first presidential administration. Fueled by local gossip and the grudge of James Callender, a notorious political hack, stories about the nature of the relationship, Jefferson and Hemings's characters, and the fates of her five children formed a treacherous web that ever since has hung heavily in an unkempt corner of American history. A legal scholar with obvious talent as a writer and a historian, Gordon-Reed takes on the wrangle-bound narrative that ties Jefferson to the slave woman as early as 1788, when she was 15 and he 45. But that's only half the story. The author wants to set the record straight and, in so doing, is determined to expose the fallacies and biases of those Jeffersonian scholars who have vehemently denied the claim. Gordon-Reed's accomplishments in this work are numerous. She has built a formidable case in support of the position that Jefferson and Hemings had an intimate relationship of many years. The debate, undoubtedly, will continue, but there is little reason that it should given the author's impressive base of evidence that the two were sexually involved and had several children together as a result. She also provides an instructive critique of those academicians who purposefully obscured the truth. Her denunciation of this "conspiracy of defense" provides a long-overdue moral to this story -- historians have a profound responsibility as excavators and caretakers of the nation's past, a responsibility that cannot be denied in the rush to ease their public's fears and conscience. As Gordon-Reed notes, too often scholars have "constructed" U.S. history to comfort the majority at the expense of minorities. Her study also revisits an important and unrelated methodological battle, reasserting -- in the tradition of John Blassingame, Deborah White, Jacqueline Jones, Herbert Gutman and so many other "revisionist" slavery scholars -- the necessity to recognize the slaves' voices and perspectives. In her discourse on the value judgments scholars place on various kinds of primary documentation, Gordon-Reed profoundly indicts the privileging of slaveholder accounts and the dismissal of the slave narratives. She insists, and rightly so, that the slaves had intellects with which they could reliably describe and analyze their lives. The author's work is not, however, without its own flaws, methodological and philosophical. What readers undoubtedly will be most interested in will be a detailed account of the lives and relationship of Jefferson and Hemings. They will not get it. Most also will finish the book without learning much about slavery in the United States, life in the Old South or the political culture out of which the controversy first emerged. This absence of historical context poses a critical question: Is Gordon-Reed familiar enough with the 18th- and 19th-century world of the two principal characters to render a reasonable assessment of their relationship? Much of the time she is. Yet some poorly constructed conclusions based on uninformed analyses occasionally surface. Consider, for example, her "Summary of the Evidence" section. Gordon-Reed argues convincingly that the weight of the evidence supports the story of an intimate relationship. Yet her insistence that Jefferson treated Hemings's children preferentially, even parentally, and that each example of this treatment she cites indicates his paternity, could not have been derived from a familiarity with the social history of slavery, particularly the peculiar nature of the relationship between the slaveholder's family and the favored domestic slave family. With regard to the assignment of occupation and training of even "petted" slave youth, for example, owners took great pride in knowing the "character" and "abilities" of their young charges and routinely decided these assignments based on these assessments. There is little evidence to suggest that Jefferson was not doing this when he decided the occupations of Sally's two sons versus that of her sister Critta's son, or when he provided Sally's sons with some musical instruction. Whatever skills they had still were used in his service. Likewise, the naming of slave children was considered a master's prerogative, and it was quite usual for slaveholders to name these children after favorite friends or kin. To do so did not suggest paternity or even benevolent paternalism, but the power a patriarch held over a slave's life. Other kinds of fallacies emerge elsewhere, such as in the author's assessment of Southern elite female education, rituals of courtship, and the nature of Southern marital and familial relations. What is most problematic is Gordon-Reed's discussion of Sally Hemings's place in the life and world of Jefferson. The author spends an enormous amount of energy suggesting that Jefferson and Hemings had a romance, that Jefferson could have loved Sally because of her beauty, her literacy, their shared experiences, etc. Yet there really was no basis for a companionate relationship between the two. Moreover, Jefferson demonstrated little humanity in relation to her, and she exercised little influence on him. Sally Hemings was a quadroon whose mother was a slave and whose powerful, wealthy white father never claimed her. Her slave status placed her at the feet of her half-sister (Jefferson's wife) and her children. Upon Martha Jefferson's death, Sally was under Jefferson's complete control. It was within this context that the 14-year-old virgin arrived in Paris and two years later left pregnant with her master's child. The power that Jefferson held and exercised over Sally, their offspring and her other kin denied any possibility of a companionate romance. Gordon-Reed is right to defend Hemings's character, particularly in response to its crude excoriation by most Jefferson scholars. Yet this defense cannot erase her tragic victimization by one of America's most important historical figures. Brenda Stevenson is associate professor of history at UCLA. She is the author of "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South." CAPTION: Engraving of Thomas Jefferson by St. Memin made for Mrs. Jefferson during his residence in Paris and (background) drawing of the slave trade c. 1850.