Excerpt: 'The Hemingses of Monticello' Excerpt: 'The Hemingses of Monticello'
NPR logo Excerpt: 'The Hemingses of Monticello'

Excerpt: 'The Hemingses of Monticello'

'The Hemingses of Monticello'

Chapter 1: 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.

The Africans and the English

By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans ("negars") arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.4

The transformation was hardly instantaneous. Slavery in Virginia did not spring up overnight. It took time—spanning the last seven decades of the 1600s—for the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least the hope of it) for the English and their descendants. Scholars have long debated the reason for this turn of events, why the Virginia colonists turned away from the labor of white indentured servants and decided to enslave Africans. Some have cited race and religion as the deciding factors, allowing men who jealously guarded their liberty to obliterate the liberty of others who were of a different color and different faiths. Other scholars suggest it was a straightforward economic calculation. Still others assert that it was some combination of these and other influences.5

In the beginning, when the numbers of Africans were few, there was some ambiguity about their status in Virginia. The scant evidence that exists on this question suggests several alternative scenarios. While most Africans may have been treated as slaves for life from the very start, others became free in the years immediately following the arrival of the first group. Were these freed slaves treated as indentured servants, or had they been seen as slaves but emancipated for some reason by their owners—as happened occasionally all throughout the time of slavery in America? We may never know for certain. As the number of Africans increased—slowly at first—their labor was mixed with the indentured labor of Englishmen, and a smaller number of Englishwomen. For a good part of the seventeenth century, these two groups (along with a smaller number of Native Americans) worked side by side. In the words of the historian Philip D. Morgan, "they ate, smoked, ran away, stole, and made love together." But Morgan also wisely cautions against seeing their situations as the same. Enslaved Africans were distinguished from their white counterparts by the "sheer nakedness of the exploitation to which they were subject."6

Although the peoples of Africa and Europe were not unknown to one another, it is safe to say that the majority of seventeenth-century Africans and English people would not have been in extensive contact. There had been an African presence in Great Britain since ancient times, but not a substantial one until the beginning of the slave trade. Englishmen and their predecessors in the trade from other parts of Europe created outposts along the African coast in order to conduct the traffic in human beings, forming alliances with the leaders of those societies and having children with African women, who often became involved in the trade themselves.7 It was in the New World that the lives of these people with different skin colors became most closely entwined. They greeted one another in this land as strangers across a divide that was both physical and cultural, and each had views about the other that centered on notions of difference and inferiority.

Negative views about the color black existed within English culture long before Englishmen actually encountered people with "black" skin. Black was evil. Black was dirty. Although other evidence suggests that people of African origin were not universally reviled in England, the tendency to see black negatively was definitely a part of English culture. Naturally, its view of whiteness carried all the opposite meanings. Color, then, became an expression of a person's essence.8

This was a two-way street, with the Africans thinking along the same lines about their white counterparts, but in the process reversing the conclusions. They saw themselves as different from whites and often imbued whiteness with negative characteristics. Whites were physically ugly—one "African ruler thought 'all Europeans looked like ugly sea monsters'"—cannibalistic, and disfavored by God. A seventeenth-century European traveler reported that some "local blacks" he had met said that "'while God created Blacks as well as White Men,' the Lord preferred the blacks." Others referred to a Danish man as being "'as white as the devil.'"9 Once blacks and whites were together in the new world of Virginia, where Anglo-American colonists controlled society, only the whites' perception of the meaning of differences between the races counted. They could, and did, codify their understanding of what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white, with devastating consequences for people of African origin.

Matters were complicated further because the "Africans" were anything but monolithic in their cultures. "Black men and women were transported to America as members of specific tribes—as Ibos, Yorubas, or Ashantis but not simply as Africans."10 Africa is the most linguistically, culturally, and genetically diverse of the continents, and though no one at that time could have dreamed it, the enslaved Africans, under the skin, at the genetic level, were more "different" from one another than the English were from their fellow Europeans.

White Virginians, particularly members of the slave-owning class, did recognize that Africans were not all alike. Over the course of time in the early days of slavery, some planters even came to prefer workers who were brought from one region over those from others.11 But respecting and preserving the culture of these very diverse people was never the point for the white colonists. Developing and maintaining a work force were the real issues, and as these goals were realized, all the various African ethnic groups were gradually subsumed under the category of enslaved black people. In that more literally minded age, surface appearances were what counted, and the various shades of black told Anglo-Virginians everything they thought they needed to know about who could be a slave and who could not.

In the end the physical differences—skin color, facial features, and hair type—between Africans and English people in Virginia helped create and maintain a critical dividing line. What the Africans "did" became less important than what they "were" as signaled by their physical appearance. Even if Africans chose to adopt the mores of the English, they could never overcome the powerful view that the differences between the groups were elemental and largely insurmountable. As a result, the lowliest indentured white servants could be, and were, encouraged to identify with their white masters while distancing themselves from the blacks with whom they worked.

Some historians have seen early examples of cooperation between Africans and white indentured servants in the seventeenth century as evidence that racial prejudice was a creature of slavery and argue that the institution taught white colonists to look down upon black people. They also suggest that the colonists' willingness to allow some of the early Africans to be freemen while others were enslaved for life reveals a degree of flexibility in race relations, and that flexibility suggests racial attitudes had not been firmly set.12 Highlighting the variable experiences of the earliest blacks in Virginia is much less useful than keying in on the one constant in the lives of whites from Jamestown to Appomattox: they were never to be designated as chattel who passed their condition down to their children, and their children's children, in perpetuity. Significantly, this distinction between black and white was drawn well before Virginia became bound to slavery as the economic foundation of its society.

