Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed – Book Review

Annette Gordon-Reed’s phenomenal work on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings unintentionally laid to rest the contentious issue over the nature of their relationship. Sally Hemings was one of Jefferson’s slaves, inherited from his marriage to Martha Wayles, and in her book, Gordon-Reed makes a very strong argument in favour of Jefferson having a thirty eight year long relationship with Hemings and fathering her six children. First published in 1997, this book was followed by a DNA study on the male line descendants from Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s uncle), John Carr (grandfather of Jefferson’s Carr nephews who were rumored to be potential fathers), Eston Hemings (Sally’s youngest child) and Thomas Woodson (rumored to be related to the Hemingses). The results established that an individual carrying the Jefferson Y-chromosome was indeed the father of Eston Hemings giving further convincing weight to the argument that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children.

Previous scholars of Jefferson failed to acknowledge the relationship between him and Hemings; in large part because they took shortcuts in their research, or presented a historical “truth” that was influenced by their own wider social structure or deeply embedded racial prejudices. In order to protect the image of one of America’s Founding Fathers and conceal the fact that he had been capable of engaging in a love affair with a slave girl, the Hemings family had been forced to ‘yield its identity and integrity’; a sincerely gross injustice. Whilst Gordon-Reed has succeeded in correcting this misconduct for the Hemingses, unfortunately this misrepresentation was the reality for many slave families and their pasts are unable to be righted. It goes without saying that America’s historical struggle with racism is the ever present elephant in the room when researching its history; but the mistreatment of documents created by, or written of, slaves on the basis of racism is inexcusable in the writing of history.

In the Antebellum South blacks were considered to be the ‘pawn of the white man’ and incapable of the same feelings and aspirations as whites. In the Postbellum South this attitude manifested into the stereotype of the slave testimony as a suspect document ‘because of the characteristics of the person giving the statement’. In the historical works on Jefferson the blatant presentism and use of these stereotypes hindered the historians’ ability to see that Jefferson gave preferential treatment to the Hemingses in comparison to that of his other slaves, and properly read the statement of Madison Hemings, one of his and Hemings’ children.

Gordon-Reed is not a trained historian but a professional lawyer, a fact that seeps out of her presentation of the various documents, statements and possible actions relating to those she put in the stand. Consideration of the main actors’ actions and personality traits may be galvanised upon by skeptics and deniers but it is improbable that there are still many left in that camp after reading her convincing arguments, let alone scrutinising the scientific data.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy is a fascinating book which goes through the necessary historical evidence in a way that is easily accessible to all. There are times when the repetition of names becomes confusing but the inclusion of genealogical tables is a reassuring helping hand. Gordon-Reed has admirably succeeded in presenting a fresh perspective on a contentious issue that was long overdue. Moreover, her strong condemnation and correction has drawn a line in the sand for future historical research into slavery and the use of slave testimonies.


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