More than a decade ago, historian and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed triggered a firestorm in academic circles with her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed's work examined a contention that had long been rumored but never given this type of exhaustive examination: that America's third president and beloved Founding Father had a sexual relationship with the slave Sally Hemings, one that lasted long enough to produce seven children. Even after a separate DNA study came out a year later establishing a genetic link between Jefferson and the Hemings family, there were still skeptics who doubted the veracity of Gordon-Reed's findings.
Now she attempts to put any remaining doubts about the Hemings-Jefferson liaison to rest with The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. A behemoth of a book that offers more information about the relationship than anyone might have envisioned, it represents seven years of research and spells out links, connections, bloodlines and familial ties so completely that it shreds any questions of authenticity. Gordon-Reed also carefully follows the genetic trail of the Hemingses from their origins in Virginia during the 1700s on through their dispersal after the death of Jefferson in 1826.
Gordon-Reed's book unravels some of the intricate, often confusing details about exact links and specific relationships. For example, Sally Hemings was the daughter of slave Elizabeth Hemings and slave owner John Wayles. Wayles in turn was the father of Jefferson's wife Martha. Thus Sally Hemings was the half – sister of Jefferson's "legitimate" wife, something that no doubt triggered the flood of denials when the relationship issue was initially raised.
Gordon-Reed is just as meticulous in tracking the connections between brother and sister, parent and child, aunt and uncle, sometimes spending so much time ensuring genetic accuracy that her narrative can become a bit daunting, though still fascinating. She also describes events at Monticello and elsewhere, providing intriguing detail about Philadelphia's emergence as a major city in the late 18th century, the workings of plantation life and Jefferson's later adventures in travel and diplomacy. Simultaneously, the Hemingses are embroiled in their own dramas and intrigues, even sometimes accompanying Jefferson on his travels, as when Sally and James Hemings went to Paris with Jefferson.
It was an unorthodox (to say the least) situation, particularly in later years as Jefferson increasingly tried to dictate choices, manage affairs and generally run the Hemingses' lives in a manner that resembles that of an aging but concerned father, rather than that of a dispassionate merchant trying to maximize his assets. Gordon-Reed understands that she's in delicate emotional territory here, since some readers will resist any attempt to humanize or explain the Jefferson – Hemings situation as anything other than rank exploitation. As she demonstrates, it was much more complicated than that, even with the ugly and dehumanizing reality of slavery always at the core of things. The Hemingses of Monticello explores a thorny but important chapter in American history with distinction and clarity, offering a poignant, if also often ugly, chronicle of slavery, secrecy and family tension.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.