Thursday, 10 December 2009

Reader review: The Hemingses of Monticello

Matthew Kilburn reviews The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed.

by Matthew Kilburn,

A society where one sector of the population were entitled to be owners of another sector principally on the grounds of skin colour and their, or their recent ancestors', continent of origin is remote from 21st-century Britain. It exists, nevertheless, in close historical proximity to it. Slavery and the slave trade were part of the foundations of the British colonial economy. The social implications of this were that a poor white man from Lancashire could leave Britain to become a domestic servant in Virginia, train for a profession there and become a slave-owner himself. Additionally, a white British sea captain could make an enslaved African woman pregnant and then be denied the possibility of living with his child and that mother. In Virginian law, it was a woman who transmitted her status, enslaved or free, to her offspring; and it is this enslaved African matrilineal descent which formally defined the Hemings family.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello extends her work begun in her previous book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, on the sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings – the enslaved, matrilineally black half-sister of his white wife Martha Wayles - and the identities of their children. In exploring the origins of the immediate ancestors of Sally Hemings, she carefully unhooks the veils placed across relations between black and white in the southern United States during and after the slave era.

Sally Hemings’s mother Elizabeth was the daughter of an African woman and a man identified in family tradition only as a 'Captain Hemings'; her father was Elizabeth Hemings’s owner at the time, the aforementioned Lancashire emigré John Wayles. Annette Gordon-Reed underlines, first of all, how slavery prevented the emergence of what would be regarded now and at the time as a normal family situation. When he married Martha Wayles, Thomas Jefferson became the inheritor of his father-in-law’s slaves, including his wife’s half-siblings. However, in the eyes of the law, this family relationship could not exist and it obscured and denied the kind of relationship which was part of everyday life in the south. For some male slave-owners like Jefferson their position as father and brother-in-law and uncle of an extended slave family, whose kinship with them could not be acknowledged publicly, offered an ideal ‘private’ patriarchal authority over men and women, free and unfree. In practice, it institutionalised denial and brutality.

The author’s background as a legal scholar leads much of the book to examine the Hemings family’s conundrum as a series of studies of the operation of the law in society. Slaves and their owners were human beings and displayed more human interrelationships than the law allowed. Jefferson seems to always have been conscious that the Hemingses were his wife's family; nevertheless, he placed an equal emphasis on their being his social and, in his view, racial inferiors too. His ties to the Hemingses were emotional, but also personally convenient. In maintaining their connection with him and keeping his brothers-in-law, Robert and John Hemings, as companions and confidential servants, Jefferson negotiated with the legal position of African Americans in Virginia, where after 1782 free blacks could be re-enslaved.

However, Gordon-Reed also explores gender relations as much as she does enslavement. Jefferson’s patriarchal understanding of his role in his 'family' has already been mentioned. Gordon-Reed could perhaps have emphasised that this was not just an idea peculiar to a slave society; in describing his slaves as his ‘servants’ in his family, perhaps Jefferson was adopting a translation convention, for an 18th-century Englishman would have considered his waged servants to be his ‘family’ too. There is a powerful irony in how far the term in the American south suggests to modern readers the biological ties which it partly masked in Sally Hemings’s day. Gordon-Reed furthermore notes, in several cases, Jefferson’s embarrassment with the female. In making Sally Hemings both his ‘concubine’ and his femme de chambre he was enabled to feel more like a man, not just because he had a regular – and subservient – sexual partner, but also because he could withdraw from part of the female sphere of the household.

The link between The Hemingses of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings leads to difficulties in referencing. On several occasions the endnotes refer somewhat frustratingly to the earlier book rather than to the evidence Gordon-Reed used when writing it. Her forensic approach to weighing what evidence there is concerning the lives of the Hemings family can sit ill with some of the more circumstantial assumptions about what Gordon-Reed’s historical actors thought in given situations. Yet this is difficult to avoid where there is compelling circumstantial evidence for an event. Gordon-Reed’s emphasis on movements and the newness of particular ideas – the American Revolution an initiator rather than a symptom of prevailing 'liberal’ political thought in North America and Europe - may strike those who view the age of revolutions as resulting from deep-seated ideas and practices in European institutions as only telling part of the story, but history is full of such chicken-and-egg questions. Ultimately, the book succeeds in challenging long-established prejudices against African American narratives in the history of the United States, and exposes the social and legal realities, as well as the culture of the extended families of intermingled free and unfree Americans.

The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed (Norton)

Matthew Kilburn is an independent historian. A former research editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he is a regular contributor to its online edition. He has also contributed to The Cambridge Handel Encyclopaedia and Time And Relative Dissertations In Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who.


Matthew Kilburn said...

I've added a few more thoughts, largely tangential, here:

Anonymous said...


Patrick (How original, huh?) said...

As one who's portrayed Thomas Jefferson professionally for almost 20 years, may I offer another view?
There is no proof, DNA or otherwise, that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings' children. There is circumstantial evidence but no proof, and there won't be any proof until someone tests Mr. Jefferson's own bones!
Publicly, Jefferson never responded to these allegations first made in 1802. In his private correspondence, he denied them on several occasions, including just weeks before his death in 1826.
Nonetheless, Gordon-Reed foundations her work on the premise that Jefferson fathered all of Sally's children. Remove that premise and her foundation crumbles.
Patrick Lee

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