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Blacks and the Founding Father by Annette Gordon-Reed
Annette Gordon-Reed is an associate professor of law at New York Law School. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).

Excerpted with permission from the William and Mary Quarterly. Third Series, vol .LVII, no. 1, January 2000, pp. 172-174, 179-181.

Of all the Revolutionary founders, Thomas Jefferson has figured the most prominently in blacks' attempts to constitute themselves as Americans. His life, in public and private, has long served as a vehicle for analyzing and critiquing the central dilemma at the heart of American democracy: the desire to create a society based on liberty and equality runs counter to the desire to maintain white supremacy. Others of the founders held slaves, but no other founder drafted the charter for American freedom. Jefferson, of course, did not invent the ideas contained in the Declaration. But it is a supreme understatement to say that his manner of expressing them has been enormously influeluential.

Given the criticism he regularly receives today for not being more forceful on the question of slavery, and for being somewhat too forceful (and wrong) on the question of race, it is useful to remember that in his time, Jefferson had the reputation of being a dangerous social radical. One can easily see that putting the words "all men are created equal" into the public discourse would be frightening--even if one doubted (as many do today) Jefferson's sincerity. What was perceived then, and should be considered now, is that whether he believed to the extent that we would wish him to is relatively unimportant. The more critical point has always been how much others would take his words to heart. Generations of blacks have taken those words to their hearts--even if they've found themselves unable to bring along the man who wrote them. Because he was so squarely in the path of the collision between rhetoric and reality, each generation of black leaders (Douglass, David Walker, Martin Luther King, Jr.) points to Jefferson or his Declaration when making their claims upon American society. In some cases, his example is used to argue that it is folly to think those claims could ever be honored.

Whatever the perspective, Jefferson has been useful to blacks in a way that highlights the divide between black and white Americans' perceptions of the world. The contradictions that make Jefferson seem problematic and frustrating--a figure of mystery to some whites, make him more accessible to blacks, who find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they know: a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial ambivalence. As this combination daily informs black lives, Jefferson could seem no more bizarre than America itself. He is utterly predictable and familiar--the foremost exemplar of the true America spirit and psyche.

Blacks have known (and feared) this from the beginning. The noted astronomer Benjamin Banneker went directly to the source of the problem in 1791 when he wrote to then Secretary of State Jefferson. Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of his Almanac, the first such work done by a black American, to help refute Jefferson's musings in his Notes on the State of Virginia about the possibility that blacks were mentally inferior to whites. In the letter accompanying the work, Banneker quoted Jefferson's own words to him about the equality of all men and described it as "pitiable" that Jefferson could write those words and at the same time "be found guilty of the most criminal act which [he] professedly detested in others."

Banneker spoke to Jefferson on behalf of his "brethren" (meaning blacks), thus acknowledging the race's social separation from whites. By invoking the "universal Father" who gave rights to all men and stating with confidence that Jefferson agreed with him on that point, Banneker sent a clear message: The dueling sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Notes on the State of Virginia cannot be reconciled. Having put both into the public discourse, it was Jefferson's responsibility to signal which view should guide the American experience.

As one might expect, Jefferson's answer to Banneker was an artful dodge. The Jeffersonian penchant (and talent) for avoiding conflict was on full display. He gave ground to Banneker, complimenting the astronomer on his achievements, taking care to let Banneker know that he was sending the Almanac to the secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, the Marquis de Condorcet. Wanting as ever to appear the good scientist, Jefferson presented himself as open to any evidence that his suspicions of black inferiority were incorrect. Yet he was careful not to meet the full force of Banneker's complaint.

Banneker's letter can be seen as the beginning of blacks' formal political and personal engagement with Thomas Jefferson, save for his own slaves who always engaged him personally. Banneker was quite right to seek Jefferson out and challenge him on his contradictory presentation to the world. He was right, for reasons that he probably could not have known at the time. For there is every reason to believe that at the time of Banneker's missive, Jefferson's involvement in the American dilemma was as personal as it could be. The story of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on his plantation, long denied by white historians, has been an article of faith among black Americans. While some whites read Jefferson's writings against miscegenation as foreclosing his involvement with a black woman, blacks seem to view the split between Jefferson's public pronouncements and his private behavior as standard operating procedure. The majority of black Americans have white ancestry dating from the time of slavery. Because of their own family situations, they understand how that game was played. The public recitation of the catechism of white supremacy (done for the sake of the community) is not enough to ward off all the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that can exist within individual human beings.

When in 1998 the results of DNA tests on Jefferson and Hemings descendants, along with evidence from the historical record, supported the truth of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, the reaction in the black community, as presented in the press, was unanimous: "We told you so." In the black community the Jefferson-Hemings liaison stands along with the Declaration of Independence as evidence of the deeply conflicted nature of American society, and blacks' struggles with the precariousness of their existence in the United States. It is easy to see why the story of a white founding father of America, his black mistress, and their black offspring would capture the imagination of black Americans. To the extent that American racism seeks to establish whites' greater claim to America because of their racial connection to white founding fathers, the knowledge that a group of blacks are "closer" genetically to Jefferson than all whites who are not Jeffersons is an irony too delicious to go unappreciated. Nathan Irvin Huggins once observed, "The Sally Hemmings story . . . ties a people to the founding of the nation, reinforcing birthright claims." While this is undoubtedly true, it tells only part of the tale. The rejection of the Sally Hemings story can be seen as a denial of black ties to the founding of the nation and a rejection of black birthright claims. It certainly has been interpreted in that fashion....

