Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed is an historical epic about Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved family who served him. Anyone who has ever done research based on the letters, memoirs and records of a family will know how difficult it can be to piece the information into a coherent narrative. For this reason, Dr. Gordon-Reed's work is truly awe-inspiring, in that she pulls together scraps of information about the Hemingses from the writings by and about the Jeffersons in order to craft a moving and insightful chronicle of slave life in America. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and our third President, was quite outspoken about the rights of the man, rejoicing in the French Revolution and the overthrow of monarchy. Jefferson, however, excerized more power over his slaves than did any absolute monarch over their subjects. Jefferson chose to govern his slaves with a certain benevolent paternalism, letting the Hemings brothers James and Robert come and go pretty much as they pleased as long as they came when he called. Neverthless, the fact that his entire existence was entwined with an unjust institution from which he never sought to extricate himself is one of the great ironies of American history.

The book delves into the origins of slavery in Virginia, and how the "peculiar institution" became deeply engrained in the culture of that time and place, not going away when free Virginians won their independence from Great Britain. Dr. Gordon-Reed relates how John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law, made his fortune as a lawyer who oversaw the buying and selling of slaves. Through his wife Martha Wayles, Jefferson inherited the Hemings family, many of whom were the children of John Wayles and his slave mistress, Elizabeth Hemings. Therefore, many of the enslaved servants of the Jefferson family were close relatives. When Jefferson made the teenage Sally Hemings his mistress, after Martha died, the situation became even more complicated. Even if Sally had not been enslaved, Jefferson could not have married her because under Virginia law it was illegal to marry the sibling of one's spouse. Jefferson kept a promise which he had made to Sally in Paris, where their liaison began, that he would free each of her children when they came of age, and it was a promise he kept. Most of the other Hemings and the Jefferson family slaves remained in slavery and were sold at auction after Jefferson's death to cover his enormous debts.

One aspect of the book which I found distracting was the author's propensity to remind the reader every few pages that various injustices were the result of the "doctrine of white supremacy." With such impeccable research presented in a flowing and compelling manner, it was unnecessary to be constantly preaching to the reader about the evils of such a "doctrine." It would have been better to let the injustices speak for themselves. Furthermore, there were others besides enslaved Africans who suffered from exploitation in the early days of our country, including white indentured servants, although they, unlike the African slaves, could at least look forward to freedom. In the cemetery of the parish church in Maryland where I went as a child there is a mass grave of Irish workers who died of cholera while constructing the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad during the epidemics of 1822 and 1832. The Irish immigrants rather than the African slaves were sent to do certain dangerous jobs because the slaves cost money and the Irish cost nothing. This form of servitude still does not compare to chattel slavery, since the Irish could not (usually) be sold.

The power of Dr. Gordon-Reed's book lies in exposing once again the sad and tragic fact that many white Americans were convinced that Africans were subhuman. Examples are given in the book of Jefferson's conviction that Africans were biologically inferior to whites. That those who framed our system of government had such an approach to other human beings is a jarring commentary. It has always been a mystery how leaders like Thomas Jefferson could cry so loud for liberty and then live off the labor of those in chattel bondage. After reading The Hemingses of Monticello my understanding of the enigmatic Jefferson has been expanded as well as my compassion for those whom he held as slaves. Share

6 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I once read an AU (Alternative Universe) novel which contrasted a dystopian United States and a utopian United States. In the utopia, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for bullying all slave owners into freeing their slaves and doing away with slavery forever. I guess that kind of rosy scenario says more about the writer than about Jefferson himself. Sometimes human complexity can be heart-rending.

Dymphna said...

I don't think Jefferson could've advocated an end to slavery without giving up Sally and that he, for whatever reason was not willing to do.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, E., it can....

I agree, Dymphna. According to the book, Jefferson did not like his domestic life to be disturbed, and when it was he suffered from debilitating migraines. I don't think he would have been able to function without his servants, many of whom were closer to him than his blood kin, particularly Sally.

Jim said...

I am not convinced of the allegation that Jefferson was the father of Hemings children. The DNA testing narrowed it down to a group of people; one of the most likely individuals being a relative of Jefferson who was often at Monticello. That being said, all of your observations on Jefferson and the French Revolution and the holding of slaves remain valid.

elena maria vidal said...

Dr. Gordon-Reed explores the paternity of Sally Hemings' children from several angles and it becomes pretty clear that Jefferson was the father of her children. Jefferson's nephew did have children with one of Sally's sisters, I believe. I strongly recommend reading the book to grasp the complicated family relationships.

Matterhorn said...

Dr. Gordon-Reed has since written a book on Andrew Johnson, where issues of slavery and race are also central:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2u7zDlPIaOk&feature=related