Read excerpts from Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello on The Root.
When DNA evidence corroborated the long-standing rumor of a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, the news made headlines around the world. It should not have. Though usually kept hidden, few things were more common in plantation societies than sexual encounters between white slave owners and female slaves. What makes the Jefferson-Hemings story noteworthy is the family connection they shared. Sally was not just an enslaved woman; she was the half-sister of Jefferson’s dead wife. And in Virginia, observes Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at New York Law School and member of the history faculty at Rutgers, “a man who married his deceased wife’s sister was engaging in incest.”*
This “Gordian knot of family relationships” serves as the ligature holding together a remarkable new book, The Hemingses of Monticello. Gordon-Reed, author of a previous work on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, is just the person to cut through the tangle. The story begins with Elizabeth Hemings, born in 1735 of a white father and an enslaved African woman, who became the property of John Wayles, an English immigrant to Virginia. Wayles married three white women and buried them all before he and Elizabeth Hemings became involved. Hemings went on to have eight children with Wayles, including Sally, the descendant of two generations of white man/slave woman relationships.
The Hemings-Jefferson family connection began in 1772, when Wayles’ daughter Martha, born to one of his white wives, married Jefferson. The Hemingses, of course, knew of their blood ties to Martha; what Martha knew remains shrouded. The ability of whites to deny reality was legendary: “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household,” Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut famously observed, “but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds.” By all indications, Martha Jefferson bore few illusions, however, and it is unlikely she harbored any resentment about her father’s liaison, since in 1774 Elizabeth Hemings and her children moved to Monticello, where they were immediately “singled out” for special roles.
Four generations of Hemingses proceeded to serve the Jefferson household in its most intimate realms. One of Elizabeth’s sons became Jefferson’s butler and another his valet, while James, a third, became a personal servant. Trained for highly skilled and sensitive jobs, the Hemingses were granted tremendous autonomy, living in circumstances almost unique for Virginia slaves: a privileged, close-knit family, mostly literate, dressed not in sackcloth but in Irish linen, muslin, and calico, with skin color so light that several of them later passed as whites. They were, in short, “a caste apart.”
On her deathbed, in 1782, Martha made Jefferson promise he would never remarry. Her request made it almost inevitable that family history would repeat itself. Indeed, her act bears eerie parallels to the biblical account that so moved Jefferson when he traveled through Europe: that of the barren Sarah giving her husband, Abraham, a beautiful slave woman with whom to father his descent. It is hard not to wonder whether Jefferson came to believe his dead wife had similarly bestowed her half-sister Sally, who would bear him his only sons. Unlike the biblical story, however—and crucial in a society rooted in property rights and family connections—Jefferson’s children with his bondswoman would be forever illegitimate, ensuring that Martha’s daughters would never have to compete for Jefferson’s inheritance.
When the grief-stricken Jefferson was appointed U.S. minister to France after his wife’s death, James Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where he was apprenticed to some of France’s greatest chefs and learned the art of high French cooking. His 14-year-old sister, Sally, joined him three years later, escorting Jefferson’s daughter (and her half-niece) Polly. Almost certainly speaking better French than Jefferson, “Gimme” (Jimmy) mingled with the city’s important black and colored community, while “Salait” (Sally), dressed in her Paris finery, accompanied Polly’s sister to the city’s grand aristocratic balls. By 1789, when they witnessed the outbreak of the French Revolution, the Hemings siblings had seen “more of the world and experienced more of what was in it than the vast majority of their countrymen, white or black.”
That fateful year, the 16-year-old Sally became pregnant by then 46-year-old Jefferson (such age differences were not uncommon at the time), and the two Hemingses returned to the United States. Like Jim and Huck sailing down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, James and Sally left France, where they could have claimed their freedom, to cross the Atlantic with Jefferson, back to the slave state of Virginia.
Sally had struck a bargain, which Gordon-Reed explores at length. Jefferson promised her a comfortable home surrounded by kin and freedom to their children—both promises he kept. Gordon-Reed admits we can never know the true nature of their relationship or fully pierce “the veiled nature of her existence.” Did she, could she, have loved him? Did he love her? The questions loom over the whole account. Over the course of their years together, Sally bore Jefferson seven children, four of whom lived into adulthood and resembled him more than his legitimate descendants, both physically and temperamentally. All but one quietly passed into the white community as adults.
