'Monticello' Tells Untold Story Of Sally Hemings

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New York law professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes about the intersections of race and law in American history. Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer

Thomas Jefferson's biography got significantly more complicated when, 11 years ago, DNA evidence linked him to the descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave on his estate.

Until recently, Hemings' story and her family's story remained largely untold. Now, author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed seeks to fill in these historical gaps in her new book, The Hemingses of Monticello. The book is an exhaustive study of Sally Hemings and her role in the Jefferson household. It also details the shifting fortunes the larger Hemings family and their descendants.

Gordon-Reed is a professor of law and history at New York Law School, and the author of Race on Trial and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

Excerpt: 'The Hemingses of Monticello'

cover of Annette Gordon-Reed's 'The Hemingses of Monticello'

Young Elizabeth's World

Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history. Hemings lived at a time when chattel slavery existed in every American colony, but was dramatically expanding and thriving in the Virginia that was her home. She was, by law, an item of property—a nonwhite, female slave, whose life was bounded by eighteenth-century attitudes about how such persons fit into society. Those attitudes, years in the making by the time Hemings was born, fascinate because they are at once utterly familiar and totally alien.

Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them. When we encounter these practices while studying the eighteenth century, we react knowingly. "These are the things," at least some of us say, "that we're still working to overcome." We also know that hierarchies, based on any number of factors, exist in every society, enriching the lives of some and blighting the lives of others.

Yet, slavery is a different matter altogether. There are workers all over the world who live desperate lives with little hope of advancement for themselves or their children. There are women who are held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes or to clean others' homes and care for others' families while their own families go unattended. None of these conditions approach the systematic degradation and violence of American slavery sanctioned by state and church. People were bought and sold against their will. They were defined in statutes as chattel or real estate. With the law's protection they could be beaten to death as part of legitimate "correction." They were denied legal marriage. Slave women were unprotected against rape. Forcing a slave woman to have sex against her will was considered a trespass against her owner. If her owner raped her, it was no crime at all. What the violation meant to the woman was irrelevant. The law prevented slaves from giving testimony in courts against white people. It was a world where one could pick up the daily newspaper and see advertisements touting "Negroes for sale" and descriptions of "runaway slaves" complete with stock caricatures that made them instantly recognizable to all readers. These and all the other depredations of the slave system present a world that seems far removed from daily life in the United States in the twenty-first century. Though we hear echoes of that world and understand that its effects are still present, much about this time feels otherworldly.

Understanding the path of Elizabeth Hemings's life requires some consideration of the contours of the community into which she was born, an elastic place with boundaries that expanded, contracted, shifted, and evolved over time. At the broadest level, Hemings was part of a large Atlantic world, comprising Europeans and Africans on both sides of that ocean whose lives were shaped by the demands of slavery. While the characteristics of that world must inform our view, a thorough investigation of all parts of it is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we will draw the circle around Hemings more closely to look at the world she would have known most intimately—the world of an enslaved woman in eighteenth-century Virginia.

To say to an American that Elizabeth Hemings was "born a slave" is to call forth a particular image of who she was, how she lived her life, and even how she spoke and carried herself. That is because slavery lives in the minds of most Americans as a series of iconic images: a slave ship packed tight with human cargo, a whip, the auction block, slaves speaking one universal and timeless dialect, black figures toiling in cotton fields. That last image—the cotton field—has most strongly influenced our view, freezing the institution in its antebellum period when cotton was "king" and when slavery had, in the view of one influential historian, been thoroughly domesticated.1 By the time "King Cotton" arrived in the nineteenth century, enslaved Virginians of African origin, and those of English extraction whose ancestors introduced slavery into the Old Dominion, had long since become Americans, and the institution that defined their existence together had adapted itself, it seemed, for the long haul.

What had gone before, the process that brought those two groups into their "Americanness," is largely the province of scholars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There are many reasons for this, but several immediately come to mind. First, American slavery at its beginnings—obscure, distant, and tragic—is probably for most people a less attractive point of focus than the story of the discovery and political founding of the American nation. If you like your history heroic—and many people seem to—the story of slavery in the early American period is simply not the place to go looking for heroes, at least not among the people most commonly written about.

Second, with the exception of periodic bouts of "founders chic,"2 in which the men credited with drawing up the blueprint for the United States are pitted against one another—Hamilton was really better than Jefferson, Madison was better than Adams, and Franklin was better than all of them—the colonial and Revolutionary period in America has so far failed to capture the cultural imagination the way the Civil War era has. There is no Gone with the Wind for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no literature wallowing in the romance of defeat, no passionate attachments to divisive symbols that live on to poison contemporary race relations and threaten the American future. The Civil War is over, but the politics that fueled it and helped design its aftermath are still very much with us, playing out in various racially charged and seemingly intractable disputes about desegregation, affirmative action, even the continued use in the public sphere of a Confederate battle flag that once flew against the United States of America. The years running up to, during, and after the Civil War mark the beginning of the America we know today—a modern country, powered by the market and free labor, multiracial in its composition (if somewhat uneasily), and at its most fundamental core, united.

It is not as if no heroism or romance were to be found in the colonial period. Schoolchildren are told an uplifting story about English men and women escaping religious persecution to build their own cities upon the hill in what would become New England. Who could not identify with the urge to live one's life in peace and freedom, and not admire people willing to cross an ocean to do it? That some of the later immigrants to New England were Puritans, who almost immediately went about the business of persecuting those who did not toe their particular version of "the line," does not diminish the attractiveness of those early aspirations. It was the idea that counts. We can (and do) without embarrassment draw a direct line from the dreams of those Americans in the making to our dreams today.

Elizabeth Hemings's Virginia, however, presents a real problem. It is hard to associate the earliest Virginians who controlled society with any aspiration loftier than that of making a killing. The colony was, after all, founded by the Virginia Company. It was from the very beginning a moneymaking enterprise, a place for men seeking their fortunes with limited reference to spirituality, with no nod to sentimentality and, apparently, very few limits on how the moneymaking could proceed. In one historian's words, the people who settled the colony were all adventurers "in the fullest sense of the term," men "seeking the main chance for [themselves] in that part of the new world which . . . seemed to offer [them] the best chances." The term "adventurer" doesn't really do justice to the men who helped usher in this world, for we must instead think of what those high-stakes gambles actually entailed. Voracious land grabbing and land speculation, aided and abetted by the manipulation of public offices, made a relative handful of people wealthy.3

Those who had to rely chiefly on their physical labor to amass property were at a distinct disadvantage. By the end of the seventeenth century, the white indentured servants who came to the colony hoped that, in a not too distant future, they too could own enough land to do more than subsist. Their dreams, however, were very seldom realized. That this economic and social system eventually came most fully into its own on the backs of enslaved Africans adds depravity to the overall picture of venality. Unless one is willing and able to overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this society, the story of Virginia's origins does not lend itself to romanticizing. This is probably why for most Americans the national narrative begins at Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims.

All this seems worlds away from where we are now, but despite its comparative remoteness, the colonial period in America, as experienced in both the North and the South, in very critical ways helped define who we are today. For one thing, it was during that period that the basic meanings of "whiteness" and "blackness" were in the process of being defined for the American population. However it has been expressed over the years, the association of whiteness with power and privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America ever since. It has survived Revolution, Civil War, massive immigration, two world wars, the Cold War, and the tremendous social upheaval during the latter part of the twentieth century. Because we are still living with this, it is worthwhile for us to consider the world that greeted the matriarch of the Hemings family in the mid-1700s.

Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright (c) 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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