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Review: The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemings family as slaves are most famous for their connection with Thomas Jefferson, of course, because while he owned the family he also had a long-term affair with Sally Hemings after the death of his wife. That affair was made public while Jefferson was a very visible figure, leaving an impression of Sally that lasts up until the present day. Gordon-Reed views the Hemings family as a whole, covering multiple generations to explore who they were, how slavery affected them, and thus to look more in depth at this relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

I’m no scholar of American history; my interests have been firmly European for a good few years now. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate an excellent work of American history and that is precisely what The Hemingses of Monticello is. It is very detailed and long, so not for the faint of heart, but I felt it unearthed a ton of truth in its portrayal of this family so affected by slavery. Gordon-Reed in many respects returns agency to Sally and the rest of her family, looking at how they may have been as people rather than as objects or simply as enslaved people who, despite the pain of their condition, were not all the same in other fundamental respects.

One of my favorite sections of the book took place before Jefferson was president, while he and Sally and one of her brothers were together in France. This was fascinating because, in France, they could have become free. It was a recognized possibility and Jefferson did not follow the law while they were there; instead he paid them wages and seems to have treated them more like free servants instead of the slaves they were. What does it mean that both of them returned with him, seemingly voluntarily, to the world of slavery? Or that Sally had already conceived at that point? Evidence is slim but Gordon-Reed’s case is convincing, and I did believe that she went with him because he promised her children would be free (and they were). A risky decision given that he could have died before that, and indeed his death was disastrous for the Hemings family, but not in that way.

Tied up in that is the notion of their relationship, naturally, and the fact that Jefferson clearly slept with a woman who was his slave and had a relationship with her. He could have forced her for all we know – but if he did why didn’t she flee? Slave women did flee from their rapists, as the author demonstrates. They did cry out for help. Gordon-Reed continues by questioning what options were open to them – why do we dismiss the possibility of love if there is no option for marriage? Jefferson never married again and didn’t father children (that we know of) with any others of his slave women. He treated her family and her in particular very differently than he did the rest of his slaves. It’s something we don’t want to touch because slavery is so horrific but I felt Gordon-Reed did very well in considering what was happening from all angles, not just one.

Overall I felt Gordon-Reed did an excellent job probing into many of the thorny issues surrounding history, slavery, and our ideas of the two, taking a deeper look at individuals without treating the subject of slavery like it was anything but wrong. The Hemingses of Monticello was wordy and very carefully considered but well argued and, for me, worth the week I spent reading it. Recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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