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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family Paperback – Aug 25 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: WW Norton; Reprint edition (Aug. 25 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393337766
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393337761
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 3.8 x 23.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1 Kg
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #295,942 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex. It's also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves' lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work. 37 illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“A monumental and original book.” — Fergus Bordewich (Washington Post)

“[A] very important and powerfully argued history of the Hemings family.... [Gordon-Reed] has the imagination and talent of an expert historian.” — Gordon Wood (The New Republic)

“[A] deeply researched, often gripping story.... Gordon-Reed has given us an important story that is ultimately about the timeless quest for justice and human dignity.” — Sanford D. Horwitt (San Francisco Chronicle)

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Annette Gordon-Reed's research and its presentation is unlike any other work of history or biography I have ever read. She enters situations and raises questions about them that have not occured to biographers and historians of Slavery. They are always asked out of an African-American interest and insight into the subject of a nameable and traceable family and the personal histories of its members, or parts thereof. She enlists historic and political dimensions and details for explanation of the fact of the Hemings existence abd particular hopes and trials in their geneologicy. Rather than leave the story of Elisabeth Hemings in the realm of oral transmission, Gordon-Reed persisted in her desire to find more about the Hemings. What can be known about them is "in pieces" and needs to be buttressed also by a model of a "secondary time frame" that African-American entered by virtue of the slave trade. The complexities and ambiguities of such a history would have discouraged another investigator. Much of Gordon-Riggs undertaking depends on understanding that such traditional assumptions about history would be counterproductive, as what is to be held up in order to be seen seems prosaic and minute only because it is not "recognized" within the white American framework. This gigantic endeavor has resulted in a unique form of organizing and exploring evidence , as well as the creation of a complex edifice of evidence that constitutes something unprecedented in American historiograpy. It is the historian who decides significance.
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Format: Audio CD
"The Hemingses of Monticello" is an extensive study of the family that worked Monticello and was intertwined with the white masters and mistresses of the plantation. Beginning with Elizabeth Hemings and focusing particularly on her daughter, Sally, and Sally's children it tells the story of generations of a family and its relations to its surroundings.

This book goes far beyond the Hemings family. It tells us much about Thomas and his white family and their life. I found the section dealing with their sojourn in France to be the most fascinating. The explanations of the interactions between the Adams and Jefferson families give another perspective on one of the most important relationships in American history. The thought that two slaves from Virginia who lived in French society and learned its language and etiquette amazes the reader with what must have been a transforming experience for both of them.

The big issue is the claim that Sally was the mistress of Thomas Jefferson and that he was the father of several of her children and hence, had a enslaved black family parallel to his free white family. The presumption is that Sally was the half sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Author Annette Gordon-Reed has done an excellent job of tracing legends, documentary evidence and contemporary reports to piece together the story of what really happened, and a fascinating story it is. Beyond the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, this book sheds light on the relationship between master and slave and the slave system as it existed in Jefferson's time.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 198 reviews
165 of 180 people found the following review helpful
Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and much, much more... Oct. 14 2008
By Cynthia K. Robertson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My parents took me to Monticello as a young girl, and I have been fascinated with Thomas Jefferson ever since. I was even more intrigued when I read about his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Annette Gordon-Reed gives us a scholarly and extensive effort in her latest book, The Hemings of Monticello. This book is not just about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but much, much more.

Gordon-Reed starts with the Hemings matriarch. Elizabeth Hemings, the mother of Sally, had six children by John Wayles. Wayles was the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha. When Wayles died, his estate (including many of his slaves) passed to Martha and Thomas Jefferson. In this way, the Hemings found themselves at Monticello.

The story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is pretty well known. They allegedly had six children together, four of who survived childhood. Oral history claims that in a "treaty" made between Jefferson and Hemings while they were in France, he agreed to free any children he and Hemings had when they became adults. Jefferson did free all four children (two of them in his will). Three of the four passed into the white world once they left Monticello. What is ironic is that Heming's sons were said to look more like Jefferson and had more common interests (building and music) than his white grandsons.
But much of this book belongs to Sally's older brothers, Robert and James. These two slaves were extremely close to Jefferson, and traveled extensively with him. James even accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where Jefferson paid to have him trained as a master chef. Both men were eventually freed by Jefferson in the 1790s.

There is a surprising amount of information on many members of the Hemings clan. Jefferson kept meticulous records of his expenses including salaries he paid his more talented slaves, maintenance items, clothing, gifts, etc. He also left over 40,000 letters in which the Hemings are often mentioned. The only negative is that Jefferson's daughter and grandchildren are said to have purged any letters from the collection that made reference to Sally.

