Jefferson and Hemings: An Interview with Annette Gordon-Reed


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Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law at New York Law School, made a splash with her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to his slave has been subject of much controversy—Gordon-Reed lucidly cuts to the facts of a complex relationship and fascinating family.  She is considered one of our nation’s foremost scholars, and uses a lawyer’s approach to the historical craft.  Her most recent book is: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction on November 19.

What drew you to write about Sally Hemings and her family? 

While finishing my first book, it occurred to me that there was a lot of information about the Hemingses that could be put in narrative form. I thought it would be useful to tell the family story, as a story. Sally Hemings (SH) has been seen as a symbol, or as a “problem.” She has been divorced from her context.  It’s hard to get a handle on her without putting her in context, just as it is hard to get a handle on TJ’s life without putting him in his context as a slaveholder who had a particular relationship with this family.

What kinds of sources did you rely on? Have you approached the primary material in a new way, or looked at any previously overlooked sources? 

I’ve found new things, overlooked things, and looked at things in a different way. For example, I traveled to London and to Preston, Lancashire to ferret out information about John Wayles, SH’s father and Jefferson’s father-in-law. That’s all new stuff. The section on France contains new information, along with material that has been there all along, but not looked at or treated as important. Then there are unpublished letters as well. So, it’s a bit of everything—material that is new, has been overlooked, and material looked at from a different perspective. 

What was Sally Hemings relationship with Thomas Jefferson like? It is of course, on one level a slave-master relationship, but it is much more complex than that.  Does this story say something broader about the variegated nature of slavery and the difficulty in generalizing its psychological effects? 

Well, slavery was, of course, a heavy cover over all enslaved people. But people went through slavery as individuals. Looking at the Hemingses, we see a very different set of behaviors and different experiences in this one family.  As to the nature of the relationship between SH and TJ, it’s hard to know. I spend a good deal of time on this question in the book.  I venture to say that if another slave holder had a decades long connection to one woman, seven children with her, children named for members of his family and others important to him, there would be no problem saying that, at least, he was attached to her. TJ’s symbolic importance to many people, his status as a symbol of America, makes some people hesitate to just say that. It’s like some big thing is riding on it. He was clearly deeply attached to other members of her family—James Hemings, Burwell Colbert— and he could have felt exactly the same away about her.  If he were named Tom Smith the answer would be obvious. It wouldn’t be taken as some great statement about slavery, race or anything, because it would not be. It isn’t for Jefferson, either.   

Prof. Gordon-Reed, your writing has earned you the reputation of a prolific young legal and historical scholar.  Have your research interests shifted at all?  What kinds of projects do you see yourself tackling in the future?

First off, I’m not that young. No, my scholarly interests remain the same. I have taken a side trip for a small presidential biography of Andrew Johnson that will be published in 2009, but my primary work will remain in the field of Jefferson, slavery and the early American republic. I am at work on a Jefferson Reader on Race for Princeton University Press. I have the second volume about the Heming family to finish, carrying them through the 19th century up until roughly WWI. All this is working up toward what I’ve longed wanted to do: a biography of TJ. I’ve thought for a long time that we are overdue for a complete overhaul. We’ve learned so much more about slavery in the Chesapeake and life at Monticello over the past two decades. The basic narrative of his life, particularly the early life, was set by Randall in the 19th century and Malone in the 1940s. If I’m able to get away with it, I would like to return to the Henry Randall model of three volumes. If not, I will settle for two.

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Herbert Barger - 5/29/2009

Annette Gordon-Reed is completely INACCURATE in claiming that TJ fathered 7 children in her latest book. In her first book she stated that "the descendant of Eston Hemings was NOT proven by DNA to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson." The DNA test eleminated Thomas Woodson (named by Callender as a TJ son), THIS MAKES CALLENDER A LIAR, THUS we are down to 5. WHY in this latest book does she make such a PREPOSTEROUS claim?? Monticello has NO files on TJ fathering 7 of Sally's children. Monticello management should call her on this, but NO they invite her to be a featured speaker and to attend an Austrailian seminar where she was a featured speaker.

The public, in my opinion, is being "CONNED" about this particular controversy. All these book awards flowing forward makes me wonder about the accuracy of research on their part.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society