The Hemingses of Monticello

James Walvin on the social taboo of a US President’s relationship with his slave

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Reviewed by: James Walvin
Author: Annette Gordon-Reed
Publisher: Norton
Price (RRP): £21.99

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Thomas Jefferson dominates the historical landscape of modern America. His personal story – from Virginian farmer to presidency, and key sage of independence – is a saga of remarkable intellectual and political brilliance. His writings and ideas helped to shape the origins and shape of the modern USA. His home at Monticello, now a delightful tourist attraction for armies of visitors, is a physical reminder of the man’s enlightenment range of interests. Even in an age of titanic contemporaries, Jefferson stands out.

But in recent years his reputation has changed by the unfolding evidence of his liaison and family with his slave woman, Sally Hemings. That liaison, forged in Paris and nurtured into an unspoken family at Monticello itself – in the heart of enslaved Virginia – has come to influence the current appreciation of Jefferson.

Annette Gordon-Reed offers a brilliantly evoked, sympathetic portrayal of the African family in Jefferson’s life. The result is a remarkable book – the fruits of intensive research and genealogical detective work.

The Hemingses is an evocative recreation of both sides of the Hemings/Jefferson story. Indeed its great strength is to reveal how two apparently distinct family trajectories – African and European – become one in the hothouse that was colonial Virginia. But the union of Sally Hemings and Jefferson was moderated, like all others, by the distorting shadow of chattel slavery.

Not only was this liaison socially taboo, it was racially and political dangerous. Yet Gordon-Reed teases from the evidence the human story that preceded and followed that liaison. She evokes as well as any other historian the agonies and the pains of Africans in America – but all soothed and made tolerable by the strengths and values of kinship and family.

What emerges is not merely a striking recreation of the world of two families, but a book which actually speaks to a much broader historical narrative. The Hemingses is then a book which operates at two levels. It is, first, a remarkable, detailed account of one set of family relationships. But, like all good books, it opens up a much broader story; of the forging of North American life from the mixing of free Europeans and enslaved Africans. It thus becomes in effect the story of America.

It is a book (already garlanded with prizes) which will elevate a once-forgotten family – the Hemingses – long marginalised in the story of Monticello itself. But it also provides a perceptive and critical (though always understanding) reassessment of Jefferson the man. Was he a man with feet of clay, or merely a man like many others?

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The substance of the book is Sally Hemings, her forebears and descendants – all of whom receive, in this exemplary book, a historical role previously denied them. Well-written and imaginatively recreated, it is a book which has done the Hemingses proud.