What I found a bit disappointing about The Hemings of Monticello is that much of this story has been lost to history. This is certainly not the fault of Gordon-Reed, and she tries to deduce what might have happened in various situations. For instance, the Hemings were very deliberate in choosing names for their children, using the same names throughout generations that were important to them. Sally gave her children names from Jefferson's immediate family. "As with Sally Hemings and her children, this one-sided way of naming a group of siblings was the work either of a woman trying very hard to please a man or of a man who felt his children should bear his mark."

The author also spends much time trying to analyze Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a great man, but he was not a saint. His personal beliefs did not always mesh with his actions. But he was definitely a Renaissance man. Gordon-Reed writes "Monticello became an almost perfect projection of Jefferson's personality--his vaulting ambition, his respect for and adherence to aspects of a classical past, his faith in innovation and optimism about the future, his extreme self-indulgence, and his genius." All of these things affected his relationships with the Hemings family members.

The only critical observation I can make about The Hemings of Monticello is that author should have included more about the Hemings DNA study in the body of the book, as opposed a short summary in the footnotes. But otherwise, I couldn't wait to read this work and I was not disappointed.
47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
The Hemingses of Monticello Oct. 21 2008
By egreetham - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The flaws first: This is a very long book, weighing in at over 600 pages, which could and should have been tighter and shorter. The lack of conciseness is related to the plodding, clunky, academic style, and the writing is sometimes painfully repetitive. There are occasional speculative leaps that are perhaps not justified, and a fuller explanation of the DNA evidence would have been most helpful.

But: This is a first-class work of research and interpretation which should not be missed by anyone struggling to understand the place of race and slavery in our national history. Ms. Gordon-Reed is remarkably even-handed, compassionate even, with Thomas Jefferson, who was his own best example of his belief that slave holding damages the slave holder as well as the slave. She lets his behavior, and often his own words, reveal his story. And she provides remarkable detail about the lives of Sally and the complicated family of relatives with whom she shared life at Monticello.

No matter what one believes about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings--and we may never know what that was, certainly not in any emotional sense--this volume offers a rich examination of slavery in late 18th and early 19th century Virginia centered on the lives of one family in which black and white intermingled with poignant results. Well worth the slog.
115 of 138 people found the following review helpful
Social Commentary as Biographical Theatre Jan. 28 2009
By Netherwind - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"The Hemingses of Monticello" is part biography and part social comment. It is, most of all, a condemnation of slavery. The Hemings family, about whom there is comparatively little documented history, is utilized primarily as supporting actors to demonstrate both the logistics and psychological aspects of slavery. That said, the book is thoroughly researched and very readable. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed (AGR), presents many fascinating glimpses into Thomas Jefferson's life and habits. Ultimately though, the primary focus of the book seems to be an attempt to define the presumed differentiation in Jefferson's relationships with, and nurturing of, his white children and grandchildren versus that of his presumed black children. The premise of the book is based on Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children, which, though not scientifically certain, is believed to be likely. DNA testing conducted in 1998 established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings, the youngest of Sally Hemings children. Although there were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this particular chromosome living in Virginia at that time, the study concludes that "the simplest and most probable" conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings. A research committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation indicated a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was perhaps the father of all six of Sally Hemings' children listed in Monticello records.

AGR presents Jefferson's paternity of all of Sally Hemings children as an established fact, and then critiques his character on the basis of his perceived treatment of these children. The fact that Jefferson never recorded his thoughts regarding his relationship to, or feelings for, the Hemings, causes the author to freely speculate on both. The result of this problematic tactic is sometimes one-dimensional; slavery is evil, Jefferson owned slaves, therefore Jefferson is evil. There seems little effort to consider slavery in the context of the period. The author often appears to struggle with the concept that acceptance of historical context does not mandate an endorsement of its weaknesses. As a result, her objectivity seems intermittent. At times, Jefferson's actions are examined in relation to the conditions of the times and deemed reasonable; at other times, he is presumed unreasonable prior to examination. AGR often appears to view the Jefferson-Hemings relationships through the lens of "presentism" - a term used by historians to describe the application of contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past - in other words, viewing 18th century slavery through 21st century morality.

Historian Douglas L. Wilson, in his pivotal article, "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue" [Atlantic Monthly, November 1992] wrote that "the perspectives of the present invariably color the meanings we ascribe to the past." Although Jefferson acknowledged slavery as a "great political and moral evil" in his book "Notes On The State of Virginia," historical revisionists and presentists have made it politically correct to excoriate him for the so-called Jefferson Contradiction: how could a man who so clearly and publicly opposed slavery own slaves himself?. Wilson argues that proper historical context suggests that the question should be inverted; "How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished?"

