The nominations for the National Book Awards were announced yesterday, and among the nonfiction nominees is Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. It looks like this thick volume assembles just about all the evidence we have about Sally Hemings and her family. Thomas Jefferson inherited those people through his wife, apparently expanded the family by taking Hemings as his mistress, and freed them in his will.
The Hemingses of Monticello has already been widely noted:
- review in the Washington Post
- Edmund and Marie Morgan’s review in the New York Review of Books
- review in the Boston Globe
- author profile in the New York Times
- author interview in Publishers Weekly
Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to probe the feelings of a man and a woman neither of whom left any historical evidence about their relationship. [Their son] Madison Hemings’s use of the words “concubine” and “treaty” hardly suggests a romance. But Gordon-Reed is determined to prove that theirs was a consensual relationship based on love.After Gordon-Reed published her first book on Sally Hemings, some critics accused her of attacking Jefferson and insisted the President could not have had any sort of sexual relationship with his slave. (Actually, not that many people noticed until after D.N.A. testing vindicated her arguments.) Many of those diehards styled themselves “Jefferson defenders.”
Sometimes even the most skilled researcher comes up empty. At that point, the better part of valor may be simply to state that a question is unanswerable. Gordon-Reed’s portrait of an enduring romance between Hemings and Jefferson is one possible reading of the limited evidence. Others are equally plausible. Gordon-Reed, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility.
She...is adamant in criticizing anyone who, given the vast gap in age (30 years) and power between them, views the Jefferson-Hemings connection as sexual exploitation.
Now, according to Foner, Gordon-Reed has become a “Jefferson defender,” untenably insisting on the most benevolent picture of the relationship between him and Hemings. Ironic, no?