Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello
I picked this up as an impulse buy at the book store, and I'm glad I did. Like most Americans, I associated Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. Although I hadn’t read any Jefferson biographies, what I had read about him lead me to admire him as a Great Man of the Enlightenment—humanist, writer, builder of nations, universities, and of course, his own very lovely neoclassical house on a hill—Monticello—Italian for little mountain.
I wasn’t ignorant of the contradictions of the writer of “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” being a slave-owner, who had a long-term relationship and fathered multiple children with one of his slaves. I just didn’t see the interest of commenting on the obvious contradictions or indulging in historical “what if” fantasies. Thankfully, neither does Annette Gordon-Reed.
Her book is not about de-bunking Jefferson. She’s more interested in members of his family, about whom much less is known—the eponymous "Hemingses of Monticello". Gordon-Reed focuses on the Hemings for two convenient reasons: their connection to a well-known American historical figure, the fact that, due to this connection, there is somewhat more documentation about them than their peers in the plantation South.
What did this South look like? Gordon-Reed describes a pre-Revolutionary population of opportunistic frontier pioneers, living off tobacco as a cash crop. The English govt. gave the settlers land based on a head-count system—a certain number of acres for themselves and every other person whose passage they paid to the Colonies. Over time, the primary labor for the plantations evolved from English-born indentured servants to imported, enslaved Africans and their descendants. She explains that the typical Colonial plantation-owner was deeply indebted, usually to English trading firms and speculates that the self-interest in canceling that debt, as well as the Colonists’ desire to further encroach westward into the Indian lands (limited by Britain pre-Revolution) were less lofty ideals that may have accompanied “no taxation without representation.”
The story begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an African-born woman and an English ship’s captain. There is some evidence to the effect that Hemings’ father recognized that he had a daughter and may have wanted to free her, but could not because her mother was the property of another man, who refused to sell her. She explains how, the word mulatto, for mixed-race people of African and European descent comes from the word mule, an animal that cannot reproduce itself—that the Colonies had laws against miscegenation but they were only applied to poor whites or situations where the mother was white and the father was black. When plantation-owners like Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, took slave mistresses, like Elizabeth Hemings, and fathered children with them, the law looked the other way.
The growing number of these mixed-race children and the constant fear of slave revolts, caused the colonists to significantly depart from English law. The English tradition would have granted the child the legal status of the father, which would have meant freedom. Instead the Colonies looked to Roman law as inspiration, basing a child’s legal status on that of its mother—thus the children of free fathers and enslaved mothers, would remain enslaved.
The Hemingses were Thomas Jefferson’s family in the literal sense, not just from a paternalistic plantation owner’s view. Many of Elizabeth Hemings’s children were his wife’s half-brothers and half-sisters. When he married Martha Wayles, Elizabeth and her children came with her to Monticello. One of these half-sisters was Sara (called Sally) Hemings, who became Jefferson’s mistress and the father of his children, after his wife’s death. Gordon-Reed explains how the Hemings family’s mixed-race status and blood connections to the Wayles/Jeffersons gave them a privileged status at Monticello—many of them were taught to read and write, they were given better clothes than their enslaved brethren, taught trades, exempted from field labor, given more freedom of movement. Some members of the Hemings family eventually received their freedom, something that would not be an option for the enslaved people of Monticello, outside that family. Gordon-Reed makes the point that house work, while physically less taxing than field labor, was certainly arduous enough and presented the stress of negotiating emotional and physical proximity to the plantation masters. It also cut them off from the more Afro-centric traditions/culture that the fieldworkers were able to maintain.
Gordon-Reed is careful about not generalizing or making assumptions where they cannot be made. She notes that an enslaved woman, like Elizabeth Hemings, could not refuse sex with a white man, whether the children that resulted from these relationships were the product of rape, or whether there existed some emotional attachment with the children’s father depended on individual circumstances, not documented for the historical researcher. She notes that the same was more or less true for white women and their husbands. While these women had a relationship that existed “in law,” they often did not necessarily choose or love these husbands.
One of the more striking facts that I learned about Jefferson is that his wife died from complications resulting from her frequent pregnancies and childbirth. Gordon-Reed points out that while he apparently loved his wife and was inconsolable at her death, he could not have been ignorant of his role in the circumstances causing her death. On her deathbed, Martha Jefferson made her husband promise never to take another wife, a promise Gordon-Reed speculates was likely motivated by her own experience with two stepmothers and the desire to protect her children. Jefferson kept his promise to his wife, and later when seeking another outlet for sexual companionship, looked no farther than with her enslaved half-sister, thus keeping it all in the family, with a woman who did not have a legal status and could never be a step-mother to his children in the eyes of the law.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but it does shine a not-very-comforting light on a not-so-distant era, a world where the children of the plantation owners would be given an enslaved child their own age to be a companion and later servant, a world where the house on the mountain is a symbol for the desire to aesthetically and morally distance oneself from the harsh realities of the plantation economy and the enslaved peoples that make it work; a house that was literally built and run by Jefferson’s own mixed-race family members; a reminder that the leisure to pursue the accomplishments achieved by Thomas Jefferson were underwritten by the enslaved labor of the people who tended to him, to his family, and his plantation. It also gives a face to those enslaved people, and looks at how they carved an identity for themselves, particularly, how a mixed-race family like Hemings both benefited from and paid a price for the different and ambiguous status they occupied within the Peculiar Institution.