The first thing to understand about this book is that it is not just a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, nor is it in fact focused on Jefferson, although he naturally plays a large role in this history. The author took the opportunity provided by Jefferson’s fame and record-keeping to profile a slave family, the Hemingses, because accounts about the lives of slaves in early America are few and far between. As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.
It begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father. Elizabeth and her mother came into the ownership of John Wayles when Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took his slave Elizabeth Hemings as his mistress, and was the father of six of her children. Sarah (Sally) Hemings was one of their daughters. The mixed-race children of John Wayles were kept in slavery. Virginia had a number of laws to ensure this rule obtained.
The Virginia House of Burgesses was called upon in the late 1600’s to answer the question of “whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free” on account of challenges to enslaved status by mulattos (people of mixed race). Their response was to turn English law upside down by reaching back to an archaic Roman rule, partus sequitur ventrem (you are what your mother was). That is, Virginia passed laws establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, as stipulated in Britain, determined the legal status of the child. The author explains that this change from British law ensured that white masters could retain the value of “increase” when these female slaves gave birth, because as long as the child’s mother was a slave, it wouldn’t matter who the father was. Masters could therefore continue to exploit the popular option of using female slaves for sex without having to worry that this would cause them to lose their “property.” [Other states, particularly in the South, quickly followed suit. Further laws were passed to ensure that even “one drop” of “black blood” made the difference between slavery and freedom. You can read more about the history of the “one drop rule” (and its uniqueness to the U.S.) here.]
The legal degradation of blacks played a “useful” role in uniting the country as well. The sore point of inequalities of class, initially the cause of greatest tensions in the colonies, was superseded as the prime dividing line for status within the colony when race entered the picture: “Instead, poor whites, encouraged by the policies of the elites, took refuge in their whiteness and the dream that one day they, too, could become slave owners, though only a relative handful could ever hope to amass the land, wealth, and social position of the most prominent member of the Virginia gentry…”. (As historian Keri Leigh Merritt observes: “Throughout American history, the economic elite have used vile forms of racism to perpetuate the current hierarchy — politically, socially and economically. White supremacy is most commonly conceptualized as a way for lower-class whites to feel socially superior to people from other ethnic backgrounds.”)
Before long, “whiteness” came to signify the superiority of one socially and legally defined population over others, while simultaneously inculcating notions that character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness or non-whiteness. Thomas Jefferson himself contributed to that idea with his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written by him in 1781, and updated and enlarged in 1782 and 1783. While the book also discussed Virginia’s natural resources and economy, it is remembered today primarily for Jefferson’s observations about slavery, miscegenation, and his beliefs that whites and blacks could not live together in a free society. Jefferson said he thought blacks were inferior to whites in terms of beauty (he cites such “superior” traits in whites as “flowing hair”) and reasoning intelligence. (He observes, for example, “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”). But as Gordon-Reed often has cause to point out, the “public” and “rhetorical” Jefferson was quite a different man than the private Jefferson. The author sardonically observes: “White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self interests, not sincere belief, is the signature feature…”
In fact in private, Jefferson had a long-standing relationship (38 years) with a mixed-race woman, Sally Hemings, who was, as noted above, Elizabeth Hemings’s daughter by a white father. (Elizabeth Hemings and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.) Sally (a nickname for Sarah), bore seven children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood, over the course of their liaison. Since Elizabeth herself was half white, Sally was one-fourth white, and by all accounts quite a beauty, “in spite of” (or because of) her part-black ancestry. Sally was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. When Martha married Jefferson, John Wayles had already died, and the whole Hemings family had moved with Martha to Monticello. Jefferson and Martha had two daughters that survived, and Sally became their ladies’ maid. Portentously, when Jefferson went overseas to serve as United States ambassador to pre-revolutionary France, he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion. But Jefferson’s daughters went away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Sally, then around 14, and Jefferson, in his early forties, began a sexual affair. [While this sounds egregious to us, “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.”] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.
The author explains how it was that Sally forwent the opportunity of freedom she could have had by staying in France. Rather, she opted (if that word even applies to a slave who was a young, impressionable, and inexperienced girl, not to mention one who was pregnant) to come back to Virginia with Jefferson, having apparently extracted a promise from him that their children would be freed when they came of age. [The author suggests that because Jefferson was both self-indulgent, ambitious, and anxious to make his mark on America without any mark on his reputation, Sally had a bit of “power” over Jefferson at that point since an affair with a slave would have sullied his image in America.] And note: the only promise she could apparently get was not that their children be freed immediately, but only at the age of 21. Sally herself could not be freed since “interbreeding” between whites and free blacks was illegal but having sex with a “slave” was not, and it seems Jefferson wanted to continue their “arrangement.” [As the author observes, as long as white men did not try to elevate slaves and the children they had with them to the “status” of white people or bestow upon them the privileges of whites, they were left alone to do with their “property” as they pleased.] But again, allegedly, Jefferson agreed to treat Sally well.