Ultimately, "The Hemingses of Monticello" presents a fascinating, if sometimes speculative, narrative of colonial slavery in general, and the Jefferson "family" in particular. Both subjects are worthy of attention. In one chapter, the author writes that "Politics is theatre, and the successful politician is the one who can skillfully bring just the right symbolism to the cultural and political moment at hand." It could be argued that her view of biography is similar.
93 of 112 people found the following review helpful
Extraordinary insights in early American history Sept. 17 2008
By Arthur Leonard - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Opening disclaimer: Annette Gordon-Reed is my faculty colleague at NY Law School, and I originally introduced her to Bob Weil, the editor at W.W. Norton who contracted with her to produce this book. As a result, I had an opportunity to read it in final galleys this summer prior to publication. What I have to say is naturally biased by my respect and affection for my faculty colleague. I went out on a limb to make the introduction after reading an early draft of Prof. Gordon-Reed's first book on Jefferson and Hemings, which was subsequently published by the University of Virginia Press and established her credentials as a historian of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

This book is a logical outgrowth of the earlier one. I think anybody interested in Jefferson or this period in American history owes it to themselves to read both books. The first is a critical dissection of the way historians had dealt (or avoided dealing) with the rumored Jefferson-Hemings connection, and is a masterpiece of investigative history. This new volume is a masterpiece of group biography, taking the Hemings as an interesting family, most of whose details were difficult to discover, and creating an engrossing account of their lives as part of the extended Jefferson community at Monticello. Jefferson began building his dream house there about the time he married Martha Wayles, and Elizabeth Hemings and several of her children came to Monticello as slaves as part of Martha's inheritance when her father died. Sally Hemings was a daughter of Elizabeth and John Wayles, Martha's father, and thus was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife. From there the complications of family interrelationships build and compound on each other.

What I love about this book is the vivid way that Gordon-Reed reconstructs a lost past, immersing the reader in details of everyday life. My favorite chapter is the one describing the process by which Sally Hemings, newly arrived in Paris to attend to Jefferson's daughters during his period as US Ambassador to the royal court of France, was innoculated against smallpox at Jefferson's instigation. That sounds like a simple thing, but it wasn't at the time, and Gordon-Reed has uncovered previously obscure original sources to describe the unusual, lengthy process in those days before modern medicine. It is utterly fascinating.
68 of 83 people found the following review helpful
A Pleasant Surprise Oct. 13 2008
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on
Format: Hardcover
There are some questions that can never be resolved in history, and they can drive you nutty. For example, did George Mallory ("the finest climber of his generation") make the summit of Everest in 1924 before he died on the mountain. Unless his camera or other physical evidence is found at the summit, we will never know for sure. Similar is the dispute over whether Thomas Jefferson fathered some, all, or none of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. Without the invention of a time machine, we simply (despite DNA tests) will absolutely never know the answer. Much ink and effort has been shed on this issue, which while important I guess, will never be resolved. One of the principal instigators of this issue (along with the late Fawn Brodie) is the author of this long study, Annette Gordon-Reed, both a law and history professor. Her earlier book on the TJ-SH issue took the historical professional to task (particularly the Jefferson establishment centered at UVA) for overlooking what she considered to be definitive evidence that such a relationship existed. This set off quite a storm of controversy, which led to the DNA testing of Hemmings and Jefferson descendants.

I am pleased to report that this extensive 600 page plus volume does not (as I feared) constitute a further installment in the author's efforts to demonstrate the existence of such a relationship. Rather, the author is up to something much more serious and valuable and even unique. This is because she simply assumes from the outset that TJ fathered all of the SH children, adding only a few additional arguments to those she previously had made. Rather, her focus is the co-existence of these two families, one free and the other slave, in the Monticello of Jefferson. The families are intertwined in many ways, even setting aside the TJ-SH issue, over the course of 50 or so years. Through focusing on this one slave family, a whole range of fascinating issues are opened up for examination. For example, how did slaves live; could they work outside the slave relationship and earn money; how did the Hemmingses, who constituted virtually the entirety of the Jefferson household staff, function in their positions; how did they relate to the field slaves who did the heavy labor; what happened when TJ died and his assets (including slaves) had to be sold to pay creditors? For students of TJ, the book is a treasure trove of information and insights and adds greatly to our understanding of TJ the man and the world he created (perhaps a dream world) at Monticello.

The author's research is impeccable and extensive. She has rightly been criticized because much of the volume consists of her speculations and invocations of creative imagination to fill in the gaps of the historical record. While these criticisms as a matter of historiography are soundly based, I think they miss what Gordon-Reed is attempting to do, which is to put forward her best guess of what was occurring over this long period among and between free and slave residents of Monticello. It is, so to speak, one African-American historian's suggestion of a complete picture of Monticello life as it centered on the Hemings family and its interaction with that of Jefferson. For Gordon-Reed this is an necessary step to enable her to explore the whole range of issues that make the book so extremely valuable. Until we get that time machine, much can be learned from the author's hypotheses regarding life at Monticello with that most complex of American characters, Thomas Jefferson.