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Author Offers New Look at ‘Hemingses of Monticello’

February 17, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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National Book Award-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed speaks about her book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" and what sparked her interest in the family's complex history.
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JEFFREY BROWN: He is one of the most important figures in American history, and it is one of the most famous addresses in the early history of the country.

But in recent years, we’ve learned much more about Thomas Jefferson and life at Monticello, particularly his relationship with a woman he owned, Sally Hemings, and the interrelated lives of slave-owners and slaves.

Annette Gordon-Reed first wrote about this in 1997. Now she’s expanded her research and historic reach in a book called “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which won the 2008 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

Annette Gordon-Reed teaches law at New York Law School and is professor of history at Rutgers University.

Welcome and congratulations.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, Author, “The Hemingses of Monticello”: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your subtitle, “An American family,” now, for you, this is both a particular family, but also speaks to something larger?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it talks about the beginnings of slavery, the beginning of African-Americans and European-Americans’ life in America, which extends to the United States, but back before the United States was actually a country.

And so I really wanted to talk about an enslaved family and to sort of show them as a family that sort of bore the weight of this terrible tragedy of slavery, but endured during it. So it’s not — it’s to make enslaved people live as people, not as sort of a monolith.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your introduction, you write about the anonymity of American slaves generally, but it’s a little different, I gather, for the Hemings family?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes. Jefferson was an inveterate record-keeper and a compulsive record-keeper. And because of that, he also wrote many, many letters.

There’s lots of information about the Hemings family as a group. And I thought that it would be a good idea to sort of write about them, as I said, as a family, keeping slavery in mind, the overlay of slavery in mind, but to see the day-to-day life of slavery in the 18th and 19th century.

The Jefferson-Hemings relationship

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, at the center of this, of course, is the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. There's general agreement now with some, I guess, debate from the outside about what that relationship was or -- she bore him seven children?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, yes, four who lived to adulthood. There are members of his family and others who still dispute this. And there are still people fighting the Civil War, so we're never probably going to have complete unanimity on this.

But the story is about Jefferson and Hemings, but it's also about her brothers and sisters. And they have to be seen in the context of their entire family. And that is something that hadn't been done before. It was usually just debating about who said this and who said that, but they make much more sense in the overall context of life in Virginia and life at Monticello.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how much are you able to -- stay on their relationship for a moment.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much do we know about the actual relationship, what it was like, what it was like as lived at Monticello?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, we don't know. We know what other people said about them. We know from Jefferson's records what he wrote, the sort of mundane things about Sally Hemings when they're in France, so forth, paying -- you know, when he pays her salary, buys her clothes, things like that, but there's no back-and-forth in the form of letters or anything like that.

So what we know is what their son said about them, what their neighbors said about them, that she lived a life at Monticello that was substantially different from other enslaved people there, enslaved women there, in particular, looked after her children, kept Jefferson's rooms, sewed for the family, and that was pretty much it.

So it's really outsiders' view of her and him, as a matter of fact, as regards to the two of them. So it's really, as I said, an outsiders' view. It's not them talking about one another.

Two family trees entwined

JEFFREY BROWN: What comes through, though, is this sort of interlocking family ties all living in one place.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. I mean...

JEFFREY BROWN: It's kind of stunning today, but give us a flavor of that.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it's hard to think of. It's hard to imagine. Sally Hemings was Jefferson's wife, his legal wife's, half-sister. They had the same father, John Wales. So right off the bat, you have this family that comes to Monticello that has this family relationship to Jefferson. They would be in-laws, if blacks had been in-law, and yet they are enslaved.

And it is difficult for us to wrap our minds around in modern times, owning your half-sister, owning your son, owning people who are your blood relatives. That's so far from what we think of today, but that's what life in the South was like.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then -- but all living in this one place, interacting during the day, no doubt?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Exactly. Exactly. The Hemings family, when Martha marries Thomas Jefferson, she brings her brothers and sisters and their mother to Monticello. And they are sort of installed as the house slaves, you know, the people who are the personal attendants to Jefferson and his wife. So it's this very, very odd, almost unfathomable situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you said, your story goes well beyond Sally. It's three generations. It starts with her mother...

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Elizabeth Hemings, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... Elizabeth, who's quite an interesting figure herself.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, Elizabeth, she was the daughter of an English ship captain and a woman whom we believe was African. And she was born in 1735. And her life sort of tracks the beginnings of America, America as a colonial society. She sees the revolution in Jefferson's home. She dies in 1807. She lives a very, very long time for anybody at that time. She's 72 years old.

And she is the matriarch of this family of people. She had at least 12 children. And all of them, except one, who died when she was about 10, made it to adulthood. So that was also very, very rare, as well. So that gave me a sort of wide scope to sort of bring this family, I think, into a complete picture.

Jefferson's complex character

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of those children and another fascinating character, tragic, is James.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, James Hemings...

JEFFREY BROWN: The sister of Sally...

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: The brother.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... the brother, I'm sorry, of Sally, yes.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, James Hemings was Sally Hemings' older brother who went with Jefferson to France to be trained as a French cook. And while he is there, he trains in some of the best kitchens, sees some of the greatest chateaus in France, hires a tutor to teach him French, and lives a life that is sort of unlike -- totally unlike what you would typically think of for an enslaved person, for any Virginian, as a matter of fact, black or white, to live in a foreign country for over five years and learn a new language.

He comes back to America, doesn't -- has a short life here. He is freed by Jefferson, but then actually commits suicide in 1801, when -- after Jefferson had asked him to be the White House chef, he declines and then, about six months later, he kills himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that gives a sense of the kind of wide-ranging tale you have.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But centered again at Monticello, you write about Monticello as a story place where, quote, "we can find the absolute best and the absolute worst that we have been as Americans." Explain that.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, Jefferson, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, who writes the American creed that so many groups of people have grasped onto to make their claim for a place in America, an equal place in America, and, at the same time, it's a slave plantation.

It's very, very hard to remember that when you go up there today. It's so beautiful. And they have the grounds kept immaculately and everything and you're walking around. But it was a site of slavery, which was an American tragedy.

So you have the good and the bad, as you do with Jefferson, the heights and the depths, and so that's what I meant by that, that this is the entire American story encapsulated in this one place.

Biography sparks love of history

JEFFREY BROWN: And your interest in this, I read, goes back to grade school?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, yes. I became interested in Jefferson in elementary school reading a childhood biography of him. I think that's one way lots of people get turned on to history, from reading biographies of people.

And it fascinated me to think of someone who wrote the Declaration of Independence but was also a slave-holder. That contradiction, even as a young child, that contradiction struck me as very, very important, something very important about America and American life.

JEFFREY BROWN: One last thing, though. You're trained as a lawyer, but you've now made yourself a prize-winning historian. So something about from reading that book of history to wanting to write history, what happened? What drives you?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, one of the things -- the people who go to law school very often think that they want to change the world. We don't often end up doing that, but this -- I had a story that I thought was compelling, something that I wanted to say. And it was not enough for me anymore to keep reading history.

I wanted to write it and to share, I think, the story of Americans, particularly African-Americans, who, as I mentioned in my first book, I didn't think were treated very well in most historiography about slavery. Until recently, I mean, we've had a sea change in the writing about slavery and people have done a much, much better job, but I really wanted to bring a different perspective to it. And that's what compelled me to write something.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is "The Hemingses of Monticello." Annette Gordon-Reed, congratulations again. And thank you.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Thank you. Thank you for having me.