The book is about more than Sally, however, and the author also goes into great detail about the other Hemings of Monticello, including the children Sally had with Jefferson, three of whom, being only one-eighth black, could apparently pass for white. While Jefferson was meticulous in recording even the smallest detail about most things and most slaves, including most Hemingses, his records are also notable for their omissions. The legacy-conscious Jefferson left out any information about Sally. When he had cause to refer to their children, it was only obliquely with no names, a markedly different practice than he used otherwise. His documentation of the minutiae of his life except as noted above allows us to know a great deal about the rest of this slave family.
There is no way to know whether the alleged affection and loyalty shown by slaves to Jefferson was genuine, but both his presence and his absence had serious consequences for them. As long as he lived, he endeavored to keep the Hemingses together and in a somewhat privileged position (vis-a-vis other slaves) at Monticello. But within six months of his death on July 4, 1826, the contents of Monticello and 130 slaves, including Hemingses, were auctioned off.
The slaves themselves had no control over who was sold, who purchased them, or where they went and for what purposes. Family members were separated to the great heartache of those affected. This included the Hern family. David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks during his 50 years at Monticello. He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. His son, David Hern Jr., was a wagoner who made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. Nevertheless, after Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold. Similarly, Joseph Fossett and his wife Edith served as the blacksmith and head cook at Monticello, respectively. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.
This fact reminds us of an important point stressed throughout the book by the author. In spite of Jefferson’s relative “laxness” regarding his slaves, they were never totally free in any sense, because they were at all times living in a slave society under a regime of white supremacy. Thus “slavery was more than just the relationship between an individual master and an individual slave. The entire white community was involved in maintaining the institution and the racial rules that grew up around it…. ”
(At the same time, as the author also shows, “The profanity of slavery does not define the entirety of lives of enslaved people.”)
Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her disposition was made in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. This was a way to grant freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. (Martha did however permit Sally to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings’s children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will.
The Monticello website reports:
“[Sally’s] son Madison told a newspaperman in 1873 that ‘shortly after’ Jefferson’s death he and his brother Eston, who both had been freed in Jefferson’s will, took their mother to live in Charlottesville with them. Sally Hemings had not been freed in the will, yet she appeared with Madison Hemings as a free person of color in a special census in 1833 (and the census of 1830 also suggests she was considered free). In a superseded will of 1834, Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph wrote that ‘to Betsy Hemmings, Sally & Wormley I wish my children to give their time. If liberated they would be obliged to leave the state of Virginia.’ This was probably a written reinforcement of a previous verbal arrangement. If it was made at Jefferson’s recommendation before his death, no document has been found to confirm it.”
While, as stated previously, this book was not meant to be primarily about Jefferson, we get an excellent look at the man behind the legend from this story. As Roger Wilkins wrote in Jefferson’s Pillow: “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”
Ironically, however, Annette Gordon-Reed paints Jefferson in rather a more positive light than other recent historians. While she mentions that he didn’t like to lose on any issue, she also emphasizes how much he disliked conflict, almost suggesting he would “give in” rather than have disagreement be a part of his life. She thereby downplays his consistent record of using often vicious tactics by operating sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. One could see him using every aspect of this trait to bend Sally to his will.
The author wants to confer agency on Sally, but the entire time she was his mistress, she did, after all, continue to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She moreover was relegated to a hidden room in Monticello, while Jefferson’s daughter served as the mistress of the estate.
Discussion: The Hemings and Jefferson family trees are a bit hard to follow, through no fault of the author’s. It seems there were a limited number of names in use by these intertwined families (in part because naming each other in honor of other family members was practiced). Besides having the same names, they had nicknames which bore no logical relationships to the names themselves. Access to charts detailing, for example, which Martha was which, is helpful. The hard copy of the book has a chart, and you can see a small portion of one below.
Evaluation:This is an excellent and detailed recounting of the complex nature and legacy of someone who was not only a seminal figure in the history of America, but the author of the founding credo “All men are created equal.” It explores the interrelationships between the man who wrote this, and the slaves he owned. It is also a story of slave family in greater detail than we often have access to; a story that has so many elements of tragedy, even while revealing occasional moments of triumph and joy.
Students of American history should not avoid this book because of its length. I found it consistently engaging and full of riveting details about the early years of America that are critical to understanding what our country was then, and what it has become.
Published in hardcover by W. W. Norton & Company, 2008
Note: Literary Awards
Pulitzer Prize for History (2009)
National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2008)
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (2009)
George Washington Book Prize (2009)
Frederick Douglass Book Prize (2009)
SHEAR Book Prize
Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award (2009)
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
This very long book was narrated admirably by Karen White, whose soothing and mellifluous voice still managed to convey outrage at the story she read. It was a pleasure to listen to her.
Published unabridged on 25 CDs (approximately 31 and 1/2 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008