“Thomas Jefferson is the most fascinating American I can think of,” says presidential scholar Annette Gordon-Reed. “Race, slavery, nation-building, science, architecture— wherever you turn in American history, you have to grapple with him.” In 1997, her suggestion in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that the Founding Father sired children with his slave set off a firestorm that lingers despite subsequent DNA validation. Now The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family reconstructs how interwoven three generations of Jefferson’s “extended” families were. Next up: a two-volume Jefferson biography. Gordon-Reed explains, “Rather than seeing his qualities as liabilities, I see remarkable human complexity giving birth to many things.”
When did you get interested in Thomas Jefferson?
The third grade. My first mature look at Jefferson was Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black, then Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. They introduced me to the Hemingses.
Why this book now?
As I worked on the first book, I found that enslaved people were dismissed as bit players in the story. Now, it’s easier to dismiss people if you don’t know anything about them. It’s easier to make a connection when you have some details, so you can see some commonality. I decided to present a narrative of the lives of the Hemingses that would make them real and make people care about them.
How did you piece that together?
Remember, these folks had a limited personal written record. Jefferson writes about them, but you still have to have the cultural framework to explain them. So you have to re-create that. You’re sifting painstakingly through Jefferson’s records— and he was a compulsive record-keeper—to tease out references to people like Sally and her brothers James and Robert, and put them in context. When you have the responsibility of creating a narrative of the lives of enslaved people, you have no choice. It’s the approach you have to take when you don’t have, say, family letters. This demanded a lot of different angles to develop even a modicum of a picture of who these people are. That’s why it took seven and a half years.
You write that memory and love kept alive “the Gordian knot of family relationships on the mountain.”
We’ve seen a lot of slaves’ lives through the prism of law. We extrapolate a lot of things from legal relationships, like marriage, but as a law professor I know that’s limited. Memory, family relationships, what families pass down—these are just as important, and we need to connect to them as much as we can to draw pictures of people and how they lived.
How did Jefferson’s relationship with Sally help?
Sally’s family has a special, particular context at Monticello. Things happen to her that make her different from other enslaved women. To go to another country, where people speak another language and learn to communicate in it, to see the things she saw, shaped her personality. I don’t have letters from her saying, “Being in Paris is very exciting,” or, “Getting wages for the first time is exciting.” But I think the commonality among human beings allows us to imagine how that would feel.
If we can imagine it, we can relate?
Exactly. People don’t have an imaginative life about Sally. There’s this sense of her as static, almost like a piece of furniture. Most enslaved people, especially women, are portrayed as passive—things are done to them. Sally was a person who acted. From what we know about her, she had real preferences about how her life would go, and acted on that.
As in her Paris deal with Jefferson: I’ll go home and be your lover if you free me and my children?
In the end, it worked out for her. We don’t know how she knew that. But she and her family knew Jefferson in ways we never will. My suggestion is, her actions, and those of her siblings, give some sense of what they knew about him. Her son Madison says she implicitly relied on his promises. I look at that, and it gives me all kinds of problems: God, what do you mean? I would’ve stayed in Paris! But I have to have enough humility, respect and trust to step back and realize she and her family really knew this man. And since it worked out, she was evidently right.
Do you think they loved each other?
People have very high expectations of love. Part of their reluctance to believe these two were attached to each other flows from their belief that, if they loved each other, Jefferson would “do the right thing.” I don’t think it works that way. I expect to see all kinds of emotions popping up within any enduring human framework—and slavery was an ongoing institution, this was a slave society. It’s no big deal to me that Jefferson loved Sally Hemings. He clearly had deep affection for her brothers and family. Americans love buddy stories, but have trouble with male-female inter – racial relationships: They’re just together because of sex. I’m saying that just because he loved her didn’t mean he’d think she should be a free person.
Didn’t he think all women should be under men’s control?
Look at his wife. In 10 years she was pregnant six or seven times, and each time it nearly killed her. Finally, it did. Now, I know he loved her. But doctors told people even then, and Jefferson was smart enough to know this, that they had to do something else, space the pregnancies farther apart. So he loved Martha, but he still didn’t do what I think is right. The notion that love solves all problems doesn’t work for me. You can pretty much see the world according to Jefferson: I’m taking care of these people, I’m a good master, I’m gonna free these children.
What about Sally’s brother James?
We encounter him first as a young boy capturing mockingbirds for Jefferson, then as a teenager off in Richmond by himself working as a traveling valet. Jefferson doesn’t even know where he is, exactly. When he writes to tell James to meet him, James defies that, and goes to see his family first. He knew he could do that and not suffer for it; like the rest of his family, he knew Jefferson well. Then he goes to France with Jefferson and is trained as a chef. It was hardly typical for an enslaved black man to live this way, with that kind of autonomy, to master an important profession, to experience France. But his life ends tragically. We never know why people commit suicide, but the arc of James’ life, so full of promise, suggests there was no real place for him here.
And Sally’s sister Mary?
She’s another forceful person. Under the constraints of slavery, she takes things to the limit. She arranges to move to Charlottesville and live with Thomas Bell, a well-to-do merchant, justice of the peace and well-respected public official. She ends up owning her own home, with children who take their father’s last name, as she eventually does. Yet she was treated in the community like a wife to him, and her house became a meeting place for the Hemingses for decades to come. You get a sense of how different the past was: This couldn’t have happened in 20th-century Charlottesville.
Slavery and white supremacy were so strong then, a situation like this wasn’t threatening. It only became threatening after the Civil War. Now, if Bell had tried to marry her, that would have been a problem. The thing to remember is, these small acts in Mary’s life affected all the people around her for generations.
Of Sally’s four children, only Madison didn’t live in the white world. Why?
Some say he was darker than the others, but descriptions of him and his brother Eston—“bright mulatto”—were the same. His 1873 recollections hint at some bitterness toward his sister Harriet, whom he hadn’t heard from in 10 years. His mother lived with him till she died. You get the sense that family means something to him—and passing for white means leaving your family behind. It’s like Witness Protection: You have to establish a whole new identity. That’s the dilemma. Some of Madison’s children did it. But for some people, like Madison, cutting off all contact with your past isn’t necessarily an option. You buy a tremendous amount if you can. Eston’s children became prosperous in ways they couldn’t have in the black community. But they also had to create a whole new story about who they were.
What will most surprise readers?
The extent to which Jefferson spent time with his sons, especially at Poplar Forest. People write about the Hemings children as if they were on some other plantation, and the image you get is of a distant father. Not true. Jefferson may not have cuddled the kids, but he was definitely with them a lot, especially in retirement. He spent months in the middle of nowhere with Beverley, Madison, Eston. He’s doing woodworking with them. They’re traveling with him on that arduous 100-mile journey from Monticello, stopping at inns, having picnics along the way. He was not distant.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.