And why wouldn't it have been? The Virginia colonists did not exist in a vacuum. They were travelers in the Atlantic world of which slavery was so much a part. Who Africans were, and how they had been used in that world for centuries, was well known to them. Long before the English got involved, the Portuguese had enslaved Africans, as had the Spanish. Englishmen certainly heard tales of the Arabs' enslavement of Africans that began centuries before Europeans even thought of the notion. The ease and swiftness with which blacks were written out of the social compact indicates that notions of essential difference and inferiority took hold very early on in the Virginia experiment. As more Africans arrived and the commitment to the economic system of slavery grew deeper, the perceived differences between whites and blacks provided a workable excuse for widening the social gap between indentured white servants and blacks, until that gap became a yawning chasm.

Religion played a role in the process as well. The English colonists, of course, were Christians. Some Africans had converted to Christianity even before their arrival in the New World, but the overwhelming majority of them had not. They had their own religious traditions, and whether those traditions were animist or Islamic, those who adhered to them were, in the eyes of the English, "heathens." At first, this difference was offered to explain why Africans alone were eligible for chattel slavery. Christianity is an evangelical religion of faith, not blood, and carries in its very heart the expectation that multitudes will become Christian through the ritual of baptism. The question arose, "What happens when an African heathen becomes a Christian?" Shouldn't that wipe away the stain of slavery? Some masters who wanted to free their slaves thought so, and for a time their actions appeared to threaten—albeit in a minor way—the stability of the institution. The Church of England shut down that avenue of emancipation when it confirmed that baptism of a slave into the Christian faith did not require the emancipation of that slave, an understanding that Virginia codified in law. Christians could, in good conscience, hold other Christians in bondage.13

In the end, the Anglo-Virginians introduced a form of chattel slavery unknown in their home country—a system of bondage based upon race. This was indeed a brave new world. Proceeding on an ad hoc basis, the colonists put together rules and customs to accommodate the new society taking shape. There was no direct precedent from their home country for doing what they did; in fact, it required them to break rather quickly with one important long-held tradition and understanding that they had carried with them across the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful deviation from English tradition—one that would set the course of Elizabeth Hemings's life and the lives of her descendants—was the Virginia colonists' decision to abandon the English tradition that determined a person's status by the status of the father. In England you "were" what your father "was." A person could be born free or as a member of a group of "unfree" people who existed during various points in English history—for example, a villein (serf) attached to the land of a lord or to the lord himself. Inventing the rules of slavery, in 1662, Virginians decided to adopt the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem, which says that you were what your mother was.14 This important departure from tradition had enormous consequences for the progress of slavery and the mapping of Virginia's racial landscape. Why take this route? Although the preamble to the legislation states the impetus for the law—"doubts have arisen whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or ffree"—there is no language explaining exactly why, in the context of Virginian colonial society, the ways of ancient Rome should emerge as superior to the more readily available and familiar English tradition. There are some reasonable speculations.

One way to think about it is to imagine what might have been the course of slavery in Virginia had the colonists followed their English tradition. White men, particularly the ones who made up the House of Burgesses, the legislature in colonial Virginia, were the masters of growing numbers of African women, owning not only their labor but their very bodies. That these women sometimes would be used for sex as well as work must have occurred to the burgesses. Inevitably offspring would arise from some of these unions. Even white males who owned no slaves could contribute to the problem by producing, with enslaved black women, children who would be born free, thus destroying a critical component of the master's property right: the ability to capture the value of the "increase" when female slaves gave birth.

That exact situation was at issue in 1655, when a mulatto woman, Elizabeth Key, who later married her lawyer, successfully sued for her freedom on the basis of the fact that her father was English. This case, and probably others that never made it to court but would have been part of the social knowledge of the community, caught the burgesses' attention, and they acted to close this possible escape route out of slavery for one potentially large category of people of African origin: the children of white fathers and enslaved mothers. The law passed in the wake of Key's case actually had two components—the new rule determining status through the mother and a provision for doubling the fine for mixed-race couples who engaged in sex over those levied against unmarried same-race couples. The historian Warren M. Billings, who was the first to do extensive work on the case, saw the law as a strong anti-race-mixing measure. "Writing a seldom used civil law doctrine, partus sequitur ventrem, into the statute indicates the depth of the lawmakers' desire to prevent miscegenation." While the double fine reflects a wish to discourage mixed-race sex, the same cannot be said for partus sequitur ventrem. The doctrine assured that white men—particularly the privileged ones who passed the law, who would not likely have been haled into court for fornication even with white women—could have sex with enslaved women, produce children who were items of capital, and never have to worry about losing their property rights in them.15

Partus sequitur ventrem, then, was an important first principle in this nascent slave-owning society based upon race. Like all efficient legal rules, it achieved its aim—here, the maximum protection of property rights—with little or no intervention by the state or other third parties. The private conduct of men would have no serious impact on the emerging slave society as a whole. White men could engage in sex with black women without creating a class of freeborn mixed-race people to complicate matters. Men, who can produce many more children than women, and who throughout history have been less subject to social stricture for their sexuality, constituted the greater potential threat for bringing this class into being. Following the dictates of their English heritage would have required some white men to tell other white men what women they could and could not have sex with, knowing full well the day might come when others would have the opportunity to return the favor. Under the rules of the game the burgesses constructed, there was no need to interfere with other men's conduct, even as the efforts to control white women's sexual activity grew ever more strenuous. Whatever the social tensions and confusion created by the presence of people who were neither black nor white, Virginia's law on inheriting status through the mother effectively ended threats to slave masters' property rights when interracial sex produced children who confounded the supposedly fixed categories of race.

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