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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Book Review)

2009 November 19

I finally finished reading The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed, and I certainly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good historical read.

I should start out by saying that in a previous post I complained that it was taking me forever to get through this book — it was at least 4 months. But that should in no way reflect on the quality or readability of Gordon-Reed’s work. It had nothing to do with that, and everything to do with the fact that I have had neither the time nor the energy to read more than a few pages at a time, much as I would have liked to read more.

In fact, I think The Hemingses of Monticello is perhaps the best true non-fiction book I have ever read. What I mean by “true non-fiction” is that this is not a historical novel simply based on footnoted facts. Instead, it is a recounting of what is known about the personal lives of a family whose personal lives were legally unimportant in their day and whose family history was either ignored or intentionally buried for centuries.

One may presume, as I did, that the focus of this story would be Sally Hemings, the most famous — or infamous, to some — member of the Hemings family. Sally, the daughter of a mixed-race, enslaved woman and a white slave-owner, had a well-documented relationship with Thomas Jefferson, which included the birth of seven children and spanned nearly four decades. However, Sally is only one small part of the multi-generational family history captured in this book. Also prominently discussed are Sally’s older brothers, James and Robert Hemingses, whose lives were also intricately intertwined with Jefferson’s. But Gordon-Reed delves much deeper and traces their roots back to Sally’s grandmother, an African woman brought to Virginia, a colony whose history is firmly entrenched in the development of American slavery, and then reaches forward to the tragic ending met by many of her descendants following Jefferson’s death.

Gordon-Reed, a law and history professor, masterfully balances overt discussion of historical documents, artifacts and scholarly works and their significance with character development, providing the reader both a thorough understanding of the facts and issues in context and a compelling story. While the Hemingses are a fascinating clan on their own, it becomes clear that in some ways they also serve as a microcosm of the greater slave society. For example, the seemingly paradoxical relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was repeated throughout the slave states. Gordon-Reed exposes these complicated associations between whites and blacks in a society that was racist in law and culture, but where black and white individuals lived in such close proximity that emotional relationships — good and bad — were inevitable.

Gordon-Reed also sheds much light on the complex, and often contradictory, life and beliefs of one of our most revered — and criticized — founding fathers. Through the telling of the Hemingses’ stories, Gordon-Reed reveals a Jefferson that was deeply conflicted in thought and action when it came to slavery, civil rights and his role as a slave owner. While the Hemingses received many considerations that other slave families at Monticello and elsewhere did not, Jefferson routinely walked a fine line between genuine affection for his slave “family” and paternalistic white supremacy. Gordon-Reed’s depiction of Jefferson as father, husband, companion, political figure, and slave owner is a complete and believable portrayal of a man whose life is too often described with superlatives.

In addition to the the inherent discussion of our racial history and the tragic aspects of an economy based on human exploitation, this book also touches on timeless facets of American culture: familial obligations, ugly politics and the public addiction to scandal. But what I appreciated most about this book was Gordon-Reed’s ability to shed new light and a new perspective on many aspects (and assumptions) of American slavery and race relations that still resonate in today’s society. Those of us who are not scholars of African-American history may not have had the opportunity to consider the origins and impact of certain stereotypes and historical explanations stemming from our former slave society. Gordon-Reed provides a clear and nonjudgmental education in The Hemingses of Monticello, as well as a good read.

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The The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Book Review) by MushBrain, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
One Response Post a comment
  1. Angus permalink
    November 20, 2009

    Now you just need to move back to NY, so I can borrow it form you.

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