Book Review: The Hemingses Of Monticello

The Hemingses Of Monticello:  An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed

In reading this book it is rather striking to note that the author seems to think that she is writing only for fellow BLM [1] activists, something that made this book less enjoyable to read as a white man.  Indeed, the author seems to dwell a great deal on her annoyance that so many of Jefferson’s descendants passed themselves off as white and thus appeared as white when coming to the author at various occasions to talk about Jefferson as an ancestor.  It seemed to annoy the author that so many people she was seeing and judging as white people were in fact not white people by the definition of the “one drop” laws of the South or by the author’s own evident interest in promoting the Hemingses as a black family that was able to succeed despite suffering for generations from a privileged but simultaneously oppressed position as house slaves with increasingly little black ancestry generation after generation.  Thankfully, this particular book does not focus only on Sally Hemings (though there is plenty about her) but also manages to talk about her whole family and put it in the sort of context that demonstrates Jefferson’s honesty but also his slippery quality when it comes to his behavior as a plantation owner.

Coming in at more than 600 pages of material, this book is not for the faint of heart, and it is divided into three parts with thirty chapters.  The first few chapters examine the origin stories, after some preliminary material like an introduction, preface, and a chronology of the Hemings family.  This opening section includes chapters on the world of young Elizabeth Hemings, daughter of a union between an African slave and a white merchant (1), John Wayles’ rise from obscurity (2), the children of “no one” (3), Thomas Jefferson (4), the first Monticello (5), and life in the home of a revolutionary (6).  The second part of the book looks at Jefferson’s time in Europe, including James Hemings’ experience abroad (8), Sally’s trip (9), the experience of inoculation (10), the rhythms of life in Paris (11) and the city on the eve of revolution (12), the beginnings of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings (13), the vulnerability of Hemings as a fatherless girl in a patriarchal society (14), more discussion of feminist theory (15), the promises (16) and treaty (17) made that ensured Sally would return home with Thomas Jefferson, and the return (18).  The third part of the book then looks at life for the Hemingses on the mountain, including departures (19), the equilibrium of life in the 1790’s (20), the Hemings brothers (21), Philadelphia (22), the exodus to freedom (23), the building of the second Monticello (24), echoes of the past (25), the unraveling of James’ life (26), the conflict between Jefferson’s public life and his private world (27), the measurable happiness of Sally Hemings’ children with Jefferson (28), Jefferson’s retirement (29), and the results of his death and bankruptcy (30).

It is certainly cringeworthy to think of the way that the author continually tries to needle Thomas Jefferson about his dealings with the Hemings family, and how it was that there was a conspiracy of silence about the ongoing relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings among Jefferson’s family.  Jefferson’s suave handling of the Sally Hemings scandal at the time notwithstanding, it is interesting that the author is able to note that the affair is possibly responsible for his eldest daughter’s sudden and disastrous marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.  My feelings about the book as a whole are complicated by my lack of interest in the author’s strident approach but in my appreciation of the way that she tackles the history of this book as being a mystery that is worthy of being solved.  Because of their closeness to Thomas Jefferson and the way that they demonstrate the complexities of slavery and freedom in the early American Republic, the Hemings family is well worth a book, and this book certainly will give one a lot to think about when it comes to the thorny question of race in American history.

[1] Black Lives Matter, as opposed to the Bureau of Land Management

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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