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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

de Annette Gordon-Reed

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Historian and legal scholar Gordon-Reed presents this epic work that tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family, and their close blood ties to Thomas Jefferson.
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Mostrando 1-5 de 32 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
This book is extensive and sometimes repetitive, making me initially wish some of the information had been included in footnotes. I slowly came to appreciate the author's style, which I suspect is based as much on her expertise in the law as it is in history. Gordon-Reed shows her work more than other historians, describing documents and what can be gleamed from them to reconstruct the story of the Hemings family, which lived enslaved at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Sally Hemings, of course, dominated large portions of the narrative, but one gets a wider view of the entire Hemings family and the struggles they faced as some members gained freedom and others remained enslaved. Overall, a good read with insights into slavery, its impacts on families, and the legal implications in 18th and 19th century America. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Mar 26, 2024 |
This is a MUST read.

In 1962 I was a first year man, that's what we called freshmen, at Mr. Jefferson's University of Virginia. In Charlottesville all revered Thomas Jefferson. His life was chronicled by renown historian Dumas Malone whose words were gospel. This was long before UVa went coed and before it became one of the nation's pre-eminent state schools. We went to class in jacket and ties and all exams were conducted without proctors as we all subscribed to its honor code. Yes we knew that political opponents accused our beloved Mr. Jefferson of dishonoring his promise on his wife's deathbed to never remarry by taking a Black slave as his mistress. We all dismissed such heresy as the downside of a life in politics. Surely here in Charlottesville someone would have known. This story had lasted more than a hundred years by that point. Little did we know.

Then in 1998 we learn that there was DNA evidence supporting the claims of the Hemings family that they were descended from Thomas Jefferson. Yes Jefferson had been a slaveholder but now this. Time to reassess.

This book takes off the blinders. It shows how Jefferson came to marry into a family that already had a history of racial mixing with several children of interracial relations, some of these relationships of many year duration. Sarah 'Sally' Hemings was already the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Martha's White father, John Wayles was also Sally's father making Sally three-quarters White. In Virginia of that period she was Black. The marriage made Jefferson one of the wealthiest men in Virginia as well as one of the largest landowners and a slave owner. We had long known he had been a slaveowner but the author of the Declaration of Independence with its immortal words "all men are created equal", must have been a reluctant slave owner and surely a benevolent one, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed brings a unique perspective to this story. As a historian she knows how to work through original source material and has read what other historians have uncovered. As a lawyer she is able to bring in the legal context which defined the situation that many of these people were working under. As a person of color she could bring great insight into what the enslaved people were faced with every day. She understood what it meant to be considered less than a person, ignored, and not listened to. And as a women she provided insight into the mindset of the women involved. Lastly she brought empathy. She was able to see the world from the point of view of the people involved. An extraordinary combination. Given the lack of historical records she often needed to able to assess what the possible alternatives might have been.

The Hemings family is the real focus of this book. While Jefferson is a major player, and the major events of his life drive much of what happens, it's the people around him that we are learning about. Elizabeth Hemings is the matriarch. She is daughter of an African woman and Captain Hemings making her already the product of an inter-racial relationship and half-White. She has a long relationship with John Wayles and, along with several other children, has a daughter Sarah 'Sally'. Upon Wayles death Jefferson inherits 130 slaves, among them Sally.

Jefferson's relationship with Sally appears to have started while they were in Paris. Jefferson spent five years there as the American Ambassador and eventually decided to have his daughters join him there. At the last moment Sally was sent along as the servant to one of the daughters. She joined her older brother James who was being trained to be a French chef for Jefferson. France already had outlawed slavery and both of them were aware that they could easily gain their freedom by just presenting themselves to the French courts. We don't know when the affair started but the beautiful teenaged Sally was pregnant before they returned to Virginia. Gordon-Reed examines why Sally and her brother chose to return with Jefferson to Virginia. While there are no records to rely on Gordon-Reed concludes that they were choosing family over freedom. But in each case there were promises from Jefferson. James would eventually be freed but young Sally extracted a promise that her offspring would be freed when they became adults. This was a promise Jefferson had every legal right to break once they were back in Virginia, but she believed in Jefferson's honor.

