By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Annette Gordon-Reed
Narration by: Karen White
“The Hemingses of Monticello” is a disappointment because it mixes facts with opinion when corroborating evidence is unavailable. It appears biased by a laudable but misguided agenda.
Though one easily agrees that slavery demeans humanity and distorts the truth of human equality, the Jefferson/Hemings social and emotional relationship is marred by the author’s psychological explanation of Sally Hemings’ thoughts and feelings. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed, is an educated historian, not a trained psychiatrist or psychologist. Gordon-Reed speculates when facts are not evident about Thomas Jefferson’s common-law-wife, Sally Hemings. Neither Jefferson nor Hemings left any written record of their conjugal relationship. The only facts of relationship are the genetic evidence of their progeny.
Gordon-Reed’s research reveals that Sally Hemings joins Thomas Jefferson in France when he is America’s Ambassador. Hemmings arrives in Paris with Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Polly (Mary Jefferson Eppes), two years before the French revolution. Jefferson is in Paris for five years leading up to the 1789 revolution. Hemings is only 14 when she arrives.
Jefferson is in his mid-40s. Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, died in 1782, seven years earlier. Sally leaves Paris in 1789 with Jefferson, his two daughters, and James Hemings (Sally’s older brother). Sally is pregnant with her first child.
Gordon-Reed raises several psycho/social issues about Sally Hemings’ relationship with Jefferson; some of which are corroborated. Sally is characterized in writing by the Captain of the ship that brought her to Paris as a young girl that readily attaches herself to adults. In the captain’s judgement, Sally is too immature to be a guardian for the eight year old Polly (Jefferson’s youngest daughter). Gordon-Reed writes that the nature of slavery, compounded by youth, importunes Sally’s adult attachment. One may agree with that judgment but to know how that exhibits itself in the thoughts and feelings of Hemings is speculative.
Gordon-Reed raises the specter of rape because of Hemings’ youth. The author is not suggesting overt force is used by Jefferson but she develops a cogent argument that the institution of slavery and Hemings’ immaturity place her in a highly vulnerable spot. Hemings is isolated. She has no one to talk to for objective advice; i.e. no mother, and only a brother (who is also a slave). Is it rape? Gordon-Reed fairly explains that women are at the age of consent as early as 14 in the eighteenth century, but the institution of slavery makes a mockery of the word “consent”. The question of rape is left hanging in the air, but its potential as an explanation of Jefferson’s behavior, though palpable, is uncorroborated.
What is “off-putting” about Gordon-Reed’s biography of the Hemingses are speculations about thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings. Sally may have been victimized by Jefferson. Another possibility is that she used Jefferson’s weaknesses to get the best a woman slave could get out of a socio-economic system that depends on slavery. There are no historical facts to support either supposition.
Gordon-Reed cogently reveals some facts that show Jefferson is a non-confrontational person when faced with personal disagreements. Jefferson’s failure to confront the atrocity of terrorists during the French revolution; Jefferson’s clandestine attacks, through James Madison, on Hamilton over national versus states’ rights; Jefferson’s handling of personal family and slavery issues by letter rather than personal appearance and his surreptitious vilification of John Adams when running for President are factual examples of Jefferson’s non-confrontational mien. Sally may have seen that weakness and turned it into leveraged advantage by having Jefferson agree to free her and her children before his death. Gordon-Reed notes that Sally could have gained freedom from slavery earlier by insisting on being left in Paris.
Sally Hemings may have made the most intelligent decision she could make in an unfair situation. Sally may well have been as or more intelligent than Jefferson if one believes “birds of a feather flock together”; i.e. meaning Jefferson became attracted to Sally Hemmings, not only because of her beauty, but because of her intelligence.
What is commendable about Gordeon-Reed’s research is the picture of slavery and its invidious effect on black and white culture. There is no benevolent consequence from any form of slavery; i.e. well meaning slave owners are as damaging to society as virulent masters of the whip and chain.
