an American Family

Annette Gordon-Reed


     ... Presidential scholar, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, professor of law at New York Law School, and of history at Rutgers University. Ms. Gordon-Reed also is author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, edited Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, and co-authored with Vernon Jordan Vernon Can Read! A Memoir. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, she and her family live in New York City.

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Lust is not what keeps people together, says Annette Gordon-Reed, reflecting on the 40 year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, mother of seven of Jefferson’s children. Ms. Gordon-Reed is author of The Hemingses of Monticello, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

“The take-away from Sally Hemings’ life is that she was successful in a world that was very important for her. I think it’s important to think of her operating in that world as a mother, and as a family member. Because those were the primary relationships that enslaved women had. Sally Hemings is not Harriet Tubman -- she's not the Moses of our people -- or Sojourner Truth. But she was a mother who saw her children free, to get to begin their lives as free people 40 years before other African Americans were freed.”

Little known is that Sally Hemings had a genuine choice about how she would live her life.

“She had options, because for a time she wasn’t in Virginia. That’s the thing that people don’t tend to focus on. She and her brother James were living in France for a number of years in the late 1780’s. This was the time of the French Revolution. The French didn’t mind slavery in their colonies -- it made them a boatload of money there -- but they didn’t want it on French soil. Hundreds of enslaved people filed freedom petitions and every single one of them was granted. It was pretty much a pro-forma thing.

“So Sally was in a place where she and her brother could have taken their freedom. She did have that option. For those years in Paris, there could have been a different outcome.

“We tend to think of resistance in very male terms. We look at males' lives and how they resist systems -- you kill people, you fight. But women have other concerns, because women have children. And that complicates their lives in ways that I think have made women think about the world in different ways at times. Not to say that there aren't women who want to fight and kill too, but for the most part, the responsibility for children shaped enslaved women's lives.”

Once back to the United States, Ms. Gordon-Reed does not minimize the brutality of Virginia’s slavery laws and the total control Jefferson had over Sally Hemings. So what does Ms. Gordon-Reed conclude about Jefferson in this relationship?

“From his perspective, there must have been some attachment. Whether I call that love in the sense that we know it, I don’t know. But I have no problem saying that he was attached to her. I wouldn’t know why that would not be a possibility. She was a completely lovable person.”

And Jefferson himself?

“Jefferson wrote some of the most trenchant statements against slavery. He knew what society’s judgment of that institution was going to be. He clearly saw it as a retrogressive system. Today he would be a liberal-progressive, always believing you can improve the lot of humankind. It’s a really, really interesting position to be in, when you are born into (a slave) society. But he, like many of us in other areas, did not live up emotionally to what his intellectual beliefs were. That’s what makes him interesting. He’s sort of a mirror into us in a lot of ways.

“For 150 years, there was a set narrative of Jefferson’s life. One aspect of the story of the Hemings family -- namely Sally Hemings -- was obscured by Jefferson’s (white) grandchildren out of love for their grandfather. The good part about families is we stick together. The bad part about families is we stick together.”


[This Program was recorded September 29, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

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Related Links:


The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family is published by W.W. Norton & Company.


Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family tells a centuries-long, true story of relationships among slames and masters in South Carolina.


Edward P. Jones won also won a Pulitzer Prize, in his case for fiction, for The Known World, his account of slave-owning Blacks.


During the American Revolutionary War, the British promised escaped American slaves freedom and a new life.  Simon Schama tells that story and the story of the abolitionist movement in England in Rough Crossings.


In his Commonweath Writers' Prize winning book, Someone Knows My Name, Lawrence Hill writes a compelling, fictionalized account of slaves and the slave trade in America.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. acquired and published The Bondwoman's Narrative which gives a very personal view of a woman's life in slavery just prior to the American Civil War.


In Interracial Intimacies legal scholar Randall Kennedy looks at the long and convoluted relationships among races in America.


A Magnificent Catastrophe is Edward J. Larson's telling of the story of the the vitriolic Presidential election of 1800 between the incumbent, John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. Rumors about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings featured pominently in the election.


David McCullough's best-selling John Adams presents a political life totally entwined with that of Thomas Jefferson.


In Brown Richard Rodriguez argues that love, across many presumed cultural, racial and gender barriers is the great untold story of American history

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



Empathy and compassion are always important ingredients in coming to terms with any relationship, human and otherwise.

Ms. Gordon-Reed has broadened the sense in which American history can be approached with her keen understanding, as well as her commendable and highly accessible scholarship. Job exceedingly well done!


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