The story tracks their life together until Jefferson's death. In some sense we learn that the main characters got what they wanted. Jefferson got a concubine. Sally got lifetime support and freedom for her offspring. The Hemings got preferential treatment. Jefferson's White daughters got an uncontested inheritance which would not have been the case if Jefferson had decided to remarry a White woman. Even if he had done the unthinkable of marrying Sally she could not have inherited any of Jefferson's property, she was his property. What they all needed to make this work was secrecy. They all knew Sally was never to be written of so there is virtually no record of her. A coverup that lasted more than a hundred years. After Jefferson's death members of the Hemings family including Sally blended into both the White and Black worlds. Sally even lived in Charlottesville. Or C-ville as we used to call it. Little did we know. ( )
  Ed_Schneider | Mar 1, 2023 |
Interesting read. Gives an in-(very!!) depth view of slavery, and the special relationship of that institution among Jefferson's family and neighbors. Very repetitive, but maybe that was necessary to hammer into the reader how odd this human-to-human mix was. ( )
  addunn3 | Feb 27, 2022 |
I've been reading this book for so long (based on my last review here, 7 months?) that I am struggling to remember when I didn't know everything that was in it. I do recall that at the beginning I was brought up short by the author's straightforward references to Sally Hemings' children as Jefferson's, and by the end was annoyed picking up a different Jefferson biography that didn't do the same. This is a stupendous book that described a time and a place and a people so well that what I learned will just be part of me. I was most intrigued by Jefferson's relationships with Robert and James (much better documented by history than his relationship with Sally), and also by the holes in our knowledge of their lives, the stories that are lost to history. The author does a great job of showing you just how amazing and interesting their lives were, while highlighting the void left by the absence of their voices. I wanted more.

Notes:
(1) And I also wanted at least another chapter on the Hemingses post-Jefferson.
(2) I also wanted more on the role of overseers in the lives of the Hemings family. When James/Jamey Hemings was brutally beaten by an overseer, I was surprised, because the role of overseers in their lives had not been established.
(3) I liked the author's informed speculation of Sally Hemings' state of mind in Paris, and regretted the absence of such speculation once Sally returned to the U.S. OTOH, when she did speculate regarding the Hemingses in this later time period, I didn't tend to agree with her. She suggested that Sally may have felt deprived by not getting to name her own children, but isn't it just as likely that she was gratified by Jefferson's attention to them? Also, I did not agree with the author's speculation on James Hemings' state of mind when he died. The author suggests he regretted turning down the opportunity to work at the White House, but isn't it just as likely that he didn't want to fall back into the subservience of being at Jefferson's beck and call, and used the request for Jefferson to write him directly as a way to wiggle out of Jefferson's expectation without directly snubbing him?
(4) The last book I read before this happened to be The Keepers of the House, a 1964 novel set in the South, and it interested me how much the world in Jefferson's time had in common with the fictional lives in the novel. The rich white man kept a black woman as his wife, had children with her, everyone in the neighborhood knew about it, but nobody cared as long as he didn't openly acknowledge his wife or children. His white daughter pretended his children came out of the ether. His white granddaughter saw his estate as hers even though it should have been theirs. When his mixed race children came of age, he sent each of them away to live as white. These relationships were common in both time periods. About 125 years later, and so much was the same. ( )
  read.to.live | Sep 28, 2021 |
Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Norton, 2008.
Annette Gordon-Reed has written the best history of the Hemings family that likely will ever be written. It is meticulously researched and carefully nuanced in its assessments and conclusions about the motives and feelings of Jefferson and his enslaved blended family. Sarah Hemings, called Sally, was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. In her early teens, she and her older brother were brought to Paris to join the widowed Jefferson’s household as a servant to his daughter Polly. He broke French law by not registering them as slaves. At some point during her 26-month stay in Paris, Sally became pregnant with Jefferson’s child. By the time they returned to America, slavery had been abolished in Revolutionary France. She and her brother could have stayed in France and thus escaped slavery, but both returned to Virginia under conditions they seem to have negotiated with Jefferson. Jefferson agreed to free her children when they turned 21. She was 16. He was 46. We know what they did, but we must guess at the emotional context of their decisions. How much self-interest, self-deception, and rational thinking were involved? The historical record is silent. But Gordon-Reed’s depiction of the lives of many members of the Hemings family suggests that they were for the most part intelligent, rational people who made the best decisions they could under conditions that gave them little agency. Jefferson, on the other hand, seems to have been afraid to lose people close to him. Slavery made it possible for him to feed the self-indulgent and self-absorbed sides of the personality, no matter the moral conflict. ( )
1 vote Tom-e | Dec 12, 2020 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 32 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
...this is an excellent book. Worth buying if you have any interest in the families of Virginia even free families of color from Virginia because so many of Sally’s children apparently passed into the white community and disappeared, like some of my own family members. The abuse from the press that poor Sally was subjected to at the time by Jefferson’s enemies is terrible to read about, but the empathy and the sympathy the author uses in reconstructing Thomas Jefferson’s life, and his inevitable dilemma around this relationship, really moved me. ...
 
The Hemingses of Monticello is a brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed's achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers.... While praising her grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter.
 
Engrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature (e.g., “Youth in females has attracted men in all eras across all cultures”). Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book.
 

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Annette Gordon-Reedautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
White, KarenNarradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history.
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Historian and legal scholar Gordon-Reed presents this epic work that tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family, and their close blood ties to Thomas Jefferson.

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