Gordon-Reed presents facts that reveal Jefferson is racially prejudiced (and in today’s parlance a sexist) human being. In writing “all men are created equal”, Jefferson did not believe black men were the equal of white men, or that women were equal to men. Jefferson is shown to believe–when white blood is mixed with black blood, the black race is made better; i.e. the inference being that black is inherently inferior to white. To Jefferson, women are bearers of children and keepers of the hearth; never the equal of men in intellect or the workplace. To Jefferson, “all men are created equal” is a phrase that belies equal in emotional or intellectual potential unless one is proportionately white and male. To Jefferson, if you are black, you cannot become all you can be until you become whiter; and if you are a woman, you are defined by whom you marry, and how many children you have; not by what you think or do.
On the other hand, Gordon-Reed shows Jefferson to be a man of his word who believes in justice, albeit in a skewed view of equality. James Hemings becomes an accomplished chef as a result of Jefferson’s support. James is freed after he trains his replacement for Jefferson’s kitchen at Monticello. Elizabeth Hemings, the mother of James and Sally, remains with Jefferson until her death while James, a free man, passes on an opportunity to work as a chef for the 1801 President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. James commits suicide for reasons unknown but undoubtedly related to the society in which he is raised.
Gordon-Reed notes that as Jefferson ages, he no longer agrees to free his slaves or allow slaves to earn money outside of his patriarchal care and largess. Though Jefferson agrees to free Sally Hemings, their children, and Sally’s two brothers, no other manumissions are to be provided. Technically, Gordon-Reed finds that Sally is not freed after Jefferson’s death because he chooses not to address her freedom in a last will or testament. Gordon-Reed argues that if Jefferson formally authorizes Sally’s freedom it infers, if not confirms, Jefferson’s rumored conjugal relationship with a non-white person. Jefferson worries about what people will say about him after he dies.
Gordon-Reed suggests Jefferson has a need to feel he is a protector of slaves, a patriarch who believes slaves are like children; without the potential for becoming independent adults. Gordon-Reed’s argument is that this patriarchal belief compels Jefferson to deny freedom to his slaves. Additionally, the author suggests Jefferson feels abandoned by Sally Hemings’ brothers when he frees them as adults. Of course, another interpretation of Jefferson’s decision not to free more slaves is because of his profligate life. He could not afford to offer slaves their freedom. Jefferson had bills to pay, a farm to farm, and a nail factory to run.
Gordon-Reed recounts the substance of a fascinating letter received by Jefferson from William Short (a close friend and former private secretary to Jefferson) who rattles the staid demeanor of his former mentor and employer. Short writes to Jefferson to suggest that he has a solution for racial tensions created by the institution of slavery. He suggests intermarriage of blacks and whites is the answer.
Gordon-Reed believes Short is familiar with Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the origin of the Hemings’ family. Jefferson is soon to be nominated for President and chooses to ignore Short’s letter to avoid igniting the fuse of his relationship to the Hemings’ family. Gordon-Reed notes the irony of Short’s solution in view of Jefferson’s “secret” life as the husband and father of black slaves.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s history is good when it deals with corroborated facts but loses its way when suggesting thoughts and feelings of historic characters. Only when thoughts and feelings are reduced to writing by the originator and others of the time is there a chance of understanding what a person thinks and feels. Even then, it is an interpretation of words by the reader of those writers of the time. For a historian, it is doubly difficult to understand people’s thoughts and feelings in moments of history because the historian is interpreting the past based on experience of the present.
As a reviewer, one empathizes with Gordon-Reed’s biography of the Hemings because sticking to corroborated facts often defeats interest in an author’s writing. Personally, the biography of Washington by Ron Chernow, and Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, were disappointing because they fail to reveal much about the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. Chernow’s and Schiff’s difficulty is related to their desire for corroborating facts. In contrast, Gordon-Reed reads between the lines a little more than is justified by the facts.