Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic
Annette Gordon-Reed's book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, would be remarkable even if it weren't so incredibly readable. It's a weighty tome — but every word makes Virginia, Monticello, and the Hemings family leap off the page. What is so fascinating — albeit bizarrely horrible — is the incredible complexity of the lies that slaveowners had to buy into in order to perpetuate the institution. Just one example: Sally Hemings, the slave with whom Thomas Jefferson conceived seven children, came to Monticello by way of his wife Martha. Sally's mother, Elizabeth, had a longstanding sexual relationship with Martha's father — who fathered six of her children, the youngest of whom, was Sally. Sally became the property of her half-sister, Martha, upon the death of their father, and went with Martha to her new home, with Jefferson. So — consider the insanity of an institution that allowed Sally to be owned by Martha, and then father children with Martha's husband after her death. That's just one of the revelations that Gordon-Reed uncovers in her book — it's a portrait of the Hemings family, but it's also a portrait of slavery in Virginia before, during, and after the revolution. She'll be talking with us today — about the web of relationships that bound the Jeffersons and the Hemingses together, and the shameful institution that made it so.