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the hemingses of monticello
20 june 2009
Reviewers throw the word "magisterial" around at their peril, but I can't think of a term that better fits Annette Gordon-Reed's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Hemingses of Monticello.
The Hemingses of Monticello is an academic historian's book, meticulously documented, with a wide range of reference to previous studies of Thomas Jefferson's domestic circle. Although Gordon-Reed displays great erudition, the book avoids the academic imperative to theorize in abstruse terms about many of its concerns: identity, the social construction of reality, the "naturalizing" of artificial practices, and the balance we must strike, in trying to understand history, between human universals and cultural specifics. Most of the time, Gordon-Reed talks directly to the reader, in ordinary, common-sense terms that mirror debates in academic historiography. Were people, enslaved and free, around the year 1800, exactly like us? Why did they sometimes behave in hugely different ways to the ways we would behave? How did their different behavior make even the bare facts and events of their lives so difficult to trace in the records they left behind?
Slavery in America has been talked about in absolute, dogmatic terms. Apologists for the peculiar institution claimed that enslaved people led happy and healthy lives, better than they could have led in freedom, and appreciated their own bondage. The same apologists asserted that male slaveowners fathering children by female slaves was an aberrant and rare occurence. But apologists have not been the only dogmatists. Critical historians of slavery, in an attempt to emphasize the horrors of chattel existence, have often, paradoxically, erased the humanity of the enslaved. One element of that erasure has been to deny that there could be any meaningful emotional bonds between enslaved people and those who held them in slavery.
Against both pro- and anti-slavery dogmatisms, Gordon-Reed poses the facts of the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807) was the mother of twelve children by four fathers. Three of the fathers were African-American slaves; the fourth was her master John Wayles. The six children of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles would become central to the life of Thomas Jefferson, because they were his wife Martha's brothers and sisters. Jefferson's marriage to Martha Wayles brought the Hemingses into his possession, and into his affections, and in the case of Martha's sister Sally, into his bedroom.
One of the more peculiar consequences of the peculiar instutition has been that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship entered a penumbra of obscurity in the years between Jefferson's death and the recovery of the story by historian Fawn Brodie in the 1970s. While Jefferson lived, rumors that he and Hemings lived together as lovers were rife. After he died, both his white relatives and later historians dismissed the rumors as partisan persiflage. The sober reminiscences of their son Madison Hemings were dismissed as fanciful.
Gordon-Reed, however, goes beyond Brodie's pioneering assertions to piece together what the relations between the intertwined Jefferson and Hemings families must have been like. In so doing, she accomplishes a near-miracle of reconstruction. Yes, 18th-century institutions and mores were alien, often repugnant, to those of the 21st century. But at the same time, people are people. Sexuality hasn't evolved much, even though social controls on sexuality have changed their forms greatly. Family feeling hasn't evolved much, even though cultural family structures are different.
For instance, some anti-racist scholars would claim that Hemings, because she was held in slavery by Jefferson, could never have truly consented to have sex with him. Since he fathered children by her over several decades, the situation must have been one of continual rape, under circumstances of coercion and virtual imprisonment. Such a conclusion, however, overlooks the contextual tapestry of relations between their families. For instance, Sally's brother James was emancipated by Jefferson in the course of their relationship.
[James Hemings] after he was a free man visited then Vice-President Jefferson, while he was in Philadelphia, talking to him about his past travel, his future travel plans, and life in general. . . . American slavery, in and of itself, would not make an enslaved man act with such callous disregard of his sister's life. . . . Certainly no white man in freedom, in the depths of villeinage, serfdom, or Arab enslavement, could be casually portrayed as so base and craven that he would pay gratuitous social calls on his sister's rapist. (363-64)
If we read Gone with the Wind, we might conclude that no white master in his right mind would father children by an enslaved woman. If we read Beloved, we might conclude that no black woman in her right mind would submit to a master's embrace. Gordon-Reed argues that history is both immeasurably more complicated than fiction, and at the same time quite a bit simpler. Within the tortuous and self-serving rhetorical and legal structures of American slavery, people often established relationships across the color line. Those relationships worked for them and for their families. Life was very, very far from fair or perfect for these people, least of all for slaves. But life went on, as it tends to do, faute de mieux. So it did for Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and for their related children and siblings and cousins.
Vladimir Nabokov once said that only a few subjects were "utterly taboo" in American culture, one of them being "a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren." The Hemings-Jefferson relationship was neither a legal marriage nor a glorious success. But it certainly resulted in lots of children and grandchildren, all of whom lived and struggled on as free people after Jefferson emancipated them. As Gordon-Reed continually points out, their story is hardly typical of chattel slavery in the United States. It survives today only because Jefferson was a statesman of exceptional interest. But in all its contingencies and unfathomable twists and turns, it is a story that, in Gordon-Reed's hands, has the ring of truth.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American family. New York: Norton, 2008.