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