As Jefferson climbed the political world, becoming secretary of state and later president, the Hemingses continued their strange existence “at once at the center and periphery of momentous events in the life of the nation.” James cooked the food over which the famous “dinner table bargain” among Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton was settled. Other members of the Hemings family continued to perform the most intimate jobs as valets, nurses, cooks, and nannies, while later generations were trained as highly skilled artisans. They spent more time at Monticello than Jefferson did, and made it their home as much as his. A few successfully negotiated their freedom; some simply walked away; others were given away as wedding presents to Jefferson’s white daughters. Most of the Hemingses, however, remained at Monticello until Jefferson’s death, when the tragic denouement finally took place. The assets of the heavily indebted estate, including some of the Hemingses, were sold to pay off creditors, and a family that had struggled heroically to stay together—over decades, even across oceans—was finally torn asunder.
Gordon-Reed has pulled off an astonishing feat of historical re-creation, involving equal measures of painstaking archival detective work, creative historical imagination, and balanced judgment. She masterfully fills in gaps from fragmentary evidence. While her patient assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of various interpretations often slows the book’s pace to a crawl, her caution is understandable. In shining a spotlight on “the shadow world of slavery,” she ventures into the most painful and fraught issues in American history—the rape of enslaved women, tensions between light- and dark-skinned blacks, the legacy of white supremacy, and the possibilities for slaves’ autonomy, to name only a few. Black women are the central characters in a story that challenges some of the nation’s most cherished narratives. In contrast to so much popular work on the Revolutionary era, history is viewed here not through the eyes a Founding Father but through those of the people he enslaved.
This is not a banal stab at unmasking the biases of American history, however. Of course the Hemingses lived lives constrained by the social categories imposed on them: They remained slaves in a slave society, and black enough in a nation committed to white supremacy. But the book’s subject is not the categories themselves; Gordon-Reed doesn’t use the Hemings family as a metaphor for the “black experience,” or Sally Hemings to humanize “slave women.” She focuses instead on the individuals who struggled messily to survive despite these categories and, every once in a while, broke through them.
The result offers unparalleled insight into an 18th-century Virginian world in which rigid racial boundaries were impossible to police. Interracial relationships raised few eyebrows, and John Wayles’ political career never suffered from his concubinage with Elizabeth Hemings. One of the Hemings sisters, Mary, was leased to a local white merchant, Thomas Bell, and the two became lovers. At her request, Jefferson sold Mary to Bell, and the couple lived openly in what was, in effect, a common-law marriage; their children quietly became free by sanction of the community, if not the law. In 1802, when newspaperman James Callendar first reported Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, his account suggested how widely known their relationship was in local circles, where Hemings appeared like “something like a wife to Jefferson.”
The Hemings story also casts new light on Jefferson, portrayed as an agonized hypocrite in much recent scholarship. He emerges instead as a man whose life can be fully understood only through its relationship with slavery. The private Jefferson, in Gordon-Reed’s reading, did not simply express his fascination with human cultivation and control through the architecture of Monticello, but even more through his relations with the Hemingses and his other slaves. Though he could never see them as “separate from his own needs, desires, and fears,” they nevertheless recast his life: The Hemingses gave him “a beautiful younger mistress and children, who could be shaped into some version of his private self—woodworker, musician, and sometimes gardener.”
Jefferson’s mixed-race children remained in the United States, fusing into the white community seamlessly: an eloquent rebuttal to Jefferson’s public denunciation of racial mixture and his endorsement of blacks’ expulsion from America. Alas, his words carried more weight than his actions in a nation increasingly committed to slavery and racism, and Jefferson’s descendants and biographers sought to redraw the categories his life had blurred, writing the Hemingses out of history in a quest, as Gordon-Reed puts it, “to maintain the ownership over black people’s identities in perpetuity.”
There, perhaps, lies the fullest significance of this remarkable family’s story: It makes that perpetual ownership impossible.
Correction, Sept. 24, 2008: François Furstenberg originally referred to Annette Gordon-Reed as a professor at New York University. She is a professor at New York Law School and a member of the history faculty at Rutgers. (Return to the corrected sentence.)