Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 8

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. 798 ppg.

Sally Hemings?
            This was a very well written book that clearly showed the meticulous research behind the narrative. Gordon-Reed’s thesis was explained and correlated quite well. Once again, we see where primary sources played a major role in correcting a misconception of history. In this case that misconception was in Thomas Jefferson not taking a black slave as a mistress at some point following his wife’s death. The evidence is overwhelming that he did, even after sorting through what appeared to be an attempt to cover this fact up by his grandson. Gordon-Reed made an extremely strong case for Sally Hemings to have been Jefferson’s mistress.

Thomas Jefferson
            The most striking thing about this book is that it is not really about Sally Hemings as much as it is her family and the world they lived in. Obviously, Gordon-Reed had to know a great amount of detail about Thomas Jefferson in order to explore the role of the Hemings family in his life. She also relied on Peter Onuf to examine what she wrote. Onuf was until his recent retirement the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at the University of Virginia, the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, and who arguably is the leading Jefferson expert in the United States. In fact, Gordon-Reed’s research was peer reviewed by multiple historians which definitely gave a lot of credence to her interpretation.

            Gordon-Reed’s real contribution to history with this book though comes with her detailed explanation of slavery in America during the era described in the book. In addition, she also explored slavery in France, particular Paris during the time that James and Sally Hemings were there. It is in this exposition of American life that this book really makes its mark. The story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson became the story in which the relationship between slaves and masters was examined. Theirs was not an aberration from social custom, but fully in accord with accepted and well known practices of that time period. Jefferson’s actions were certainly well in keeping with that of his neighbors who knew perfectly well that Jefferson was keeping Sally Hemings as this concubine. 

Eston Hemings
            That he was doing so was not a major secret in his life. James Callendar has announced it to the nation during Jefferson’s presidency, but the issue failed to turn the public against Jefferson mainly because it was either ignored or acknowledged as the rule of the day. Gordon-Reed’s work clearly showed how Jefferson continued to keep Sally Hemings at Monticello while all of that publicity continued. Again, this was a very different world from the one we live in today. The people of that time had their way of doing things and our considerations were not in their minds. 

Aerial View of Monticello
            The result is a very good book that does far more than just explore the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. It goes far beyond that in its historical analysis of the era and actually shows us a quite vivid picture of slavery in America. For Jefferson scholars, this book is a must read. For those that wish to believe otherwise about this relationship, they will have to ignore the massive amount of information which pretty much ends the speculation about their relationship. For students of American slavery, they too should be advised to read this book. It is quite illuminating in that area. Gordon-Reed gets a very well deserved five star rating for this work.

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