Douglass Adair's interpretation of the Hemings question is instructive. Despite its flaws, Adair makes the deepest and most thoughtful attempt to analyze the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. He was virtually alone among his generation in perceiving that, in order to come to grips with the story, one has to come to grips with Sally Hemings. He sees that Hemings was no stereotypical slave woman. She had traveled and seen Europe. She had led an existence very different from that of other blacks at Monticello--or anywhere in the country for that matter. She was, he believes, Jefferson's wife's half-sister, a woman of beauty who had accepted "middle-class" values of monogamy. What man could not love a woman like this? She was perfect--for Peter Carr. Adair offers the length of the putative Hemings-Carr relationship, spanning twenty years of childbearing, as evidence of the depth of Carr's passion for Hemings. Adair had no trouble in portraying the nonentity Peter Carr as having been passionately attached to Sally Hemings, even though he married another woman in the midst of their supposed long-term love relationship. If Hemings was so wonderful that Peter Carr could have loved her in some fashion over many years, why is it impossible for Jefferson to have done so? By the terms of Adair's own analysis, it was not impossible. It was simply problematic, because Jefferson's "love" has deep symbolic meaning to whites. As it turns out, his "love" plays an important symbolic role for blacks as well.

Just as the rejection of the truth of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship can be seen as a way of insuring that blacks do not have a literal claim to connection to the founders, the insistence that Jefferson could not have formed an emotional bond with Hemings serves similar ends. Once again, an item of value (the love of a founding father) is enhanced through the exclusion of blacks. We may try to get at this by thinking of the Ayers-French observations about the gap between white and black views of the Jefferson-Hemings affair.

What is the symbolic value to blacks of viewing Jefferson and Hemings as lovers? Love and sex are great levelers. Lovers are vulnerable to one another. If affection existed between Jefferson and Hemings, Hemings would necessarily have gained some measure of power over Jefferson, in the same way that women typically exert power over heterosexual males. The novel Sally Hemings, is based on just this notion. Hemings's slave status is never obliterated, but in the confines of her intimate relationship with Jefferson she, on occasion, exercises power over him. In this scenario, the familiar responses between males and females are more elemental than the legal relationship that was imposed on them. In a small but important way, the humanity of Hemings is reemphasized. Jefferson's humanity comes back into focus too. She is raised. He is cut down to size. Thus, two of the major requirements for black progress (restoration of black humanity and obliteration of the cult of the godlike white person) are fulfilled.

As is too often the case, the very thing that some blacks find empowering (Jefferson in thrall to Hemings) is threatening to some whites. Certainly the cult of the celibate Jefferson, the Jefferson who diverted his sexual energy to political and philosophical endeavors (or to building Monticello) is of enormous importance. He was too busy creating a nation to be bothered with creating passion and children with Sally Hemings. Sex, particularly with a black person, is impure and signifies decadence. This is the very opposite of what is required to be a builder of nations and empires or, for that matter, fine homes. In addition, the thought that Jefferson, even in moments of private passion, could have been under the influence of a black slave would be cause for alarm. It is no accident that Fawn Brodie's suggestion, based on her view of Jefferson's personality and the duration of the relationship, that Jefferson had an emotional connection to Hemings drew almost hysterical responses from some quarters, responses that seemed wildly out of proportion to the occasion. However, there seems to have been something at stake that was very powerful, and unspoken. In the course of excoriating Brodie's biography of Jefferson, John Chester Miller sarcastically accused her of saying that Jefferson and Hemings had lived in "idyllic bliss" until the end of Jefferson's life. In another venue, Miller described Jefferson's accusers as having claimed that Jefferson had "prostrated himself at the feet of" Sally Hemings. Why exaggerate matters in this fashion? Brodie's description of Jefferson and Hemings did not come close to saying that they lived in idyllic bliss. In her presentation, they seem as much hounded as happy. Why did Miller transform the allegations against Jefferson into a charge that he was prostrated at the feet of Hemings? How does a claim that a man was sexually involved with a woman and may have gained some emotional sustenance from her translate into his being prostrated at her feet?

There are undoubtedly some unresolved gender-related issues in this formulation, but the racial one is striking. In Miller's mind, apparently, any moment of equality between black and white, however small, was equated with black domination, a thing to be resisted above all else. It is the historiographical equivalent of the "tipping" phenomenon. When a neighborhood or apartment complex gets too great a representation of blacks, whites move away, fearing control by the "others." Sociologists have shown that the number of blacks could be as low as 10 percent and whites will perceive the neighborhood as being taken over by blacks.

What is to be made of all this in the aftermath of DNA and the collapse of the traditional view on Jefferson and Hemings? If blacks and whites were fighting a symbolic cold war over the affair, as it seems they were, can the combatants come to agreeable terms about what this story means? The vindication of blacks' views on this subject creates an opportunity and obligation to move beyond seeing Jefferson and Hemings as symbols. Given what Jefferson and slavery mean to Americans, black and white, the pair will always have some symbolic value. The knowledge that blacks' contributions to our understanding of this piece of history were not merely symbolic, but were real and concrete, is extremely important. It reminds us that there is much work to be done, many more things waiting to be discovered about the Hemingses and Jefferson. What we find may change our view of who they were and what relationship we bear to them.



·  read FRONTLINE's interview with Annette Gordon-Reed

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